Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Banner poster for "Inception"

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

Inception is 10 years old. I’ve seen innumerable sci-fi films since, but it’s hard to think of an original sci-fi property in the past decade that has so thoroughly remained in the popular consciousness. Even Christopher Nolan‘s 2013 big-budget space adventure Interstellar, which I found to be the more narratively ambitious of the two films, has largely faded from memory apart from people cruelly scoffing at Matthew McConaughey‘s well-earned and well-acted tears. As this is a 10YA review, I will be grappling with how well the film’s big ideas have aged, but it seems worth acknowledging that it never really left the building, and is perhaps the most influential and oft-referenced original sci-fi property since The Matrix. There are broadly two concepts at work here. I’ll spend most of my time on the first, “Extraction,” in which thieves hook themselves up to a subject’s brain using wired briefcase devices that look like a quiz-bowl scoring rig by way of The Fifth Element, in order to enter their dreams and steal their secrets. As cool as the dreamcases look, they might as well be laptop computers for all of their sterility. The Matrix or even eXistenZ make jacking into the brain feel a bit more…personal, invasive, and organic. But let’s step outside the method for a moment, because while brain-machine interfaces have made small, incremental advances in the past decade, entering another person’s dreams remains the stuff of spy-fi (Season 4 of Alias once did two episodes in a row with this trope). While discussing the rules of a multi-layered dream world, team leader Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) comes very close to giving a shout-out to the 10% brain myth, which struck me as the film giving me permission to handwave plausibility and accept that the only reason we’re talking about “exponentially accelerated brain function” at all is so that Nolan’s sandbox can include time and gravity manipulation. Which is fine! That stuff is awesome! I wasn’t a curmudgeon on this point in 2010, and I haven’t become one in the intervening years. And Nolan’s ambition when it came to making conceptual use of this sandbox was completely matched by his execution. Whether the visual spectacle of Ariadne (Ellen Page) relishing her first experience as a dream-god and folding a computer-generated Paris cityscape up and over itself, or constructing a massive gimbled set so that Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) can have a gravity-shifting hallway fight – these brilliantly conceived and executed scenes remain as iconic as Hans Zimmer’s trailer *BRMMMMMMMMP* (as well as myriad other tracks).

So I’m on board with the what. Now let’s talk about the how and why. In true Inception fashion, there are several different layers, some of which have become pretty dated in the ensuing decade. While dream heists are still the stuff of fantasy, the real world has come up with plenty of equally ridiculous methods of stealing information. Websites that track your every move, click, search, and shopping choice. There’s single sign-on, tracking cookies, zombie cookies, third-party domains, adware, transparent pixels, hardware benchmarking, canvas fingerprinting, facial recognition, eye tracking, voiceprint recognition, and probably some other stuff I don’t know about yet. Smartphone apps hoovering up every piece of information you’re willing to give them, including Bluetooth and WiFi connection information which it can use to pinpoint your location and identity, often with greater accuracy and speed than simply handing them GPS data, which many of them either ask for unnecessarily or harvest in the background or sneakily steal anyway. And that’s just the mostly legal stuff. There’s also plenty of non-trivial opt-in surveillance from children’s toys to baby monitors to doorbell cams that invite people to share their data with the cloud, often insecurely. There are man-in-the-middle attacks, phishing, header-spoofing, and SQL injecting. There’s Spectre, Meltdown, Foreshadow, and MouseJack, and other, less cool-sounding hardware vulnerabilities. But there’s also plenty of other cool sci-fi sounding shit here today, including reconstructing LCD monitor emissions from acoustic leakage (essentially a new technique for Van Eck Phreaking), reconstructing keystrokes from an audio recording, and my new favorite, Lamphone, wherein an attacker eavesdrops on a conversation using a laptop, an electro-optical sensor, and a telescope trained on a hanging lightbulb, whose emission variance can be used to reconstruct any audio that exists in its vicinity, including music with enough fidelity to be recognized by Shazam. Many of these are proofs of concept presented by security researchers, but their very nature as covert methods of data theft makes their usage difficult to detect. And while I think Nolan made a wise choice by making the secret-stealing tech in Inception seem so very fantastical, my career in information technology has left me asking an unexpected question about dream-stealing this time around: why would anyone bother? Kidnapping and dreamjacking a billionaire may well yield valuable secrets, but they’re not the sort that would be irretrievable through easier means.

Still from "Inception"

The other thing that has happened in the past decade is that secrets have become less valuable and protected than ever before. We live in a world in which entire media ecosystems exist to provide incontrovertible proof of the wrongdoing of the people in charge, and also to ensure that they never face any consequences for it. Remember the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers? The revelation of secret offshore tax havens used by rich people around the world to evade taxes and responsibility for the systems they’ve helped to create and exploit, which journalists from around the world worked tirelessly for over a year to extract and reveal every last scandal from? Has anything really changed as a result of this? Okay, sure, they brought down the Prime Minister of Iceland. But nearly all of the business practices revealed in this “damning” trove are still legal and broadly used. Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns even released a (not very good) movie to try to explain this to us (in the same year that Burns adapted another several thousand pages of dry text to try to explain that the US tortured people for most of the 2000s), and still: nothing. Millennials have managed to maintain a baseline level of simmering rage (and unapologetic profanity) as we remember that we only hold 3% of the household wealth in the United States. But that’s no secret. And the specific malfeasance of the specific set of jamokes in charge is no secret either. Meanwhile, our leaders openly flaunt their dogshit-terrible InfoSec, and all of our secrets are stolen semi-annually from public and private entities alike.

This led to my most surprising reaction to Inception, a film that I still had an absolute hoot while watching. And that reaction was…taken on its own terms, why should this plot, whether about stealing secrets or manipulating billionaires into doing a slightly different arbitrary thing while maintaining all of their outsized and unaccountable political and economic power, really matter to me? If this were taking place in the real world, would it affect my life in any measurable way, or would one company’s “total energy dominance” just be one more tacitly government-sanctioned monopoly, slowly picking my pockets along with the rest of them? The film attempts to add personal stakes by furnishing Dom with an elaborate and tragic backstory with his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who – despite being a capable femme fatale, comes pre-fridged before the film even begins, and only appears as projection of her widower’s subconscious who torments him as he feebly tries to return to their never-aging kids, who may or may not still exist. How much more literally can you render Nolan’s persistent screenwriting problems with female characters than that? On the side of the angels is dream-architect Ariadne, a solid character made doubly so by Page’s would-be naïve, but ultimately commanding performance. She functions not just as an audience surrogate that the team can explain things to, but as someone who immediately sees the appeal of this life, and starts jonesing for a fix of being a lucid dream god the minute she first (initially) walks away from it. And even as a newcomer, she’s clearly a more capable architect than either Dom or Mal ever were, from the look of their “world”, which has a real copypasta look to it, with the same three or four identical buildings repeated ad infinitum. When Ariadne returns, she immediately starts ignoring Dom’s rules, bearing into his mind and using his own techniques against him, justifying herself to him in the voice of a jilted lover. This has everything to do with me. You’ve asked me to share dreams with you. She has just met Dom, but she knows his subconscious inside and out, and recognizes the threat that dwells within it. Unfortunately, Ariadne’s story basically concludes before they enter the dream. While she tosses out a few wild new dream rules after the two-hour mark, it’s basically Dom and the Dream Team’s story at that point, with Projection Mal occasionally throwing a monkey wrench (or a train) into the works. But apart from some brief strong character work from Ariadne, and Dom’s personal stakes, the rest of the team are simply guns for hire, as well as a writers’ room for the film to make it absolutely clear that all of this was essentially a metaphor for filmmaking and storytelling. And honestly, all of that is fine, and I’m certain that if you’re reading a retrospective on Inception, you’ve probably read plenty on that subject already. An anti-monopolistic plot fueled by a billionaire with daddy issues is as fine a MacGuffin as any. Even Saito (Ken Watanabe) was acting selfishly and never pretended otherwise, and that he and Dom ended up being failed dream-gods, trapped in limbo for decades before then relinquishing their power for equally arbitrary and personal reasons never inspired much sympathy in me then or now. As an elaborate blockbuster spectacle, Inception fires on all cylinders, showcasing some of the most compelling and original filmmaking ever put to the big screen. But for all of the detail, there was never very much substance here. It was all just…a very good dream.

Still from "Inception"

Astute readers may notice I’ve wandered afield from the plot of this film, and barely touched upon the titular concept of “Inception”, a violation that amounts to brainwashing bordering on replacement of an unknowing individual. Planting inspiration into someone’s mind in order to change every aspect of who they are and what they’ll do is an act that the film’s dialogue casually treats like murder, or at the very least involuntary manslaughter. But Inception doesn’t dwell long on the morality of this procedure, and I don’t see any reason why I should do so either. I suppose I could add a sentence on the twenty boring and inconsequential minutes of Tom Hardy (or perhaps his stunt double) reenacting Die Hard 2 with some anonymous goons on snowmobiles, or spend a paragraph quibbling over totem mechanics. But we’re in the middle of a pandemic and a long overdue reckoning on unaccountable police brutality and systemic racism in America, and I can write whatever I want. Even more astute readers may have noticed…that the dream is collapsing. Whether it’s the release date of the next Nolan film, the always-preposterous notion that anyone was sincere when they said “all lives matter”, or the idea that America is exceptional in any measurable way besides military spending and political and economic dysfunction bordering on cultish mass suicide, it’s hard to engage in this sort of diversion…okay so the totems they really do make no sense at all as a means of discerning reality from dreams because they rely on surety about the totem’s inimitable physical characteristics that would vanish the first time the user goes to sleep in a room with someone else for the second time, with the unavoidable knowledge that they might’ve rifled through your pockets while you were asleep the first time, except for Dom’s spinning top, which is completely different from all the other totems and relies on its ability to exhibit behavior that is physically impossible, which, ya know, good totem if you can get it…without keeping some of my mind occupied on the depravities of the real world. Revisiting a blockbuster from the past is a fine diversion. I wouldn’t do it unless I still enjoyed it. But it also reminds me of what we’re in the process of losing, which may include the very idea of a blockbuster. And I’m definitely starting to wonder how we’ll distract ourselves after the theaters are gone, and the only bold new worlds remaining are made for half-watching.

FilmWonk rating: Feels a bit of an afterthought at this point, but 7.5/10.

2010 Glennies, Part 5: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2010)

#11: Splice



Directed by Vincenzo Natali, screenplay by Vincenzo Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant, and Doug Taylor

There are films I enjoyed more than Splice this year, but it earns a place on this list for the sheer audacity of its premise and execution. Vincenzo Natali’s shocking portrayal of the creation and upbringing of a human-animal hybrid strikes a tone that falls somewhere between Gattaca and Jurassic Park, raising the former’s complex bioethical questions while striving for the latter’s excitement amid the uncontrollable chaos of the natural world. While it never quite reaches the heights of either of these films, I can safely say that it is one of the most unforgettable and shocking films I’ve ever seen. It boasts a trio of mostly strong performances, including a disturbing and utterly fearless performance from French model/actress Delphine Chanéac as the adult creature.

#10: Inception



Written/directed by Christopher Nolan

In 2008, when I named Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight my #3 film of the year, I simply (and lazily) wrote, “You either already know why, or you probably don’t care. See this film. If you already have, see it again.”

Nolan’s latest film, Inception, seems to provoke the opposite reaction on both counts. Its fans and detractors alike have written volumes on the subject, and most casual viewers are compelled to see it again if only to make sense of the entire mind-bending spectacle. I can’t praise the film quite as dismissively as I did The Dark Knight, but while Inception is not a perfect film, it is certainly one of the most complex visual and technical spectacles ever put to screen, and for that much alone, it must be recognized. While the film’s action descends into slightly shallower video-game territory by the end, it still manages to offer one of the finest deconstructions of reality and consciousness since The Matrix.

#9: Never Let Me Go





Directed by Mark Romanek, screenplay by Alex Garland, novel by Kazuo Ishiguro

The appeal of this film is difficult to describe without spoiling its intriguing alternate-reality premise and fantastic worldbuilding, but this is a film that succeeds masterfully at building an atmosphere that makes the audience care deeply about its characters. The film was not without its hiccups – the resolution of the love triangle seemed almost deliberately anti-cathartic – but the performances of the core cast (Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield) are more than enough to make up for any of the film’s relational shortcomings.

Adam Kimmel’s cinematography makes every frame of this film look gorgeous, even with an utterly bleak color pallette (à la Children of Men), and Rachel Portman’s atmospheric score struck just the right balance to resonate with the film’s emotional beats without overwhelming them. I was not prepared for how this film would affect me, not sure exactly how to feel when it was over, and still haunted by it several days later.

#8: Winter’s Bone





Directed by Debra Granik, screenplay by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, novel by Daniel Woodrell

“You’ve always scared me,” says Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), a tough-as-nails 17-year-old girl who searches desperately for her meth-cooking, bail-jumping father in the Missouri Ozarks.

“That’s because you’re smart,” retorts Teardrop, in a stunningly intimidating performance from John Hawkes. Apart from a pair of brilliant performances (and an impressive supporting cast), this film’s success is in its simple, high-stakes premise – an unlikely detective story in a masterfully realized Southern Goth environment. What’s more, this is a film that keeps the audience fearing for its characters at every turn – a surprisingly rare achievement for modern cinema.

(Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” – A masterful dose of guns, guts, and gloom)

#7: The Fighter



Directed by David O. Russell, screenplay by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson, add’l story by Keith Dorrington

This is a crowd-pleaser, plain and simple. A formulaic film can still be an effective one, and I can offer no better evidence than The Fighter. While Mark Wahlberg’s performance as boxer “Irish” Micky Ward is perfectly solid for the subject matter, the real star of this film is Christian Bale, who gives his best performance in years as the boxer’s crackhead brother, Dicky Eklund. This is a film I can safely recommend to anyone (even, surprisingly, those who don’t care about boxing).

(FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #7: David O’Russell’s “The Fighter”)

#6: How to Train Your Dragon





From Dreamworks Animation, directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, screenplay by William Davies, Dean DeBlois, and Chris Sanders, novel by Cressida Cowell

This is, hands down, the most impressive and immersive 3D animation experience that I’ve had in theaters since Avatar, and its dragon flight sequences were even more impressive than the latter film. This 3D managed to not only convey a well-defined sense of scale and distance, but also the sheer speed at which its characters were ripping through the air. As a silent, but nonetheless fully realized character, Toothless the Dragon far surpasses Stitch (DeBlois and Sanders’ last such creation) – the character falls somewhere between pet and trusted companion, but the facial animation and voice work manage to convey an impressive degree of personality.

While the film still falls prey to some of Dreamworks’ usual casting largesse (did Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse really need to be in this movie?), the core cast – Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, America Ferrera, and Craig Ferguson – all give impressive voice work. And finally… John Powell’s score is easily one of my favorites of all time.

#5: Exit Through the Gift Shop





Directed by Banksy

Banksy is a force of nature, and I mean that in a good way. This is one of the most informative, engaging, and hilarious documentaries I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. Right from its masterful opening credits sequence, it managed to immediately rope me into the heretofore unknown world of street art – a world in which I had absolutely no interest prior to this film.

Regardless of the veracity of the film’s premise and events, it raises some very real questions about the nature of art and its relationship to commerce, and explores them through both the wry wit of Bansky and the bizarre life and outlook of subject Thierry Guetta, a fascinating character unto himself. If you have a Netflix streaming subscription, you can watch this film right now.

#4: Animal Kingdom



Written/directed by David Michôd

This Australian gangster film is a slow burn, but a complete pleasure, and boasts a cast of strong performances (including Jacki Weaver as the most stunningly creepy and effective villain since Heath Ledger’s Joker). Daniel and I couldn’t stop raving about this film – hear more below.

(FilmWonk Podcast – David Michôd’s “Animal Kingdom”)

#3: Mother



Directed and story by Bong Joon-ho, screenplay by Park Eun-kyo and Bong Joon-ho

In the past few years, Korean cinema has excelled in producing films that defy categorization, at least in Western terms of genre. At its core, Mother is about a relationship between a mother (Kim Hye-Ja) and her mentally disabled adult son (Won Bin), with a murder mystery thrown in for good measure. I’ve already raved at length about Kim’s masterful performance, but I must also praise the film for its effectiveness and innovation. This film had me from the very beginning, and I was happy to come along for the ride, even as I had no idea where it was going.

#2: The Social Network



Directed by David Fincher, screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, book by Ben Mezrich

I know Mark Zuckerberg. Every time I start to write about this film, I keep coming back to this simple sentence. Certainly, I can’t be sure I’ve seen an accurate rendition of his life based on the events of this film. As I subsequently read both Ben Mezrich’s “The Accidental Billionaires” and David Kirkpatrick’s “The Facebook Effect”, I slowly began to get a picture of the man through wildly divergent (and self-serving) accounts of his life, and I was forced to the same conclusion I had when the film ended.

The film’s accuracy with regard to Mark Zuckerberg is irrelevant. We all know Mark Zuckerberg, or at least recognize the character. This film proffers an astounding look at a period of substantial change to society and internet culture, and it does so by crafting one of the most fascinating characters in cinema history and running him through the paces of age-old themes – friendship, desire, and betrayal. As expected with a David Fincher film, The Social Network is technically perfect filmmaking, and brings Sorkin’s rapid-fire script and dialogue to stunning life while showing remarkable restraint with many of Fincher’s typical visual flourishes (although there was still the obligatory “camera passes through balcony rails” shot).

This is a film that everyone will take away something from, even if it’s completely different from person to person. And for a film about the disputed origins of a website, it manages to be completely engaging from start to finish. I’ve said plenty about the performances, but I have to also mention Trent Reznor’s score, which builds a intense and ominous atmosphere from the film’s first scene.

#1: Toy Story 3



From Disney/Pixar, directed by Lee Unkrich, screenplay by Michael Arndt, story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton , and Lee Unkrich

From my 10/10 review:
In the 15 years since the first Toy Story, Pixar’s animation has progressed immeasurably, but time and again, they have proven that their greatest strength is their understanding of character and story. Pixar has crafted an absolutely gorgeous film here, but it is not about plastic toys – the soulless, lifeless, disposable pleasures of youth. It is a film about life, love, friendship, and loss; hope, despair, and finding one’s purpose. It is funny, exciting, surprisingly poignant, and easily Pixar’s finest film. I’m a little wary of giving this film a perfect score, since I may well have handicapped myself by revisiting the first two films immediately beforehand. This might better be considered a rating for the entire trilogy, and not just its brilliant send-off – but I can’t help it. I’ve seen this movie twice and I wouldn’t change a thing.

Honorable Mentions:

  • 127 Hours (directed by Danny Boyle, screenplay by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, book by Aron Ralston)
  • Kick-Ass (directed by Matthew Vaughn, screenplay by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, comic by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.)
  • Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (directed by Edgar Wright, screenplay by Edgar Wright and Michael Bacall, graphic novel by Bryan Lee O’Malley)
  • Buried (directed by Rodrigo Cortés, written by Chris Sparling)
  • True Grit (directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen, novel by Charles Portis)
  • Catfish (documentary, directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman)
  • Black Swan (directed by Darren Aronofsky, screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andrés Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin)
  • Shutter Island (directed by Martin Scorsese, screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis, novel by Dennis Lehane)
  • The Town (directed by Ben Affleck, screenplay by Peter Craig, Ben Affleck, and Aaron Stockard, novel by Chuck Hogan)
  • Restrepo (documentary, directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger)
  • Greenberg (written/directed by Noah Baumbach, story by Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh)
  • Get Him to the Greek (written/directed by Nicholas Stoller, characters by Jason Segel)

Click here to see the rest of the 2010 Glennies.