How The Summer Blockbuster Was Reimagined By Inception

The best movie of the last decade was Christopher Nolan's Inception. A format-bending summer blockbuster is remembered.

Brian Martin

Aug 5, 2022

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As 2019 comes to a close, we've been reflecting on the cinema of the previous ten years. When we asked our readers to rank the best films of the last ten years, Christopher Nolan's Inception came out on top—and by a wide margin, we may add. That's okay since it's difficult to claim that anything quite like it has appeared since if this was your favorite movie of 2010.

It's a big-budget sci-fi actioner that made a lot of money globally, yet the only way you could characterize it as a typical summer blockbuster is that. It's furthermore unusual among hugely successful Hollywood tentpoles in that there aren't any sequels, spin-offs, or follow-ups in the works, and it's also perhaps the finest movie from one of our best directors.

which extractors, like Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), take advantage of to carry out covert corporate espionage. After a job gone awry, businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires Cobb to undertake the complex feat of "inception"—not simply stealing an idea but planting one and convincing the mark that it's their own—in order to break up a business rival's monopoly.

In Nolan's movie, corporate spies like Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) use dream-sharing technology that the military has created to carry out subliminal corporate espionage. After a job gone awry, businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires Cobb to undertake the complex feat of "inception"—not simply stealing an idea but planting one and convincing the mark that it's their own—in order to break up a business rival's monopoly.

Inception, one of the brightest movies of the 2010s, continues to stand up over ten years after it was released. It was hailed by critics and enjoyed great box office success (for an original film or otherwise) at the time. It is far, far cleverer than the ordinary tentpole, which is part of what makes its over 150-minute running length feel very deft. This is not to mean that it is particularly sophisticated or intellectual, but that it is far, far cleverer than the average tentpole.

Inception, Christopher Nolan Inception, Blockbuster Movie

Inception was initially intended to be a horror movie when Nolan was working on Insomnia. In 2001, Nolan sat down and penned an ambitious 80-page screenplay about dream thieves, in part influenced by a recent wave of movies where reality was not what it appeared (such as The Matrix and Dark City).

After first selling it to Warner Bros, he made the decision to focus on developing his filmmaking skills so that he could create the movie on the larger scale he believed the content called for. He turned the concept into a spec script for a sci-fi heist thriller in the months following The Dark Knight's release.

Although it's widely believed that Nolan's arrangement for a Dark Knight sequel was related to the studio filming Inception, it's hard to envision any other company in Hollywood giving it the go-ahead in the first place. Warner has long been recognized as a director's studio. Having said that, it can't have hurt that by the time WB acquired the script in February 2009, the filmmaker had established himself with the Batman movies and had a star attached.

According to rumors, Nolan attempted to collaborate with DiCaprio on several of his earlier movies before ultimately winning him over with the idea of an action movie set in a dream environment. Even a decade later, Leo has only seldom been in blockbusters of this magnitude (to date, it has only been this and Titanic), and the director and actor worked together on the screenplay development up until the start of filming.

With Watanabe, Ellen Page, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Pete Postlethwaite, Tom Berenger, and of course Nolan's lucky charm, Michael Caine, DiCaprio plays the lead in what would eventually evolve into a star-studded ensemble cast. Editor Lee Smith, cinematographer Wally Pfister, and composer Hans Zimmer were among the other Nolan team members that returned for this project.

Inception stands out among other summer blockbusters in 2010, which is a reflection of the creative freedom the filmmakers have retained in this situation. It was released in the same year that WB was investing significant sums of money in the post-production Real-D conversions of several of its live-action movies, most notably their 12-week turnaround Clash of the Titans remake. However, the movie has only ever been made available in 2D.

Even nine years later, history has shown that Nolan was correct to refuse to approve a hurriedly converted 3D release, since the movie is immersive and aesthetically stunning enough without the plastic goggles for a movie with this much exposition.

Inception, Christopher Nolan Inception, Blockbuster Movie

The movie is equally as gorgeous as it was when it originally came out as a compliment to science fiction and action. Right when it appeared that the James Bond films were giving up the tradition of including groundbreaking, never-before-seen stunts in each new installment, Nolan took up the tradition and continued with it, even as he found fresh ways to pay homage to earlier 007 feats.

For example, it's hard to miss the third act's tribute to the underappreciated 1969 film On Her Majesty's Secret Service and its final attack on Blofeld's snow-covered citadel. In the third act of Eames' dream, a scenario in which George Lazenby's Bond is pursued downward by armed bastards is immediately lifted and added to, with Hardy (who comes as near to portraying 007 as he would ever get here) chasing the adversaries back uphill to the ice complex.

Even more amazingly, Nolan and his team invested a lot of work into actually pulling off these exploits. Despite the intense quantity of action, the entire movie only has 500 computer-generated effects shots. To put this into perspective, there were 620 of these shots in Batman Begins, when a tentpole action film at the time had an average of about 2,000. This strategy fits with Nolan's goal of making the dreams as authentic as possible.

The grounded part of the movie can be seen as being too formal or boring, yet the heist notion only functions when the victim is unaware that they are dreaming. By providing mental counter-extraction strategies like onlookers who assault intruders when they see something is amiss, the movie also creates tension in other ways.

This idea could certainly be used to create a more strange movie than Inception, but in this adaptation, using realistic effects to portray the subtle weirdness of our subconscious is much more successful. Even if Nolan has to put up with his critics asking him aloud whether he too sleeps with a suit on, the movie he created is not lacking in useful new ideas.

The numerous vehicle chases, shootouts, and zero-gravity fistfights in this film are breathtaking, but they serve a well-oiled machine intended to carry its enormous emotional weight to the finish line rather than just impart reams of exposition. similar to the MC Escher artworks that are used as references in the action of the movie (and in its promotion) are all about employing simple shapes to make things appear impossible.

Inception, Christopher Nolan Inception, Blockbuster Movie

In actuality, the movie's depiction of dreaming is considerably more similar to the experience of watching movies than it is to the experience of creating them. Nolan's films are frequently cited as prominent examples by those who continue to hammer home the point that auteur theory is incompatible with formats like Hollywood studio blockbusters, but it doesn't apply in this case.

Nolan played a crucial role in the creation of the movie as both the writer and the director, but if you're interpreting it as a proclamation about the craft of filmmaking, we'd contend that, like most of his works (yes, including the Batman movies), it values teamwork above individualism. This is exceptional because of the common dream, not because of the individual vision.

As a result, a team that is essential to Inception is present both in front of and behind the camera. If you want to view it more as a movie about creating movies, it's far too easy to categorize the supporting players as having certain professions, such as Gordon-Arthur Levitt's playing a hands-on producer or Page's Ariadne playing a chameleonic leading guy named Eames.

If Cobb is a substitute for Nolan, he is a wildly inconsistent and contradictory one. He resembles a widower in a Gothic romance rather than a suave Danny Ocean type, as others have said. Additionally, he tends to break the rules the most because he is the major voice of the movie's nearly continual rule-making.

Cobb establishes a number of impassable lines in the first hour to increase the stakes when he and his team inexplicably cross them later on. All of the restrictions he cites are of the Ghostbusters "don't cross the streams" sort. From the standpoint of the storyline, this makes everything that happens after the first hour a relentless crescendo, from the start of the con to the ultimate cathartic release.

One of those movies that is all the more rewarding to revisit when you know where it's heading is one of those films that many claim need several viewings to truly grasp. With each level the protagonists descend, the movie reveals a new aspect of Cobb's background, portraying him as an architect who is tormented by guilt but puts himself and the rest of his team in peril by failing to confront it, until they are once more left in the amorphous limbo.

Having the entire context of Mal's function as a metaphysical femme fatale and how Cobb exorcises his secrets throughout the work allows for the advantage of multiple viewings. She also puts the movie's conceit under pressure by attempting to persuade him that his existence as a traveling fugitive is absurd and unreal, which adds another level of doubt. Despite any uncertainty in the film's iconic closing moment, Cobb is seen accepting his reality rather than being trapped in his visions and horrors.

The fact that Inception is Christopher Nolan's most daring attempt at non-linear narrative to date makes it all the more astounding coming from a director who made his name with a picture that is chronologically backwards. The outcomes could appear insurmountable given all the time-hopping and rule-making, but only if you're not paying attention.

It's unfortunate that a $160 million movie that demands the audience's full attention still feels so unusual in this day and age, yet Inception effortlessly demanded and swayed audiences. We might argue that this movie is the final tentpole of its sort as the decade has progressed and streaming services have created entire TV shows that occasionally feel meant to be played in the background.

Inception, Christopher Nolan Inception, Blockbuster Movie

Finally, we must consider whether any other original work from the past ten years has had the same kind of impact. Inception nonetheless had a significant impact on our cultural awareness throughout the decade when sequels and franchises completely took over modern culture. There was a time when every movie trailer had the Hans Zimmer honk, even if you wanted to boil the movie's influence on movies down to its most fundamental level.

It appears to have an even greater single effect in terms of creativity. Nothing since the release of Inception has been able to match the overall impact of watching it, despite Mad Max: Fury Road surpassing its fearless practical action work and Mission: Impossible - Fallout doing a pretty good job of replicating its walk-and-talk (and-run-and-shoot-and-climb-and-punch-and-freefall) style of rapid-fire exposition.

The movie exceeded every other live-action blockbuster of 2010 with its $820 million global box office haul and four Oscar wins (for Cinematography, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing). At the beginning of the decade, Nolan created and broke the mold by taking a quick and unassuming approach to creating a thinking man's popcorn movie.


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