I Finally Watched Inception (2010)
Watching Nolan’s original psychological thriller Inception — 10 years later — and right before the release of its spiritual successor…
“Ten years later, Inception continues to function as a thrilling sci-fi heist film, but its deeper secrets are what has cemented it as Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece.” Drew Dietsch, Giant Freakin Robot
We now know 2010’s multi-layered ,subconscious-infiltrating, thought-planting Inception as the film that garnered 8 Academy Award Nominations (including 4 wins), fantastic reviews among critics and equal love from audiences — grossing nearly a billion dollars worldwide.
Before its release, however, its success was not a given. Director Christopher Nolan had just come off the colossal success that was 2008’s The Dark Knight, a film which redefined comic book movies. The stakes were high and all eyes were on him to follow it up with something equally thrilling. Taking a break in between Batman films to work on passion projects, Nolan turned to his 80 page treatment he had been nursing for almost ten years. That film became Inception, a heist film about breaking into someone’s dreams and planting ideas in their subconscious.
“I’ve been fascinated by dreams my whole life, since I was a kid, and I think the relationship between movies and dreams is something that’s always interested me.“ Christopher Nolan
Warner Bros. Pictures, much pleased with the billion dollar success of The Dark Knight, awarded Nolan a proverbial blank check. Nolan himself disputes this as there are financial talks and negotiations with every movie, but this has less to do with budgets and more to do creative control. If you make Nolan happy, he keeps making movies for you. And his movies are sure-fire hits. Spoiler: They’re still making movies together. He’s collaborated with Warner Bros. on every movie since 2002. They are clearly concerned with making him happy.
“The best actors instinctively feel out what the other actors need, and they just accommodate it.” Christopher Nolan
Nolan’s first target was Leonardo DiCaprio, who he courted for years across his various projects with no luck. Leo finally felt it was the right time and signed on to play Don Cobb. He then gathered an all star team of actors to surround him: his favorites from previous films like Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy, and Ken Watanabe, actors hot at the time like Ellen Page and Dileep Rao, and a group he liked so much (Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Marion Cotillard), he brought them onto his next film, The Dark Knight Rises.
With a budget of $160 million, this international shoot with production in Japan, France, and Canada among others, took place over 7 months, twice the length of the average film shoot.
Most notably, most of the effects and stunts were filmed practically, with very little computer generated imagery added later. For example, the LA Times wrote the following before the release of the film:
“(Chris) Corbould’s teams (special effects), for instance, built giant rotating hallways and a massive tilting nightclub set to film the startling ‘Inception” scenes when dream-sector physics take a sharp turn into chaos. One of the film’s stars, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, spent long, bruising weeks learning to fight in a corridor that spun like a giant hamster wheel.” Geoff Boucher
Nolan much prefers to shoot as much as possible practically. (He’s notoriously picky on a lot of things: for example, no IMAX cameras or 3D technology on this picture.) The film only logged about 500 visual effects shots, which may seem like a lot, but compared to other VFX heavy films that can reach up to 2,000 shots, you can see the commitment to practicality, which translates to the screen as everything feels real because it is.
Another notable and unconventional production element included the lack of a second unit. A second unit is used for filming things like establishing shots or stunts, shots that may be too costly or time consuming for the first unit, led by Nolan. They do a lot of the grunt work, sometimes being referred to as unsung heroes. Instead, he wanted the film to be as cohesive as possible, so he skipped the second unit and shot every single frame himself, something very rare in today’s Hollywood. Every second of the film is Nolan’s vision, and after you mix in the practical effects, stunning cast, and budget to boot, Warner Bros. supplied Nolan with everything he needed for success.
“It’s been a decade since Christopher Nolan completed his maze. But we’re still going back through it, again and again, discovering new pathways complete with unseen allusions and symbology, and building on top of what he left for us by way of new perceptions.” Richard Newby, The Hollywood Reporter
With the release of Nolan’s lastest picture, Tenet, many film fans have been revisiting his first mind-bending thriller. The comparisons come naturally as the two films look and feel very similar.
So now that movie theaters have reopened in many parts of the country, and as Tenet is the first real new blockbuster since the reopening, many theaters (most notably AMC) have released Inception as a 10th Anniversary Event in IMAX.
I had never seen Inception, so I thought now was my time.
Well, that’s not true. I watched in when it came out. But I was a preteen, and I’m sure it went way over my head and confused me. I dismissed it as too high concept to be accessible by anyone who wasn’t a genius. In the years that followed, I slowly forgot everything about Inception as I probably didn’t care too much the first time anyway.
So I watched Inception for the first time as a capable adult. The first thing that stood out to me was: this movie is so accessible! So much of the dream theory is explained thoughtfully and clearly — almost to the film’s downfall as when I watched it again the next morning (yes, really), I found I didn’t need all of the explaining. The following is an excerpt from my review on Letterboxd:
It’s been so long since I saw this and I was a dumb preteen and basically dismissed it (probably because I had a hard time keeping up), so I’m not counting this as a rewatch as I remembered basically nothing. That dumb kid still lingered in the back of my mind and between that and a decade’s worth of hype, I thought this was going to be way too complicated, difficult to keep up with, and not at all accessible. Instead, I was surprised by how accessible this was! Unfortunately that means that sometimes the movie leans into being a bit cheesy (and a perpetrator of “tell, don’t show”), but that’s honestly part of its charm.
The movie holds up insanely well, especially when you see it on the largest screen with some of the best speakers in IMAX. Yes, the movie can get a bit corny, but because it never dips into the trite, that corniness is a part of its appeal. It feels very 2010, not only in technical aspects, but in other times, like when you realize you’re watching a summer blockbuster with Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, not something you see today, (but you also don’t see Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss in summer hits anymore, but that’s a part of Jaws’ charm.) It feels nostalgic — plus add in a mix of pre-Oscar Leo and Nolan’s returning regulars — and the movie feels so wonderfully rooted in its time. Jaws feels like 1975, Back to the Future feels like 1985, and Inception feels like 2010. That sentimentality makes a movie feel comfortable, giving it lasting appeal.
That is not to say, however, that the film feels old or stale. As we all know, CGI doesn’t always hold up well (just look at other 2010 films), but because so much of Inception was done practically, it feels authentic. Practical stunts and effects age much slower than most VFX and even when watching it on the towering IMAX screen, I only noticed one shot that didn’t age well. Two seconds in over two and a half hours. It’s still a thrilling movie from start to finish. I consider myself lucky to have truly experienced it for the first time the way that I did — it was well worth the decade’s wait.
I initially dismissed Tenet, by its press releases and its trailers, as an Inception ripoff. It feels so eerily similar. The connection is obvious and as the Tenet reviews start rolling in we see it in articles like this one or this one. But even if that is the case, sign me up! I experienced Inception the perfect way and plan to do the same for Tenet. If it is anything like its 2010 predecessor, find the biggest (safest!) screen you can, sit back, and prepare to be amazed at the craftsmanship of the film world’s most successful auteurs.