It’s been a minute since July 2010, so you might have forgotten just how fully Inception embedded itself within the cultural consciousness — almost as if someone had invaded our collective hivemind and planted it there.
Christopher Nolan’s gauzy, not-quite-lucid dream-heist thriller was basically ubiquitous for much of the first half of the 2010s. Inception memes were absolutely everywhere: memes of Leonardo DiCaprio squinting at things, of spinning tops, of the dulcet tones of then-newcomer Tom Hardy telling us we mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, dahlings. (The “dahling,” by the way, was improvised.) The giant BRAAAAAWWWWWMMMMMM! noise made famous by the film’s trailer kept popping up throughout pop culture in parody after parody. South Park did Inception. The Simpsons did Inception. College Humor did Inception. Troy didn’t get Inception!
The last time I saw the movie during its original theatrical run, one member of the audience let out a garbled, performative cry of frustration as its instantly famous final moment played out. In hardly any time, Inception had itself become a meme.
With such a deep level of cultural saturation, it’s easy to only remember the Inception we collectively created, while forgetting about just how weird and iconoclastic the film itself is. But as Inception celebrates its 10th anniversary, the movie, in all its imperfect perfection, still tempts us to look beyond the memes and “go deeper.”
Inception is so much weirder than you might remember
Most Inception fans fixate on its sci-fi premise and its many unanswerable questions, while they get lost in the movie’s maze of a plot. The premise — through collective lucid dreaming, you can build dreamscapes and enter other people’s minds — is so snazzy that people get seduced by it. But Inception’s plot is really just a lure for the film’s obsession with the psychological labyrinths we build for ourselves. The story of Cobb (DiCaprio), a tormented widower who’s fallen in with a clandestine ring of international dream thieves, is sometimes surprisingly nuanced; at others, it’s as unsubtle as the train wreck that occasionally plows through our hero’s subconscious, reminding us that Cobb is an unreliable narrator of his own reality.
Sometimes Inception is a star vehicle determined to spread DiCaprio’s man-pain all over the place in giant caps-locked maze font; other times, it’s a quirky, utterly engrossing ensemble film, with Oscar winners and A-listers like DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, and Michael Caine all wedged in alongside a coterie of fresh faces: Hardy, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Cillian Murphy, Dileep Rao, Ken Watanabe, and Talulah Riley. The whole ensemble takes turns aiding Cobb in his far-fetched scheme to return home to his children and a life of normalcy by pulling off the fabled One Last Job of every heist story. But this particular job involves switching up the usual dream-thief gig of “extraction” — pulling data from a subject’s mind like the NSA wiretapping a brain — and performing “inception” instead: planting an idea instead of removing one.
This plot involves a fantastical amount of dreamscape-building, much of it unexplained. (One tiny thing out of hundreds that always gets me is the team’s ability to use walkie-talkies in dreams. There’s no plausible explanation for this. I look for answers, but will I ever receive them? No. Thanks for nothing, Nolan.) For all that Nolan’s dreamscape is a wild, wondrous vision of a world where anything can happen and anyone can build anything, it’s tempered by boxy amber-greige set design that, even at its most gorgeous, almost always looks like the executive meeting level of a Hilton. “We both wanted a house but we loved this type of building,” Cobb explains at one point, while showing off a dream house that looks like something you’d expect to find in Duluth.
In another moment, Cobb introduces his son: “That’s James. He’s digging for something. Maybe a worm.” The script is full of amazing clunkers like this. “What is the most resilient parasite?” Cobb asks a client earlier on. “A bacterial infection? An intestinal worm?”
Much has been said about the reading of Inception as a metaphor for filmmaking, but if Cobb is a director, he’s Herzog filming Fitzcarraldo — off the map and hazardous to everyone including himself. The script of Inception underscores this with lines that frequently veer into absurdism.
That nobody ever really dinged Inception or Nolan for these flaws is a testament to all the other stuff that’s going on, which is constantly dragging our attention away from the hollowness of Cobb’s plot. Indeed, there’s so much happening in the margins of Inception that DiCaprio often gets sidelined — not because the film’s plot isn’t ponderously, painstakingly centered on him, but because Inception is bursting with 1,000 mysteries large and small.
There’s the gaping military backstory behind the creation of dreamsharing, with all its incumbent sci-fi gadgetry and hand-waved exposition. The unexplained Egon Schiele painting that’s explicitly pointed out but that seems to mean nothing. The updated opium den where dozens of men dream their lives away in what now feels like an eerie harbinger of the opioid crisis. The faceless men who show up to track Cobb through funhouse-maze streets and then are never seen again. The tyrannical businessman whose son clings to a Citizen Kane moment from his childhood that may never have been real at all. The fact that Hardy’s character, Eames, plans most of the heist entirely by himself while Cobb ... circles things with markers!
Presiding over all this is the biggest mystery of all: Cobb’s dead wife, Mal, the madwoman in the attic of his subconscious, the figure who may or may not be the minotaur at the center of a maze. Within the endearingly durable Inception fandom, where Cobb is frequently cast aside as a minor character, female fanfic writers have spent the past decade reclaiming Mal Cobb (whose name is a play on “malady,” THANKS, NOLAN), inverting Cobb’s story and making Mal his savior rather than his demon. Their subversion is not so much a testament to Nolan’s writing as it is to his vision. He created a world that serves as a metaphor for world-building itself. Of course a bunch of fanfiction writers found a home in it.
It’s all of these other, flexible elements that make Inception a film I can watch an infinite number of times. Because honestly, I don’t think Inception is necessarily a good movie, but I do think it’s a great movie. To me, Inception is a minor miracle — a movie built fundamentally on nonsense, with a terrible script and enough plot holes to be a permanent tease — yet one that satisfies on every conceivable level. Sure, on one of those levels, I’m constantly tormenting myself with eternal technical questions. (If Yusuf sped up the normal dose of Somnacin to be 20 times faster than real time instead of the typical 12 times, so that they could lucid dream three layers down, then technically the whole job only lasted about six minutes in reality, so what does the team do on the top level after the van crash for the roughly two weeks of dream time they have to fill up for the rest of the plane ride? Yes, I have been wondering this for a decade!)
But on another level, I’m kicking back and enjoying the ensemble dynamic, the masterful production, and the fun of it all. No matter how frustrating I find Cobb to be as a character, no matter how weak and implausible I find the writing, every time I watch Inception, by the time he hits the airport and Zimmer’s gorgeous “Time” kicks in on the soundtrack, I’m rooting for him, holding my breath every step, wanting him to get his happy ending despite everything.
Most of Inception’s plot may be built on nonsense, but a movie that can make you care about all that nonsense and bullshit is the essence of moviemaking — a Hollywood dream within a Hollywood dream.
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