A retrospective essay

Kevin Lau

Where were you when you first heard about Christopher Nolan’s Inception?

It was the summer of 2010 for me, perhaps late July or early August. I was twelve years old at a game store playing Warhammer 40,000 when another twelve year old told me about it and I assure you that I had no clue what he was telling me. Something about people who entered dreams? Mind blowing? Leonardo DiCaprio? Was “inception” even a word? How do you even spell it?

Hey, I said I was twelve. I never said I was smart.

A few months down the line, after I turned thirteen, Inception had a home release and made its way to my parents’ Redbox picks. After watching it one night, both of them told me the next day that I should watch it too, willing to pay another day’s rental fees. I did later that day and boy howdy was I not prepared for what that DVD was about to bestow upon me. You see, Inception, though I give it a 7/10 now after my recent rewatch, changed the course of my life forever.

More on that in a bit.

Inception, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, hit both conventional and IMAX United States theaters on  July 16, 2010 with high critical praise for not only being an entertaining summer blockbuster but also being smart to boot (also more on that in a bit). With a budget of $160 million, it grossed $825 million worldwide, being Nolan’s third most lucrative film behind The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. It’s also LeonarDom DiCobbrio’s second most lucrative film, right behind Titanic. The ratings currently sit at 8.8/10 on IMDb, 87% on Rotten Tomatoes (Audience Score is 91%), and 74% on Metacritic.

Has it aged well? Yes and no. Perhaps the biggest thing I noticed didn’t age well was the characterizations (or lack thereof) of the women in the film (and that’s not to mention barely passing the Bechdel Test). Ellen Page's character, Ariadne, serves as the one asking the questions and invoking exposition for the audience. At times, she’s the eyes and ears for the audience, notably when she sneaks into Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) psyche. HOWEVER, Ariadne doesn’t have an arc or much of a personality, no wants or needs. Then again, most of the supporting cast doesn’t either, not even Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). 

This is also a bigger issue when it comes to Mal, who is portrayed by Marion Cotillard and stiff as a board from what I suspect to be from severe lack of material. Sure, she isn’t technically a character, but rather a stilted memory/projection of her from Cobb’s subconscious. That said, the catharsis of Cobb finally letting go of Mal is still potent and hits you right in the feels knowing that though things ended poorly, they still got to grow old together.

In fact, most of the latter half of this film is still great! Lately I’ve been reading Alcatraz vs the Evil Librarians, a series of young adult novels by Brandon Sanderson, and the first two entries are heist stories. Brandon Sanderson even uses a heist story structure in his lecture about plot. I’m saying this because upon this viewing, I realized Inception was a reversal of a heist film. Instead of a group of people stealing something, they’re trying to implant something with the same exact structure as a heist story.

For those of you upset that I only now discovered it, I want to say that I haven’t watched this film in six years and also refer you to paragraph 3, sentence 2.

What I’m trying to say is that Inception is a prime example of postmodernism with a genre-defying concept to heist stories. Does it stand up against Oceans 11 or The Italian Job? I haven’t seen those two yet, so I can’t say, but I’m willing to guess “no” due to flat characters. However, the structure is still precise.

And that’s a problem with Nolan’s films, especially his pre-Interstellar stuff. Nolan comes off as a logician to me, focusing more on plot and concept than character. However, he does understand character, as seen in this scene when the group is trying to come up with the message to implant into their target’s mind. Here, Nolan basically breaks down how creating a theme for the protagonist works from a writer’s perspective, how positive emotions trumps negative emotions and what makes character development so interesting to the audience. The writer in me got giddy when they voiced how the messages are to be implanted, similar to how writers create the Theme Stated in their stories.


“I will not follow in my father’s footsteps, I will create something for myself, and my father doesn’t want me to be him.” 


I mean, come on. That’s a pretty cool character arc I’d want the protagonist’s perspective of.

Which brings me to another point I want to talk about: I wish there was a novelization of this film. I’ve read the shooting script for the film (also also more on that in a bit. We’re almost there), but it’s just not the same as what I want. We have a lot of perspective shifts and really interesting ideas, but Nolan’s direction here doesn’t carry much emotional weight as I think the same scenes would if played out in prose, especially through the eyes of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy). Maybe it’ll be a 10th anniversary surprise? 25th anniversary?

C’mon, Nolan. Don’t make me put a chair on your doorstep.

Now we get to the meat of this retrospective: How did Inception change my life?

It’s simple, really. Inception was the film that made me interested in filmmaking.

To put it in perspective, I had never seen a real film before this one; just the usual Disney, Pixar, superhero, or whatever kids movie was out at the time. I was more of a reader, too, with a dream of becoming a novelist one day (I haven’t given up that dream yet. I’m currently on the second draft of my novel). When I first watched Inception, my first thought was, “Movies can be like books?” (Note four paragraphs ago.) My second thought was, “How did they do that?” 

“That” being basically the whole movie.

This was around the time the YouTube channel freddiew (now RocketJump) was bursting into the scene. Not only was Freddie Wong, the channel’s creator, producing big budget style short films, but also releasing behind the scenes documentaries as well. Film Riot was just starting out too and soon I was discovering more and more knowledge about filmmaking at my fingertips.

And they all talked about Inception in one way or another too, like it was the Holy Grail of modern cinema and what indie filmmakers dreamed of creating. I mean, multi-million dollar auteur filmmaking? Sign me up.

So yeah, Inception sent me down the rabbit hole. Or, rather, I dove headfirst into the rabbit hole, hungry for knowledge of how film worked. Inception was the first screenplay I read and I used that to learn the form and format. I later on created my own YouTube channel, starting with stop-motion animation and eventually moved my way to live-action. I then even later went to college to get a degree in Film and have been working on various sets for music videos, films, and shows.

It’s got its flaws and is nowhere near a perfect film. More like a solid psychological thriller, but maybe Nolan was biting off more than he could chew in some areas. However, the effects are still fantastic, with less reliance on CGI and more on the practical, never showing its age visually. I’m not sure if it’ll blow anyone’s mind these days, especially if they’ve already seen The Matrix or are fans of Alex Garland.

But if it wasn’t for Inception, I don’t know where I’d be right now. 

Probably employed and paid to work from home (Once again, I refer you to paragraph 3, sentence 2).


CHAIR COUNT: 57 chairs appear on screen in the first half. I lost count at the midpoint as I became engrossed in the film.


Epilogue: I believe Cobb is awake at the end. Hear me out: It’s established with Fischer that if you die in the dream under the sedative they used, you go into Limbo. However, when you die in Limbo, you wake back up in the dream you supposedly died in. Old Man Saito shoots Cobb at the end, who was dead in the snow fortress, who was also dead in the elevator shaft, and was also dead in the van via drowning (Saito was just dead from the gunshot wound). From what the film does to explain its science, Cobb could have easily come back to reality. Also notice that in the dream, his top spins cleanly whereas, at the end, it wobbles ever so slightly.

It’s a purposely ambiguous ending, but I like to think it’s a happy one. After all, what’s the point of having him still in a dream? Inception 2?

Wait, Nolan, please give us Inception 2. Don’t make me get the chair…

Inception - A Retrospective

  AUGUST. 12. 2020.

                       10 YEARS LATER


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