Ten Years Later, Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’ Has A New Meaning

Ten years ago today, Christopher Nolan’s Inception arrived in theaters. I saw it opening weekend, and I think I liked it though I know I didn’t understand it. This seems like the typical reaction to Nolan’s work. Few filmmakers have ever made as much money by simultaneously dazzling and confounding movie audiences. And Inception is his single most dazzling and confounding film, a film about a crack team of corporate espionage thieves who specialize in “extracting” information out of powerful people’s dreams, which they achieve by traversing several layers of consciousness with the help of, um, state-of-the-art napping machines and incredible drugs. Somehow, this pulled in about $830 million worldwide at the box office.

When I called Inception Nolan’s most “dazzling” film, I don’t necessarily mean best (I think that’s probably Dunkirk) or the one I’ve seen the most (The Dark Knight) or even my favorite (lately, weirdly, The Dark Knight Rises) — I mean the one that bowls over audiences to maximum Nolan-esque, “holy fucking shit” effect. Inception does all of the things that we expect from him with the highest degree of difficulty, while also making sure that we know precisely how difficult pulling it off is. The puzzle pieces are smaller and the overall picture is more ornate and elliptical. We move freely between different versions of reality, in which characters swiftly morph into other characters, while the plot pieces are moved in and out of order, and explanations for how this all is supposed to work are spoken with great rapidity and sometimes drowned out by the booming and Wagnerian Hans Zimmer score.

Though the most spectacular aspect of Inception, in spite of all this, is how popular it was in 2010, and remains a decade later, when the prospect of an original summer blockbuster unattached to well-entrenched IP that still manages to pack theaters seems all the more extraordinary for Covid and non-Covid-related reasons. It’s the sort of achievement that, right or (definitely) wrong, might theoretically give a man license to remove every chair from his workplace environment. When it comes to the big-budget prestige summer film, Christopher Nolan stands alone.

Critics have always been a little slower to embrace Nolan than the general public, and the reviews of Inception — beyond the predictable “masterpiece!” raves from fanboy film websites — were a little mixed.

“It trades in crafty puzzles rather than profound mysteries, and gestures in the direction of mighty philosophical questions that Mr. Nolan is finally too tactful, too timid or perhaps just too busy to engage,” said the New York Times, which patted Inception on the head with the faint praise of being a “diverting reverie.” I probably would have agreed with that in 2010. Like I said, I enjoyed Inception, but I didn’t feel especially stimulated intellectually by what Nolan was doing. I was, to be frank, very stoned and very into staring blankly at Joseph Gordon Levitt levitate down hotel hallways.

But when I watched Inception again this week — I believe it was my fourth viewing, and the first one without chemical additives — I was surprised by how much it did make sense. Yes, I attribute 20 percent of that to not being baked. But there was something about this film that not only seemed logical now, but even sort of linear. And I realized that this was true because the way that I experience “the real world” has changed a lot since 2010, to the point where following Leonardo DiCaprio into the inner recesses of Cillian Murphy dream skull seem almost as mundane as logging on.

Follow me with this: Inception is a movie that’s basically about two things. The first is the so-called “nature of reality,” which is what every Nolan is about but Inception is really deep into. The central tension for Leo and all the other characters is whether they can maintain separation between the “waking” world and the “dream” world. At face value, the “dream” world seems almost obviously unreal as a place where large-scale gunfights with faceless, suited gunmen take place with regularity. But with greater immersion in this world comes a less firm grasp on what constitutes plausible “actual” life.

To assist with delineating these worlds, each person carries a totem unique only to them, which he or she can use as a kind of tether to the waking world as they drift deeper into the dream world. In the second half of the movie, when they’re attempting an inception caper inside Cillian Murphy’s cranium, we learn that the heavy sedatives they’ve taken to go deeper into his subconscious carry the risk that they will be sent adrift in a “limbo” zone where dreamers no longer realize that they’re in the “dream” world. This is pitched in Inception as a fate worse than death, a self-lobotomy in which a person risks living a vegetative “waking” life in order to live a “false” existence in a “dream” world.

The other thing that Inception is about is the possibility that ideas can be “stolen” from or “implanted” in our brains by other people who have invaded our consciousness without our consent or even knowledge. In the film, “extraction” is conceptualized as a relatively easy maneuver, so long as your team is headed up by Leo and backed by untold millions from Cobol Engineering. “Inception,” however, as we’re told many times by various people, is “impossible.” In the scene on Ken Watanabe’s helicopter, Levitt says that “true inspiration is impossible to fake” because “the subject can always trace the genesis of the idea,” an argument he illustrates by telling Watanabe to not think about elephants. (Now, for a moment, we’re all thinking about elephants.) By the way, this argument doesn’t make any sense. Writers, musicians, painters, philosophers — they all talk about how their best ideas come out of nowhere as they happen to be reaching for the shampoo in the shower. Nobody knows where any ideas come from. Besides, Leo thinks he can perform an inception, which is what he ends up doing.

What Inception ultimately plays on is the general feeling among many of us that we are being controlled by the thoughts, moods, and whims of unseen strangers, just as it exploits our overall suspicion that there is a sizable gap between how we (or at least they) perceive reality and what reality actually is.

When I watched Inception in 2010, I thought about it purely in terms of a literal reading of the movie, which is about the waking world vs. the dream world. But when I watched it again in 2020, the movie took on a different, unintended, but still significant interpretation. It actually didn’t look like a far-fetched sci-fi film; it was more like my own daily life, and maybe yours.

Five months before Inception opened, I joined Twitter. At the time, I had been an internet native for almost 15 years. But like a lot of people, my use of the internet changed dramatically once I was sucked into the social-media sphere. I found that in this world, people acted differently than they did out there, IRL. (In the waking world, if you will.) For one thing, rhetorical gunfights broke out with far greater regularity! People also had the ability to morph into something else. Sometimes the people you thought you were interacting with were in factor avatars for other people. At first, this seemed strange. But it was fun, because you could create your own world in this blank space of endless possibilities, just like the “architect” Ellen Page in Inception.

Over time, as I spent more time in this dream world — usually about eight hours a day, the length of a night’s sleep and also my daily work shift — it became harder and harder to tell the difference between this and reality. Did the things that people cared about so much in the dream world really matter in the waking world? Did drifting down several levels in the dream world, being “extremely online,” run the risk of forever imperiling you there in a spiritual limbo? Could it really be that if you went too far, you could be killed by enemies in the dream world and then “canceled” in the waking world?

Inception isn’t a “dream” movie to me anymore, it’s a movie about the modern internet, a place where stealing people’s brains and stuffing them full of unwanted ideas is at the core of Mark Zuckerberg’s business plan. It’s just that I hadn’t been on Twitter long enough in 2010 to see it back then. Even the ending of Inception plays differently. A decade ago, audiences argued whether the lingering shot of the spinning totem suggested that Leo was now free of the dream world, or stuck there forever. But now, when I see Leo hugging his kids while neglecting to check on the status of his twirling top, I realize that he doesn’t care where he is. For him, IRL and URL have become one and the same. I can relate.