Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”: This Decade’s Existential Benchmark

inception movie poster The moment Inception starts, the viewer has to think about what he or she is watching, to experience the plot in a way few movies ask us to. That engagement does not stop during the film, nor does it necessarily cease when the credits roll.

For the first time in years, Inception presents theater-goers with a truly intelligent film that requires participation on their parts to enjoy.  Hearkening back to Memento, Christopher Nolan’s previous brain-buster, Inception rewards active viewers while confounding those who want nothing more than a two and a half hours of hollow special effects.

Retreading Solid Ground

Inception is, at its core, about the thin line that separates reality from fantasy.  While that is a common theme for a lot of literature, both textual and visual, Inception reminds me most strikingly of two previous movies: The Matrix and Vanilla Sky.

In neither case is the similarity a bad thing, either.  In as much as Avatar was this decade’s Lord of the Rings-esque jump forward in special effects, Inception once again makes viewers wonder just what makes the reality we perceive real at all.

The film’s idea of extraction (and its reciprocal inception, for which the movie is titled) is very much like Vanilla Sky’s lucid dreams, where the ability to distinguish between a preset, controlled fantasy and reality becomes next to impossible.  In a nod to the road The Matrix paved in unnecessary sequels, viewers are asked time and again whether or not what they are seeing is real, and if knowing the truth is necessary or even possible.

And while that may sound like you’ve seen what Inception brings to the table before, think again.  Even though we’re familiar with the tropes of the genre—existential sci-fi thriller is a genre now?—Inception packages them with a compelling cast and interesting heist-movie plot that succeeds at doing something new.

Even though Vanilla Sky makes a big deal about leaping off a building, when seeing it in Inception, its new and different.  Even though The Matrix blurs what we consider real by giving us two equally convincing worlds and making us choose which to exist in (blue pill/red pill), Inception embeds multiple worlds within themselves until there is no clear way to discern where one ends and another begins.

And that’s a good thing.

inception2 The film does not try to shove something unnecessary down audiences’ throats; Nolan and his cast evolve a proven genre into its next level.  Inception doesn’t try to be anything new and off-the-cuff.  It tries (and succeeds!) at being very good at something we already know we like.  The Matrix became a phenomenon for a reason, despite its numerous criticisms and admittedly surface-level examination of its themes; it laid the groundwork for people—the mainstream, even—to walk out of the theater and question the very foundations of what they understood to be real and true.

Instead of trying to bury its predecessors by ignoring their achievements, Inception respects them by building on what they did and expanding the genre’s breadth and scope.

Not All Roses, Though

Even though Inception will deservedly get a few Oscar nominations, the movie is not without fault.  While the few negative reviews I’ve read discuss the film being too esoteric, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.  What I do think are bad things, however, are a convoluted plot that offers no reiteration of ideas for understanding and characters who—though I care about them—left no lasting impression on me, not even enough to remember their names.

I cannot argue the plot is intelligent.  The movie is a very high-concept thriller where much explanation and exposition must be fed to the audience.  Nolan succeeds at this, with only a few scenes (Leo and Michael Cain’s first one together, for example) seeming a little too forced.  Because of the nature of this film’s particular high-concept plot, there is little room for reiteration.  If you miss information the first time, you will likely be given no explanation for it showing up again later on.

Inception runs just under two and a half hours, and I am a notorious movie theater soda drinker.  So I had to leave the theater for maybe a quarter of a scene, but my wife was still in there, fully able to explain anything I missed to me.  Or she should have been.  Unfortunately in the time it took me to run across the hall and get back to my seat, we both missed the importance of playing music to the dreamers.  The music plays a large part later on in the film, and though I partially get what it was doing, we both missed the explanation for it, and it was never offered again.

In a movie that is based so entirely on a fully engaged, thinking audience, not working a few more lines of reiteration for new concepts seems a little sloppy.

And then there are the characters. At its heart, Inception is about the melding of rational thought and emotion.  And it worked.  The plot was captivating and thought-inciting, and the characters very nearly made me cry at a couple of points.  But I still can’t remember their names.  Sure, I remember Leo was Cobb, his wife was Moll (Mal?), and Joseph Gordon-Levitt was Arthur, but aside from that, the rest of the Inception cast is nameless.

inception-city-folding-in-on-itself For a movie that is so based in character attachment, I find that funny.  I should remember the ensemble’s names because I cared about what happened to them.  I didn’t want to see them shot or maimed or lost in limbo forever.  I still don’t.  And I won’t when I see it again on DVD.  But for the life of me I can’t remember their names without pulling out my iPhone and checking the IMDB app.

In the end, these are minor grips.  I got the film’s full effect, with or without knowing their names or understanding why classical music must be played through headphones.  It just feels strange that for a movie with such high production standards, there could be such sloppy nitpicks.

Go See It Now.

If you haven’t already seen Inception, I urge you to.  Catch a matinee, if you have to.  Just see it.

And if you were trying to decide between IMAX or a normal theater, definitely pick the smaller screen.  Why?  Because even though the movie is visually spectacular, the narrative is even more so.  Being distracted by buildings and cities rolling in on themselves can only dilute a story this intricate.  Much of the movie will be lost if viewers pay more attention to zero-gravity fight scenes than they do the subconscious prison that Cobb has built for his memories.

So take an evening, clear your head, and then go check out Inception.  It’s not as heavy and serious as The Dark Knight, but it’s just as powerful in its own manner.  It’s not often when a movie makes me think this hard about it days after watching it, and for that, I give Inception my highest recommendation.

By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.


  1. you forgot “total recall” unless I’m missing some older movies (and I might, being relatively young and all) – it was the movie that started the whole “is it real, or is it a dream” thing.

    that said, “Inception” is the first movie in practically years that I really really want to see in a movie theater and cannot possibly wait till it comes out on dvd.

    1. I actually never really thought about Total Recall. You’re right, though; it does bring up a lot of the same ideas, but it focuses so much on being an action movie that any themes it has are hard to find, unlike the short story it was based on.

  2. So, I understand entirely about wanting to know the characters’ names that you spent the two and a half hours watching. However, I think that they didn’t want you to focus on this because they’re not really what the movie is about. If you really think about it, the only two names that are mentioned repeatedly are Cobb and Mal which plays into *SPOILER ALERT* the fact that the whole scenario of the movie may have been him trying to rationalize himself into a dream that he thought was his reality. Cobb is the center of attention. Do all the rest of the characters truly exist or are they just projections of his subconscious that like all the others don’t really have names? I mean true each of them do have their individuality, but is this because they are actual people or because Cobb has eventually started creating more fully realistic people in his created world?

    I like this movie because I could watch it again and see something else entirely…I just don’t know what to think about it as a whole. Is it really a happy ending? Or is it just a more terribly sad ending? It hearkens back to a line from the series finale of Angel for me (forgive the reference for people who find the show lackluster. I enjoy it.) Near the end of the episode, Wesley is dying and Illyria asks him “Would you like me to lie to you now?” She then becomes Fred to help him ease into his death. It makes me wonder if he is truly able to settle for another “dream” or is it the true reality that he is searching for?

    1. It’s that kind of ending I really like in fiction. I left the feeling with a wonderful feeling, like it was a job well done because I saw that kind of ending coming. It was the only one that was appropriate. I heard other people groan and say “what?” I like the idea that it was all a rationalized dreamstate for him, but I’d have to see it again before I could argue one way or another. It does make sense based on the amount of control he was said to have over the dreams.

      I really need to see Angel. I heard a lot about it at Slayage this year, and it sounds fantastic.

      1. Angel is pretty good. However, I don’t think that it’s the quality of Buffy or Firefly…I too saw the ending coming. It just wouldn’t have made sense to have a clean “happy” ending. Why? Because they movie has set the whole idea of the dream to be infinite and powerful…so, why should one truly escape from it? I need to see it again as well and look for things this time. The first time is just for the awe and wonderment. The next is for analysis.

  3. Loved Inception. I think it’s Nolan’s best (although I haven’t got around to Memento yet). Was perfectly cast and executed really well.

    1. You really need to see Memento. I read the short story in a film anthology I had in grad school and loved it so much that I had to go to Blockbuster that night and grab the movie. It’s incredibly well done. Think of Inception as Memento 2, in that I don’t think he could have plotted Inception without having practice on that kind of intricate narrative first.

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