On Inception by Christopher Nolan | Quarterly Conversation

The greatest feat of Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception is how it balances the elements of a blockbuster and an arthouse film. Inception has the charm of any heist film and plenty of well-constructed, exciting action setpieces bound to keep audiences entertained, but remedies that with a far more subtle and understated examination of the concept of dreams. It’s entertaining, thoughtful, well-crafted and well-told with an ensemble of talented folks in front of and behind the camera. I’m not sure what more you could want from a mega-budget sci-fi film of this scale.


Hans Zimmer’s outstanding score is inextricably connected to Inception’s DNA. Zimmer’s score plays a pivotal role in building momentum in the film’s first 2 acts and sustaining that rapidly increasing tension in the last one. It ties extremely well into the complex rules Nolan sets up for the dreamscape at the center of the film. Zimmer closes the film with this simplistic, yet extraordinarily resonant orchestral powerhouse concluding Inception with a flourish. Zimmer’s sound dominates nearly everything he’s a part of in the best ways and his collaborations with Nolan have proven fruitful and shown that his sound has never been more suited to a filmmaker’s style. Zimmer’s sense of grandeur pairs very nicely with the massive scale of Nolan’s films.


This marks a really interesting turning point in Nolan’s oeuvre. Nolan still indulges in some of his old tricks from time to time, (Don’t know what the deal is with this guy and dead wives) but after 2008’s The Dark Knight, Nolan’s work becomes far more sentimental than previous and far more built around family in Inception and Interstellar. In both films, the protagonist is driven by their desire to be reunited with their loved ones. Before this film, the main driving force behind the plots of Nolan’s work has been far less tender (Solving a murder, fighting your mortal enemy, protecting the city of Gotham). I’ve seen folks draw comparisons between the structure of Inception and the filmmaking process which is a cool read of the film. Making something derivative and unoriginal is simple, but the real challenge is in implanting a fresh idea in the minds of audiences. Arguably this film could also be equated to Nolan’s experience working on Inception, the first time he’d written an original screenplay since 1998 debut feature Following and a script Nolan had pitched before and only now had the clout to bring to fruition.


Nolan knows how to build worlds like nobody else, but I’ve found his Achilles heel to be building characters. Inception maintains that hypothesis for the most part. Nolan grounds the absurdity of the concept well by populating the dreamscape with these surprisingly plain but still visually arresting environments. He makes worldbuilding and the establishment of a film’s rules inviting and enjoyable. It’s rewarding and never feels like homework to hear one of these characters go off on some diatribe about their experiences with these dream worlds. The way this thing is edited, scored and made elevates it and makes it appealing. He takes this complex concept and world and makes it accessible without dumbing it down.  Inception wears its epic nature like a badge of pride, but rarely does Inception’s 150-minute runtime weigh on the film or the viewer thanks in large part to the skilled editing by Lee Smith, a frequent Nolan collaborator. There’s a lot of cutting between the different layers of the dreamscape that feels seamless and contributes to the brisk flow of the film.

Inception is the first film I’ve seen from Nolan where the filmmaking displayed could be described as “masterful”. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Dark Knight and The Prestige, but I found the perfection in those films to be present in the script, the score and the performances, but not the filmmaking. I respected Nolan’s work and loved, or at least liked everything I’d seen from him up to this point, but this is a film that shows Nolan is a master of his craft. A singularly talented visionary who only comes around a few times in a generation of filmmakers. We hear about the death of the theatrical experience all the time, but it’s filmmakers like Nolan who keep it alive by making films that demand to be seen on the big screen and he continues to do so.

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