10 Things You Need To Know To Understand Inception

It's All A Dream

Well, mostly. Water laps on a shoreline: are we shored up in dream or reality? Dreamers forget where dreams begin, we’re told. Remember that when you’re wondering where Inception ’s dreams begin... and, more importantly, end.

Nolan is playing with the notion of “cinema as dreaming” and giving it a tailspin of rigour. Dreams as architecture. Without any dwarves talking backwards.

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But The Stakes Are High

Just because you’re dreaming, doesn’t mean anything goes. Addiction to dream-plunging can implode your ability to distinguish between dream and reality. (Has Nolan been reading head chef of ontological spaghetti Philip K Dick?)

Dying in a dream can be the “kick” that jolts you up. But don’t stay down there because your mind could rot. You’d be on stage with your trousers down forever. Just us?

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It's A Love Story

We’d be lost like Theseus in the labyrinth if Nolan didn’t dangle emo threads for us to clutch. Meet Marion Cotillard’s Mal. Idealised version of the woman Cobb married? Inferior model curtailed by his mind’s limits?

Either way, she smoulders and smokes enough to convey the depths of Cobb’s suffering. She’s also the rogue element: The Joker with better skin. After the rumours, maybe Catwoman will claw Batman 3...

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Its Not A Bit Like The Matrix

The Wachowskis forged mind-scrambling sci-fi head-spaces. Then found new ways of kicking folks’ heads in. Nolan is more rigorous, emotional and psychological.

Inception 's dreams are scrupulously sculpted; there are reasons for the shape the design takes. These shift as the narrative mounts but never give in to “makeitupasyougoalongeum”: revelations emerge as the narrative requires. Everything connects.

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But It Is A Bit Like Oceans 11

Well, a bit. Or Mission: Impossible. In summer of Losers and Expendables, Nolan taps heist movies for the teamplay template. Call it the A+ Team. Countries are scoured to find the best people IN THE WORLD for the toughest job since ever.

And in nailing his anti-heist sequence (something is planted, not taken), Nolan is precise like Rififi, French classic with a 30-minute silent heist sequence. Only a bit louder.

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And A Bit Like Hitchcocks Fantasy Bond Movie

A fall from a tall building precipitated Vertigo, James Stewart’s sick-puppy hero hanging from a precipice. From there, Hitch anatomised guilt-spiced brain freefall at death’s door. Inception remixes that idea, relocating the fall to the narrative middle but holding it close to its heart.

Think Spellbound too. Psychoanalysis, dreamscapes, ski-slope action in a combined nod to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: was Nolan on a Hitch trip?

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Ideas Are Currency

Nolan likes the notion that an idea can take seed in unexpected ways. Bruce Wayne became “a symbol” but his crusading mischief had knock-on effects: “escalation”, the death of his missus.

The Joker torched a moolah mountain: “It’s not about money, it’s about sending a message.” Inception invests the conceit of ideas powering narrative with high emotional, psychological and intellectual interest.

Read our Inception review.

Its About Movies

Self-reflexive nudges mount. A team with strictly designated responsibilities debate the world they’re creating. Script conference? A train crashes across a city, prompting thoughts of the early films that thrilled Parisian audiences.

Tiny totems accrue huge weight blown screen-high, plot-wide. The jump-cut is re-invented. Space and time, the building blocks of narrative cinema, are Nolan’s playthings. It’s a meta-movie...

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...But Its A Blast

The Joker fires a pistol at a bulletproof truck. He’s gonna need a bigger gun, the cop in the truck trembles. So Mr J pulls out a bloody great bazooka...

Inception includes a similar gag: Tom Hardy’s arch Eames pulls out a huge gun and archly comments to a less-endowed team-player, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.” For all its smarts, Inception doesn’t shrink from punching its weight.

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Youll Need / Want To See It Twice...

The closing shot spins in your mind, making Nolan’s masterpiece a metaphorical mirror for itself. A film about planting idea in heads plants riddles in yours.

Go to the pub afterwards. Debate. Then revisit, marvel at the detail you missed, develop new readings. Then go to the pub. Debate... It could get addictive. A film about ontological loops, Inception lassoes you in its ontological loops. Kick-ass and clever...

Read our Inception review.