The Architecture Of The Mind
A stationary glass sees its watery contents inexplicably tilt 45 degrees. A corridor spins like a hamster wheel as two antagonists are flung onto its ceiling. A city street literally curls in on itself as if it were being rolled up like a carpet. Buildings crumble. Bridges arch themselves up over rivers. Bodies are suspended then fluidly rotated in mid-air.
Welcome to the brain-sizzling, mind-altering world of Chris Nolan’s Inception , an existential blockbuster set – as the blurb goes – “within the architecture of the mind”. Or, if you like, a cerebral netherworld in which dreams and reality are inextricably meshed, one where you no longer know if you’re awake or asleep.
And you thought Memento was a headfuck…
Well, actually it was.
Long before Nolan’s previous film, Batman sequel The Dark Knight , grossed over $1bn and became the biggest-selling Blu-ray of all time, his breakthrough was wowing cinemagoers with its startling narrative gymnastics.
Partially told in reverse – a structure Gaspar Noe soon swiped for his violent thriller Irreversible – this revenge noir about a memory-addled man (Guy Pearce) hunting his wife’s murderer was unlike anything Hollywood had ever seen.
Hailed by every critic going, it was even feted at the Oscars. Rarely has a nomination – for Best Original Screenplay – been so apt.
Yet for all its ingenuity, Memento was a $5m movie that played out in seedy California bars, motel rooms and parking lots.
Inception is an A-grade production, with a $160m budget and multiple locations including Tokyo, Tangier, London and Los Angeles. Not so much Memento ’s big brother as its considerably wealthier cousin, it’s certainly the most ambitious effort Nolan has attempted in his already stellar career.
In a typical summer of sequels, videogame adaps and remakes, Inception ’s USP was all about WTF originality. Made all the more tantalising by the veil of mystery that surrounds it, it’s probably the best-kept studio secret since Inception ’s financiers Warner Bros launched The Matrix on us in 1999, a year before Memento hit screens.
Like the Wachowski brothers’ groundbreaking sci-fi, Inception was deliberately kept under wraps on Nolan’s orders.
“I really believe that for me the most gratifying cinematic experiences as a viewer have always been films that I didn’t know what to expect,” he said, “right from when I first saw Star Wars when I was a kid in 1977. My uncle had told me to go see it. He said, ‘You’d probably get a kick out of it.’ But I didn’t really know anything about it.”
Yet even he gets desperate for spoilers. “I got to meet the Wachowskis, who are working on the sequels to The Matrix – of which they would tell me nothing!” he once remarked. Usually so calm and reserved, you could sense the fanboy frustration in him.
Nevertheless, the impact that The Matrix made on Nolan can’t be underestimated. He did, after all, cast Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano in Memento .
While the idea for Inception has been percolating in Nolan’s mind since he was 16, he wrote his first draft nine years ago – around the time the first Matrix sequels were bamboozling fans the world over.
As he put it, “When I started trying to make this film happen, it was very much pulled from that era of movies where you had The Matrix .” He cited others too – Alex Proyas’ Dark City and Josef Rusnak’s The Thirteenth Floor – with their plots “based in the principles that the world around you might not be real”.
Inception centres on Dom Cobb (Nolan newbie Leonardo DiCaprio), a specialist in “subconscious security”. In other words, a dream thief able to plunder secrets from the minds of tycoons after they’re hooked up to a contraption every bit as fanciful as the teleport machine that duplicates bodies in The Prestige .
While Nolan said the existence of such a dream device is the film’s “only outlandish idea”, it opened up a world of possibility. Not least the fact that entering another person’s dreamscape leaves you inside a highly unstable universe. It’s within this that Cobb must set out to achieve his mission impossible: not to extract an idea from his target but to plant one – the very act of inception.
The project began life after the director became fascinated with his own dreams. In particular, he said, that moment when, after waking up, you fall back into a lighter slumber, leaving you conscious that you’re dreaming and able to manipulate the images around you.
“I never really found a limit to that,” Nolan noted. “That is to say, while in that state, your brain can fill in all that reality.”
Creating The World Of The Dream
Inception simply takes it one step further. As Cobb explains, “We create the world of the dream” before luring the target inside to inadvertently fill it with their secrets…
Of course, Nolan has frequently been fascinated by the mind in his work – from memory loss in Memento to the fear toxin that grips Gotham City in Batman Begins . So it’s no surprise that he began work on Inception between those two films.
Initially conceiving it as a glossy heist movie, he eventually steered it away from this, returning to the script again and again to refine it. If anything makes Inception special to Nolan fans, it’s the very fact that it is, above all others, Nolan’s baby.
Inception was the first wholly original screenplay he’d written since his 1998 black-and-white debut, Following . While his two (soon-to-be-three) Batman films plundered the DC Universe, 2002’s Insomnia was a remake of Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s 1997 film and The Prestige was an adaptation of the novel by Christopher Priest.
Even Memento was based on the short story Memento Mori written by Nolan’s brother Jonathan, who later worked on the screenplays for The Prestige , The Dark Knight and Rises . Inception , however, was built solely in Nolan’s mind.
Sources Of Inspiration
Inception being a film about theft, it seems rather appropriate that the director did some pilfering himself. Not least from his own work.
Think of DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb – his surname the same as the alias used by Alex Haw’s burglar in Following . Then there are the scenes in the shifting ‘corridors of the mind’ – rotating sets designed by FX master Chris Corbould – which recall the wire-work stunts of The Matri x .
“We thrashed Joseph [ Gordon-Levitt ] for weeks,” Nolan said of the ‘hamster wheel’ contraption. “But the footage looks unlike anything any of us has seen before.” Still, with Nolan eschewing CGI as much as possible in favour of in-camera effects, as he did on his Batman films, any feeling that this would be derivative was swiftly erased when the cast spoke.
“I think it will be something people won’t have expected,” said actor Cillian Murphy, who reunited with the director after playing the Scarecrow in Batman Begins and (very briefly) in The Dark Knight to become one of Cobb’s major target.
“In this day and age, where it’s very hard to be truly original, I think it will be. We’ve seen Chris’ imagination before, but with this one, he’s really gone for it. I just think it’s fantastic that a film like this gets made. Whatever the reason, it’s still really refreshing that films like this are getting made and he can assemble this sort of cast.”
Assembling The Team
By that ‘sort of cast,’ he’s referring to the fact that Nolan was not forced to surround DiCaprio with an Ocean’s 11 -style team of A-listers.
Murphy aside, two former Batman alumni return: Ken Watanabe, who plays the smooth as silk businessman Saito, and Sir Michael Caine, back for a small but significant turn as Miles. It is he who first helps Cobb recruit architecture student Ariadne (Ellen Page) for his team.
There are other Nolan first-timers: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy, who play two of Cobb’s colleagues.
Rounding out the cast was yet another inspired piece of retro-casting, on a par with Rutger Hauer in Batman Begins and Eric Roberts in The Dark Knight : the grizzled veteran of many a B-movie, Tom Berenger.
Just A Shade
There was also Cobb’s late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), an “extremely complicated individual” according to Nolan, who holds the key to unlocking Inception ’s box of secrets.
Ironically, this recalls DiCaprio’s other 2010 film, the Martin Scorsese-directed Shutter Island , in which Michelle Williams played his deceased spouse in flashback.
Similarly full of dreams, did DiCaprio see the two films as comparable? “There are similar themes, just in the dream-like scenario,” he admitted. “It’s four different plots happening literally simultaneously in Inception . Again, you don’t know where you are, whether it’s reality or dream-state for a lot of the script.”
Still, compared to Scorsese’s fever dream, Nolan’s world – one of cities, of architecture, lines and angles – was entirely different. “It’s a different set of circumstances,” said DiCaprio. “But certainly the nature of one accessing one’s own dreams to learn about where they are in reality is a similar theme.”
It begs the question: does Leo dream a lot? “No,” he smiled. “Unless I take a little nap, and then they’re really hardcore. You wake up and are like ‘Woah!’ But I usually just have months of never remembering my dreams. Ironically having done two movies about dreams, I have no idea what I dream about.”
As for Nolan, you get the impression he took the advice of one of his characters, who utters the words “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling” just as he pulls the trigger on some heavy-duty weaponry.
Inception may not have topped the The Dark Knight in terms of box-office figures, but in the sense of merging visual spectacle and narrative complexity - two cinematic disciplines often found at either end of the Hollywood spectrum - into one perfectly unified whole, it certainly gave it a run for its money.
Now that’s a dream worth dreaming…
This feature originally appeared in Total Film magazine. Click here to subscribe .