The Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi once had a dream where he was a butterfly. When he woke up, he famously asked, “Am I the butterfly or am I the one here now?” Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film, Inception, is arguably the most famous exploration of the mysteries of dreaming in the last decade. In the film, ‘dream-sharing’ is a phenomenon where an individual enters the subconscious of another. We see cascading layers of dream structures where time moves relatively. Nolan translates these complex physical laws to cinema quite elegantly with slow-motion shots and uses symbolism, like the spinning top, to depict something as elusive as the point of singularity. On the tenth anniversary of the initial release of Inception, we take a look back at the influences of Nolan’s cinematic tour de force.
Right off the bat, the influence of the seminal 1999 film, The Matrix, is apparent. Nolan chooses a Russian-nesting doll structure for his plot and his subplots, all unravelling simultaneously. The “dream within a dream (within a dream ad infinitum)” is very similar to The Matrix’s theory of simulations within simulations. Whether it be Zhuangzi’s profound question or Jean Baudrillard’s 1981 philosophical treatise, Simulacra and Simulation, the central premise is summed up in the words of Mal (played by Marion Cotillard): “Your world is not real”. At one point in the film, there are five registers of reality. There is a constant attraction to the dream world because dreams are shown as “immortality symbols” in which you live forever and your loved ones never leave you. It is the equivalent of the blue pill in The Matrix.
As for the dominant trope of dreaming, Inception draws on the work of Satoshi Kon’s 2006 animated film Paprika which also features a device that lets people enter the dreams of others. Where Paprika pinpoints dream terrorists, Inception conducts a radical re-conceptualization of the genre of heist movies. Dream espionage is normalised in Nolan’s universe. The film is, on the surface, about penetrating the deepest recesses of the subconscious and extracting secrets of value. Interestingly, these criminals are not hunted down by the authorities. Instead, they are attacked by the militarized subconscious of the subject. The traditional structure of the action-thriller is subverted by Nolan since none of it is real and the plot progressions are circular. Everything comes back to the start.
Dream architecture is a recurring concept that the characters in the film grapple with. Towards the end of the film, a time when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Cobb enters the state of limbo, we are given a tour of the dream world he created with his wife. On the shores of the subconscious, crumbling buildings are seen. This is an allusion to the “Anarchitecture” of Gordon Matta-Clark. The subconscious subjects all artificially constructed structures to the forces of entropy. Nolan shows us a gradient of chaos by making some buildings more concrete than others, beautifully capturing the chaotic instability of our subconscious selves. Part of the reason why Inception has become so popular is because of Nolan’s ingenious rendition of difficult scientific and psychological concepts in these stunning visuals.
Inception added to an already existing discourse in film as well as other artistic fields and helped propagate that discourse in popular culture. It is not surprising to find many films and TV shows, in the last decade, have tried to answer questions that Nolan asked ten years ago. One recent example is the German Netflix series Dark (initially aired in 2017). Although it is about time travel, Baran bo Odar’s series uses a lot of the same symbolism that Inception used. The character Ariadne (played by Ellen Page) in Nolan’s film is actually based on a Greek mythological figure who is associated with mazes and labyrinths. This is a reference to the labyrinthine nature of our minds. Dark repeatedly refers to Ariadne as well, as the characters navigate multiple timelines. Like Inception, the German series uses jump cuts to reveal simultaneously unfolding events on screen, highlighting the synchronicity of separate realities. The similarities do not end there. Dark uses “in media res” narrative techniques to elaborate on the nature of time. Inception used the same to explore dream structures. When Cobb says, “You never really remember the beginning of a dream, do you? You always end up right in the middle of what’s going on”, we try to remember the deliberately ambiguous beginning of the movie which already feels like a dream.
Even after ten years, Inception remains one of the most significant sci-fi films of the 21st century. It is an intense experience that makes us question our epistemological compulsions. The 2010 effort is one of the finest works in Nolan’s oeuvre and it deserves to be watched again and again, at least until we figure out what is real and what isn’t.