The spectacular cinema of English filmmaker Christopher Nolan can be best contextualised in the earliest era of the moving image when theatres were the eye-popping, awe-inducing side-shows of carnivals across the world. Of course, audiences have long matured since the famous showcase of the Lumière brothers’ The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, which induced terror and panic for the contemporary crowd, with modern filmgoers less inclined to be truly surprised by any groundbreaking technological feat.
So, in the age when seemingly cinema is reaching its technological pinnacle, how does one bring the same shock, awe, and euphoria to an audience? Christopher Nolan is somewhat of a modern magician in this sense, continually managing to find ways to stun audiences with spectacle and technical wizardry even when CGI has facilitated the creation of the most fantastical worlds. Nolan does this through pure science fiction concept, crafting ideas so intricate and enigmatic that it unscrews an individual’s cinematic understanding and reworks their perspective of the craft.
Inception, Nolan’s 2010 blockbuster epic, is his most proficient execution of this conceptual wonder, as, unlike Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film The Prestige and, more recently, 2020s Tenet which too present an ambitious core concept, Inception envelops its intricacy within a strong overarching narrative. Enriched with genuinely interesting ideas relating to the barriers of the subconscious and perceived reality, the director forces the viewer to become the locksmith of the film’s truth, constantly shifting between reality and the dreamscape to create an ambiguous puzzle.
Though don’t let the magician pull wool over your eyes, just like the obsessive protagonists behind Memento, The Prestige and Interstellar, the key motivation for Cobb, the lead character in Nolan’s Inception, is the incessant desire for love and family. No matter how much misery and mayhem may precede the climax of a Christopher Nolan epic, they often conclude with a familial reconnection of melodramatic proportions, giving reason to the madness.
For Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, it is his desire to reconcile with his wife and children that gives the film its soul, allowing the core concept of time and subconscious to blossom in the form of some truly mesmerising set-pieces. Providing perhaps one of the 21st century’s most impressive action sequences as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur brawls several men in a rotating corridor, Nolan evokes the spirit of Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic spectacle 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film which no doubt occupied the director’s subconscious during production of the science-fiction project.
Stitching a smart, intricate concept together with a compelling dramatic narrative, Inception, as a result, remains a cinematic enigma, and one that audiences continue to poke, prod and stare hypnotically into. Its ending leaves us in limbo, our head betwixt between dreams and reality, what’s real and what isn’t? As Christopher Nolan highlights, “I feel that over time, we started to view reality as the poor cousin to our dreams, in a sense….I want to make the case to you that our dreams, our virtual realities, these abstractions that we enjoy and surround ourselves with – they are subsets of reality”.
Has the totem stopped spinning yet, or will it go on perpetually?