Inception: Inside the Mind of Christopher Nolan

Inception is a film that prompts a lot of discussion. While most of the debate focuses on the ending, and the last shot in particular, there are plenty of other tidbits in the film that have generated their own enthusiastic opinions. While this definitely adds to the film’s overall enjoyment it’s also interesting in light of Nolan’s filmography. In reviewing this film many people have referenced his other “puzzle films” such as Memento or The Prestige. But in comparison Inception is actually fairly straightforward and possibly his most linear film to date (depending on whether you exclude Insomnia on the basis that it’s a remake). Inception is simply a standard, maybe even a cliche, heist film that, when given a unique sci-fi twist, turns the tropes of the genre upside down. Nolan shows here that the context is just as important as the execution.

One of the more interesting discussions brought about by Inception, and the one I’m most interested in tackling here, has to do with the genesis of the film itself. Simply put, what is Inception about? Nolan himself has said that he derived inspiration from his dreams to the extent that many of the plot elements came to him in dreams (which probably makes a lot of filmmakers jealous). Devin Faraci, a writer with the website, wrote a very persuasive argument that Inception was about filmmaking itself with Cobb as the stand-in for Nolan as the director, Ariadne as the scriptwriter, Eames as the actor, etc., etc. He even references a scene where Eames is preparing to take on the role of the mark’s most trusted advisor and while getting into character he sits in front of an old vanity mirror, a classic symbol of screen acting in cinema’s Golden Age. The entire article is well reasoned and an entertaining read for fans of the film. But ultimately, the argument just doesn’t hold water for the simple reason that it would be nearly impossible to build a story around so threadbare an impulse as wanting to create a metaphor for filmmaking. The most likely explanation is that Nolan or one of his collaborators saw the parallels to the filmmaking process in the story and decided to use this to their advantage in the art production.

To understand what Inception signifies let me first say that I think Christopher Nolan is an auteur. I think he’s earned this title by the threads of the cinematic obsessions that link his films. It has been said that there are certain visual flourishes that link Nolan’s films but being an auteur is about so much more than visuals. It’s about thematic fixations, ideas that a filmmaker will continually return to in an effort to explore their ramifications. Nolan’s fixations, interestingly enough, are basically the same as his character’s. Nolan is obsessed with obsession. All of his characters become consumed by a goal, to the point that the obsession defines them and, in some cases, destroys them. His characters work furiously to try and reorder the world around them in an effort to realize the main goal and in the end they must take one of two paths: they can either accept their failure in reordering their world and therefore be destroyed, or they must delude themselves into believing they’ve succeeded and live out their lives in a self-imposed fantasy. In either scenario, the world goes on as usual.

If you take a moment to consider this I think it’s easy to draw a parallel between Nolan’s characters and Nolan himself. Except that Nolan has trumped all of his characters by making his obsession filmmaking. With film, he can reorder the world and for the running time of that film we’ll buy into the fantasy that he’s succeeded. Through the discovery of this obsession of Nolan’s we can see the true inspiration behind Inception. Many critics of Nolan’s have tried to persuade us that he’s too smart for his own good, that he works too hard to try and pull a con on his audience. What the critics are missing is that Nolan isn’t really trying to do anything except tell a good story. The reason his films are so structurally sophisticated is very simple: that’s just how his mind works. He doesn’t see stories in the same way that others do. In fact, many successful filmmakers see “story” differently from the rest of us and that’s what makes them successful. Nolan isn’t trying to pull a con on his audience. He’s just telling a story the only way he knows how and as a result we get to see the projections of his subconscious play out on screen. Inception isn’t a metaphor for filmmaking, it’s a view into the mind of Christopher Nolan.

The Inception itself, that is, the planting of an idea into another person’s mind, is what Nolan attempts to achieve with all of his films. When we accept, on a subconscious level, the idea that he’s trying to plant, then we go along for the ride and enjoy the film. In this way, our world is reordered for the duration of the film and maybe even a little longer. When we don’t accept the idea than we’ve opted out of the experience, and thus, you have the unfavorable critical reactions to his work. On a basic level, whether or not you buy into Nolan as a filmmaker has a lot to do with how readily his concepts resonate with you.

For my part, I have to admit that I’m open to the ideas that Nolan presents us. I think he’s a powerful storyteller with an evolving technique. He’s not a perfect filmmaker, but I would argue that each of his films take him one step closer to reaching an apotheosis for his thematic interests. He hasn’t made a masterpiece just yet (not even with Memento, still his strongest single effort) but I have no doubt he’ll get there eventually. Inception is just one step closer to a complete transparency between himself and his audience. It’s a popcorn movie wrapped in a personal examination, whether that was his intention or not. I can’t wait to see what he does next, how he’ll introduce us into his mind once again.

The more you think about it, isn’t it easy to see how Batman is the perfect superhero for Nolan to reboot? It’ll be interesting to see how he furthers his themes through the third Batman film. Beyond that, we’ll just have to wait and see what he’s got planned for us.