Every other month, we take a look at a movie from the Internet Movie Database’s List of the TOP 250 FILMS OF ALL-TIME. These are movies that transcend a simple “My Favorite Scene” column. These are movies that are hard to just pry five gems from, but we do and examine the film overall. We’re on our fourteenth installment in this series. Click on the link here to check out previous installments from #1 The Shawshank Redemption to #13 Forrest Gump.
Inception is our fourteenth installment in this series, and what a perfect example of a film you simply cannot highlight in one scene. When Alfred Hitchcock was gone, everyone asked who would be the next Hitchcock. When Steven Spielberg lost his touch, people began asking who was the next Spielberg. Christopher Nolan isn’t the next anything. In an age when cinema has become largely cookie cutter, Nolan has risen to become film’s best director, and in 40 years people will be asking who the next Nolan will be. Inception is, in my opinion, Nolan’s best film, and a film so original and yet filled with so many classic elements of different genres that Nolan was able to make his dense script a hook audiences were willing to push themselves to understand. Combined with dazzling visuals, an amazing ensemble, Wally Pfister’s cinematography masterpiece, and a score from Hans Zimmer for the ages and you have one of the best films of the 21st Century.
Dream thieves. How brilliant a concept is that? In an age where knowledge, data, and secrets are more valuable than gold, Nolan takes the traditional heist tropes of the “one last job”, “the assembling of the team”, etc. and adds the science fiction element of a device that allows this team of thieves to enter the subconscious of their victims. But that’s kicked on its head when the team is instead asked to place an idea inside their victim in a way he believes is his own, this requires a trip down so many rabbit holes and through multiple minds that I was delighted to find this map of the complexity of the team’s final job:
Inception is able to get away with such a cerebral conceit because the rules are laid out as the story builds, and the film is so stylish and action-packed that audience is willing to make the journey with Nolan. It is, as all of Nolan’s films are, ultimately about time: how it’s spent, how it’s wasted, how it’s manipulated, and how it consumes us as we consume it. When you walk into a theater for a Christopher Nolan film, you know you’re in for something special; something challenging. Inception is a film I’ve seen over a dozen times for a number of reasons, but I always find something new in the script or in the dreamscape. That’s the hallmark of a true classic.
Nolan is certainly not formulaic, but you can always count on two things: an amazing opening to hook you and an ending you’ll never forget. Inception’s end has had people debating since the film came out. Does Cobb (DiCaprio) get home to his children, or is he trapped in purgatory of dream? For that matter, you can make a case the entire film is a dream based on the rules it lays forth, but it all hinges on a spinning top. Every dreamer carries a totem, something simple but known only to them that lets them know if they’re awake or asleep. Cobb’s is a simple top. It spins perpetually if asleep and aheres to the laws of physics if in the real world. Set to a beautiful piece of music appropriately entitled “Time”, Cobb arrives back home, sees his children and goes to greet them after giving his top one last spin…and we close on it…and just as it might begin to wobble (does it?), the film ends.
2. Building the Architecture of the Dream
Because of his emotional baggage, Cobb is no longer able to build dream worlds into which marks are lured. Seeking a new architect, he finds Ariadne (Ellen Page). A wonderfully named character as Ariadne in Greek mythology is the goddess of mazes and labyrinths. In this sequence, which features a rare use of CGI from Nolan, who always prefers practical F/X when practical, we get a tutorial of the rules of the dream. It’s both a lesson for the audience they’ll badly need later when the action becomes faster and you switch quickly from scene to scene, but also a showcase of what’s possible when a mind like Ariadne’s is freed from any design construct as she bends the whole of Paris in on itself.
3. The Dream is Collapsing
Like his close, Nolan’s open never disappoints. Set in a dream world that is a gorgeous Japanese mansion, Cobb’s team’s simple extraction goes very wrong as we get our first introduction to Mal (Marion Cotillard) and how Cobb’s past is ruining his career. That’s all secondary to the action of a collapsing castle as Cobb races to try to complete the job before he’s awakened.
4. Rotating Hallway Fight
This fight uses no CGI other than to remove the wires Joseph Gordon Levitt and the other actors are wearing. A full-scale hallway was built and then put on a giant gimbal which rotated the room. The fight takes place in a critical moment in the final job, when the van that’s carrying the team around has gone off a bridge, creating a zero-G effect that ripples down the various levels of the dreamworld you see in the map. For Arthur (Levitt), who is in the shallowest level, he loses gravity entirely and the result is an amazing fight scene, made all the more amazing when you know how Nolan and Pfister shot it.
5. The Train Comes for Cobb
The reason for Cobb’s tragic state is gradually revealed over the first half of the film, why he’s continually bringing his past into jobs. When Ariadne discovers the why, she insists on joining the team to try to protect them from Cobb’s subconscious, but her carefully designed labyrinth wasn’t built to withstand a train appearing out of nowhere and bulldozing havoc into the team’s careful plans before they’d even begun. The meaning of the train is the point, but it’s a perfect example of why the audience sticks with the slow reveal of Cobb and Mal’s marriage (in which the train is an integral part), because it’s a fricking train pancaking cars and making Cobb nuts. The action always has deeper meaning, but Nolan always make sure it’s cool enough just on its own that you’ll follow him down just another level more into his labyrinth of a film.