Inception perfectly matches ideas and spectacle

This year is the 25th anniversary of the release of the first Jurassic Park. For most of us at Cinedelphia, it is a film that has defined what we look for in a summer blockbuster. So what better time than now to revisit the last 25 years of summer blockbusters and pick our favorites? View the criteria and full introduction here, and the whole series here.

2. Inception (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2010)

When Ryan introduced the idea of a project about the best summer blockbusters of the last 25 years, one movie immediately jumped to the front of my mind – Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Over the years there have been a lot of great articles that investigate the ideas and characters in the movie and what they might represent. Some people have latched onto the idea that it’s a movie about film-making, some people have argued that it’s more about memory than it is about dreams, and some people have even rejected it as a movie that’s too much about its ideas and not enough about its characters. I love that this puzzle box of a movie has inspired so much great, creative work by smart writers always looking to dig a little deeper into the movies that explode on the big screen every summer.

I genuinely enjoy unpacking movies for theme and meaning myself, and there’s plenty of that to be done with this movie, which is part of what makes it such an excellent summer movie. It’s spectacle in service of big ideas, and that’s very important to me. But there’s been plenty written about those ideas already and not nearly enough has been written about Nolan’s creative vision here. For once, I’d like to stick to the surface level and talk about Inception as spectacle, as that’s the real reason I saw this in theaters three times. In my lifetime, it has been rare to go to the movies and feel like I was seeing something I had never seen before. I came of age in the Tarantino era, where remixing old ideas in new ways carried most of the cinematic currency. And I love that stuff, by the way. But having missed out on seeing Jurassic Park in theaters, I never really had that “wow, I can’t believe I’m seeing this” moment at a movie theater. Until I saw the hallway sequence in Inception.

Now, I do need to dig into one of the big ideas in Inception to properly convey just how incredible that set piece is. Something Nolan is now known for is how he handles “compression of time” in his movies. From Memento to Dunkirk, his movies have always taken an interesting approach to the passing of time and how it effects his characters. That concept has never been larger or louder than it is in Inception. He takes the fact that our dreams often feel like long ordeals, even if we’ve only been sleeping for a few hours, very literally and unequivocally states that when our protagonists enter someone else’s dream, they are going to experience a much longer passage of time than those that remain outside of the dream, in the “real world”, so to speak. He then compounds this by having our characters go inside the dreams of someone that is already inside of a dream, eventually getting four layers deep. If you’ve never seen Inception and are having trouble following this logic, imagine a Russian nesting doll of dreams, where Leo brings a character into someone’s dream, then while inside of that dream puts his companion to sleep and goes inside of their dream, essentially creating a dream within a dream. Thanks to the concept of time being slower within a dream, and to simplify it a bit, it means any actions taken at that third level that might last an hour would only last 30 minutes at the second level, and only last 15 minutes in “reality”, or the top level.

Are we all on the same page so far? I hope so, because Nolan compounds this even further by demonstrating that any action taking place in the top level will effect all of the levels below it. In other words, if I’m inside Leo’s dream, and Leo rolls over in bed, the dream world I’m in will literally roll around me as well. And if it took him all of one second to complete that roll, I might experience that rolling for 10 minutes inside of his dream. Hopefully I’ve conveyed this idea clearly enough, because it’s what my favorite scene in the movie is predicated on.

In what we’ll consider the top level for this explanation, our characters are asleep inside of a moving van that is in the midst of a violent car chase. Our slumbering protagonists are all inside of a dream that is designed to be a hotel. In that hotel, Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character, Arthur, is making his way from one room to another just as the van careens off of a highway and starts rolling down a hill. We are then presented with what is truly still the most incredible practical movie magic I’ve seen in my lifetime – as the van makes a couple full rotations in slow motion at the top level, we cut to the dream level where Arthur is fighting his way through some goons in the hallway as it spins around in real time. There are no wires, minimal stunt doubles, and an honest to god enormous hallway actually rotating as Levitt performs fight choreography in a hallway that’s center of gravity is constantly changing. It’s absolutely crazy, very dangerous, and exhilarating to watch.

To achieve this, Nolan had a hallway built inside of an airplane hangar. That hallway is suspended within a series of giant, steel wheels that rotate the hallway at their desired speed. They locked a camera down inside the hallway so that the audience doesn’t actually experience the rolling, and instead experiences the characters literally falling around the hallway as its gravity shifts. They also suspended a camera within the hallway so that for some shots we CAN experience that rolling sensation. It’s entirely done in camera, almost always with the actual actors, and nothing has delighted or thrilled me as much before or since.

And truly, the real achievement here is in the editing. As you can see from how damn wordy I’ve had to be to even present this idea in print, it edges on nonsense. This shouldn’t work. It’s confusing, clunky, and a big ask, not just in execution of the stunts themselves on the film-maker’s parts, but in reception of such big stunt ideas compounded by big story ideas on the audience’s part. In order to convey this clearly and have it be as exciting as it truly is, Nolan has to lay a lot of pipe, storytelling wise, leading up to this moment. The audience needs to already understand how actions at one level of dreaming effect the worlds of deeper dreams, conceptually. And then he needs to visualize that somehow.

This is where his time compression techniques come into play. By the time we reach this sequence, and it starts intercutting between a van rolling down a hill in slow motion, and Levitt doing some incredible fight choreography as he bounces from floor to ceiling and back again in a completely different location, we’re totally in it. If you were to watch this sequence devoid of context, you really wouldn’t have any idea what those images are supposed to convey together. It would be random nonsense that certainly looks cool but isn’t really conveying anything beyond what might appear to be a montage of various action sequences. If you think about the way Richard Marquand and George Lucas handle the finale of Return of the Jedi, cutting back and forth between a land assault, a space battle, and a lightsaber duel, we understand that these are all taking place at relatively the same time, but that the actions in space don’t necessarily effect the actions on the ground. It’s a montage of action, and we’re used to seeing visual information conveyed this way. The big difference here is EVERYTHING that happens at the top level effects those within the dream, and conveying that visually is incredibly difficult if you really think about how we classically have interpreted movies – it is far more often than not that the images are sequential, as opposed to simultaneous. To give the impression of things happening simultaneously and having a direct effect on one another when you’re ultimately using sequential images to convey this is a near impossible task. And it seems like the very thing Nolan had been building to over his career up to this moment.

Now I’m not trying to argue that spectacle is the only reason I go the movies in the summertime. Quite the contrary – spectacle in and of itself isn’t all that worthwhile for me. But spectacle in service of ideas, both within the movie itself and in the greater context of pushing the boundaries of storytelling in the medium, is exactly why I fell in love with movies in the first place. And with Inception, Christopher Nolan went from interesting director that also makes awesome Batman movies to the reigning champion of summer movies. He combined the heady storytelling of his smaller films with the insane and practical spectacle he perfected in his Batman movies to make what I think is easily one of the best summer action films of the last 25 years. The hallway sequence alone continues to wow me almost 10 years later, and it’s only one of the many scenes in this movie that will leave your jaw on the floor.

It is my great hope that this is a movie that will continue to be available on the big screen in the years to come. I love watching it at home because the ideas really hold up. But nothing beats the thrill of watching Levitt actually flip around inside of a rotating hallway, and we all deserve to get that experience, as large and as loud as possible, over and over again.

Author: Garrett Smith

Garrett is a writer and podcaster living in Philadelphia that spends too much time debating the difference between kinetic and frenetic filmmaking. He likes cheese, in both food and movies. Check him out on twitter and letterboxd and give his podcast, I Like To Movie Movie, a listen.

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