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‘Inception’ and Its Pop Philosophy Are Still Spinning 10 Years Later

A decade old on Monday, Christopher Nolan’s 2010 dream-within-a-dream blockbuster remains as dense, bewildering, and enjoyable as the day it was released

Ringer illustration

We begin, grudgingly, on—cinema oracle, database-as-lifestyle, the weighted top around which the universe (or at least Film Twitter) spins. We begin, specifically, with IMDb’s all-time 250 Top Rated Movies. At no. 1: The Shawshank Redemption. At no. 250: Swades. At no. 125: Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Fine films. But on Monday, in honor of its 10th birthday, we have gathered to pay homage to [hits the giant red Hans Zimmer button] no. 13, a modest little Christopher Nolan joint called Inception.

Yes. Inception. Slightly better, per the citizens of IMDb, than The Empire Strikes Back, and slightly worse than Forrest Gump. It premiered in mid-July 2010, and here in mid-July 2020, with Hollywood and much of Hollywood’s target audience still largely frozen in place, there is a greater reliance on the internet on [hits the button again] anniversary content. We are restless. Nolan is restless. As you might be aware, his new movie, Tenet—which per the trailer has a mysterious, cerebral, and remarkably Inception-like WTF vibe to it—was scheduled for theatrical release first on July 17, then July 31, then August 12, which is the movie’s actual, current theatrical-release date.

These grudging delays are frankly getting a little perverse. Listen. I would pay $75 right now to watch Tenet at home. I respect, genuinely, that I will not get to do this, given Nolan’s commendable fealty to the Theatrical Experience. But right now we’ve got an acclaimed filmmaker attempting to galaxy-brain a global pandemic via a series of stern two-week postponements so that COVID-19 might get its act together. There is no significant difference, going-out-in-public-wise, between July 31, August 12, or for that matter August 28. If you enter a movie theater anytime in, say, the next six months, the COVID-prevention protocol would make it feel like you’re watching a movie in a hospital, or at best an airport. And if it doesn’t make you sick, it will at least make you profoundly sad, in that it will resemble the Theatrical Experience just superficially enough to underscore that it’s not really the Theatrical Experience at all. An uncanny valley filled to the brim with popcorn, if buying popcorn is even allowed; a dream within a dream, just perverse enough to call attention to the dream and further rattle the dreamer.

I got distracted.

Inception, I submit to you, is the Nolan movie that cemented his reputation as a Theatrical Experience guy, as one of our precious few remaining blockbuster auteurs who can even head-fake toward putting an original movie—not a sequel, no superheroes, no decades-old belabored IP—in movie theaters in even best-case-scenario 2020. It is not Nolan’s most famous or acclaimed movie, per common sense or for that matter IMDb. (At no. 4: The Dark Knight, slightly better than 12 Angry Men, slightly worse than The Godfather Part II.) But it’s Nolan’s wildest and galaxy-brainiest and [one more time, Hans] loudest, untethered from movie-industry reality or, in fact, reality of any kind.

I happen to vividly recall the experience of watching Inception in a crowded and reverent theater, basking in the movie’s Fuck Everything, We’re Doing Four Dream Levels audacity, feeling the tangible presence of my several hundred fellow moviegoers, and the just as tangible presence of their several hundred visible thought bubbles, asking, in delighted unison, What the hell is going on?

If you’ve never had the pleasure, I will not attempt to summarize the corporate-espionage-via-dream-manipulation plot, given that much of Inception’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime is devoted to various stern and beautiful people attempting to summarize the plot of Inception to one another. The vibe is Stoned Sci-Fi Action-Adventure, and the script is Exposition as Religion; 70 percent of the dialogue has a distinctly “Inception’s Wikipedia page” feel, under both the Plot and Themes subheads:

Ellen Page: “Wait, whose subconscious are we going into exactly?”

Marion Cotillard: “You keep telling yourself what you know, but what do you believe, what do you feel?”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: “How do you translate a business strategy into an emotion?”

Tom Hardy: “If we are gonna perform inception then we need imagination.”

Leonardo DiCaprio: [Various tortured grunts, grimaces, and “one last job”–type pronouncements.]

The action scenes—the car chases, the shoot-outs, the snowmobile antics—are a little choppy and dorky, save for JGL’s legit badass low-gravity hotel brawl. (John Wick, this ain’t.) Cotillard is not so much playing DiCaprio’s wife as playing DiCaprio’s tortured-protagonist’s mental projection of his wife, which is a little too on the nose as female characters in cerebral action movies go. (Mad Max: Fury Road, this ain’t.) But we have not gathered here to reassess this movie critically, either. What matters is how this movie felt, and how persistent that feeling remains. The less you knew plot- or theme-wise before the theater lights darkened back in 2010, the better, which gave you all the more to talk about on the internet in 2020.

That devoutly baffled discourse is the movie’s true legacy. Re-sort that IMDb list by Number of Ratings, and Inception shoots up to no. 3, with Shawshank at no. 1 and, hell yes, The Dark Knight at no. 2. This movie is still fun to talk about, to dissect, to (don’t do this, but) debate. I have not read the 2011 book Inception and Philosophy: Because It’s Never Just a Dream, but just know that it exists, that the movie immediately entered the modern pop-philosophy pantheon. (One Christmas I bought my wife the book The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real, which ends with a Slavoj Žižek essay entitled “The Matrix: Or, the Two Sides of Perversion.” She never read it. Too bad. Also, The Matrix is no. 16 on the IMDb Top-Rated list, and no. 7 by Number of Ratings, right behind Forrest Gump.)

Distractions within distractions within distractions. An extended internet-content universe unto itself. Inception’s Reddit page is still hopping: Recent post titles include “Not getting the limbo scene,” “The Math Behind How Much Time Was Spent In The 3rd Act (theory),” “My wife just had a 2 level dream, although she almost never dreams [crying-laughing emoji],” and “Still dont get it.”

But this is not a movie you get, no matter how many “Inception Ending Explained” YouTube videos you blow through. The top just keeps spinning. In late June, Fortnite streamed Inception in-game as part of a Christopher Nolan triple feature with Batman Begins and The Prestige, and the resulting footage was of course outlandishly surreal in a dreams-within-dreams sense, but also strangely moving. Somehow the goofy Fortnite dance only enhanced DiCaprio’s pathos and Nolan’s daffy profundity. We’re home. Or at least the movie is.

It makes sense that Tenet—even more so than Fast & Furious 9 or Black Widow or Mulan—turned out to be the blockbuster 2020 movie that 2020 couldn’t quite let go, and vice versa. Imagine it: another audacious Nolan jam so confusing and high-minded that even the beautiful people who acted in it maybe don’t understand it. Another pop-philosophy touchstone with an aura of bewilderment best experienced, yes, sure, on the big screen, surrounded by other bewildered people. Inception is a fabulously distinct memory for many of us no matter how faulty and layered the memory, no matter how indistinct our grasp of what it all meant and whether any of it mattered. What mattered, at the time, is that it looked cool and sounded smart and kept you in the dark such that people on the internet are still searching for the light.