Origins of “Inception”

Among the many interesting things about Christopher Nolan’s superb new movie “Inception” is the fact that it borrows so clearly from so many genres and yet seems to belong to none of them in particular. Its premise of dream-surfing pyrotechnics is heavily sci-fi and yet the movie is conspicuously absent of any specific technology (as cannily observed by Jeremy Keith). In many ways it’s a modernized espionage thriller of the sort perfected in recent years by Tony Gilroy, including of course the “Bourne” trilogy he wrote as well as the corporate cloak and dagger of “Duplicity,” the underrated romantic spy comedy he directed. It clearly owes a debt to heist films as well, but feels less like a romping caper like “The Italian Job” (in either of its two incarnations) than the comparatively quiet and primitive choreography of “Le cercle rouge.”

Parts Is Parts

In fact, what it reminds me of, more than any one of these obvious influences, is the kind of virtuosic fusion of cinematic patterns that Quentin Tarantino is known for, in which the director resoundingly echoes not just genres of movies but also very specific movies. Much as every Tarantino movie quotes with abandon from films that have come before, Nolan pays prominent homage to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the Wachowski Brothers’ “The Matrix,” “Planet of the Apes,” any number of James Bond installments, and, allegedly, Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad,” among several other works.


The cliché is to say that rather than just stealing, Nolan creates something new out of these pieces, but it might be more accurate to say that he concocts something potent and irresistible from the familiarity of what he has assembled. The trailers and teasers for “Inception” showed us bits and pieces of many of these influences while offering almost no details about its characters, plot or ideas. Yet the hinting familiarity of what we did see was compelling enough in its promise of some novel configuration that it produced a notably feverish anticipation among nearly everyone I know. In one respect we didn’t know what it was about, and yet in another respect we already did know what it was about — which made us want to see it all the more.

In many ways, “Inception” might suggest that the only viable way forward for a particular kind of blockbuster movie is this further maturation of the Tarantino approach. Meta films such as these — films that are about films as much as they are about ideas — may be the only films that can hold their own financially against the onslaught of sequels, remakes, comic book properties and franchises of every sort that dominate the multiplexes in this day and age. In a summer film season filled with more direct derivatives of other films, “Inception” is likely to stand alone among top grossers as being the product of an ‘original’ idea. Its fighting chance and apparently healthy early returns owe a lot to the fact that we’ve seen lots of it before. What’s more, it’s probably no coincidence that the “inception” concept of the title posits that it takes a paramilitary-style assault on the subconscious to plant an original idea.

  1. Thanks for the link Brandon, you’re right — that’s a terrific interpretation of “Inception” and well worth reading. It’s full of spoilers though.

  2. Nice Article – I’m really looking forward to the movie. The very first movie that came to my mind when I saw the trailer was Fred Astaire’s Ceiling Dance from Royal Wedding:


    which is still astounding after all these years. But it is maybe a little unfair to mention DiCaprio in one sentence with Astaire?! Computer-Effects are nice, but nothing compares to the grace of Astaire…

  3. Everything you say is true but what I think made Inception so great stems from the fact that it has room for interpretation.

    Specifically, I felt the ending was great and that Nolan gave the viewer the equivalent of a wink and a grin.

  4. Inception crushes the possibilities of dream and the wide range of human possibilities into a narrow world where time and space are defined by limited mathematical formulas and explained into lifeless solidity.

    Nolan is the collapse-of-the-wave-function; reducing the potential of our dreams into shootouts and fixed, overly defined realities that seem grounded more in consumer satisfaction and excitement than the dream world of our human imaginations.

  5. I’m a big fan of Christopher Nolans directing, Batman, Memento etc. Really looking forward to this film, I just hope its not all effects and no substance. I’ll read Brandons link after I’ve seen it 🙂

  6. I found Inception very disappointing and depressingly literal-minded in its construction. Comparing Inception to even the most feeble of Stanley Kubrick films is still doing the great Stanley’s work—which has so much more vision and breadth of thought-provoking ideas—a great injustice. And “Last Year at Marienbad”? If Nolan did borrow from this much better film, it was in a very superficial way. And, really, how can we ignore the complete inanity of the James Bond / skiing sequence?

    Peers of mine say that the immense amount of discussion around the film proves it’s a masterpiece of some sort. I couldn’t disagree more. I think it’s just a confluence of the wild west / everyone-has-a-blog / 24 hour news internet era that’s littered with more than enough fans of this film genre. Rather it makes me conclude that never have we lived in a bigger era of the emperor has no clothes syndrome.

    I find your conclusion that the “meta” film (or maybe “sample/pastiche” is better) as the “only viable way forward” for film—even just the blockbuster film—incredibly depressing, even if I can agree with your logic. It’s hard not to think graphic design is stuck in the same loop of arbitrary formal references and poor stabs at irony. Which is maybe why I find Inception so depressing—we’ve reduced master filmmaking to a series of empty referential formal gestures, with no real ideas that connect to us in any emotional, let alone meaningful way. Nolan is, no doubt, a master technician, but, alas, a soulless cold one. That so many people who celebrate Inception evaluate it through an as equally chilly, purely formalist/structural lens simply makes me sad. Meaningful, engaging storytelling deserves better.

  7. My brother recommended I checkout Inception. I was fairly disappointed because he raised my expectations a bit. That said I was never a big fan of Nolan.

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