A black screen is accompanied by the swelling hue of a bombastic score. It rises and rises until its eventual release. Waves usher their way across the screen. A man lies face down on the shore, as the water laps over him.
This is the opening scene to Christopher Nolan’s Inception, which ten years ago drew immense audiences into its dream-centric world without saying a single word.
Oscillating between genres and varying levels of blockbuster, Nolan struck gold with what is arguably his best piece, definitively his most unique, and defiant of what it means to be a blockbuster – and as a result has lay in the subconscious of Hollywood ever since.
Inception was not your typical type of blockbuster. The film found itself surrounded by a lineup of sequels, remakes and adaptations, all of which relied on the stereotypical expectancies of the modern tent-pole. But here it stood regardless, a brilliantly unique and complexly layered film that relied more on its unravelling story than it did explosions and special effects.
Taking in over $800 million at the box office worldwide, Inception clearly resonated with its audiences. It proved to the world that a film could be a success while telling an unattached story that made you think rather than mindlessly stare as you shovel another handful of popcorn into your mouth. Yet, all the same, there were no immediate copycats, nor was there a flurry of brave bolstering originals. In fact, Hollywood has struggled to conjure up much comparable work since, outside of a small handful and Nolan’s own filmography. However, while Inception failed to ignite the passion for filmmaking in the Tinseltown high-ups, it did mark the turning of the tide – planting the idea of the more intelligent blockbuster.
Impressing audiences since his directorial debut in 1998, Nolan has always been known for trying to push the envelope. From his memory-loss thriller Memento to the Victorian-era-based The Prestige, the director has long been a spokesperson for original and off-kilter stories. However, it wasn’t until the release of his 2008 comic book movie sequel The Dark Knight that the director finally and definitively put his name on the map. For a period, the film became one of the highest grossing of all time, and as a result Nolan was effectively given free reign for his next feature – which just so happened to be something he had been sitting on for a decade.
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Approaching Inception with an incredulous cast and whopping $160 million budget, Nolan worked away on a film that would categorically stand out from the crowd – even bagging DiCaprio in an uncharacteristically mainstream role. From its extended runtime to slower paced nature, Inception defied, in any form, the urge to be the loud, crass and blisteringly dumb summer film that so has often instigated success. It managed to take the familiar concept of a heist movie and blend it with an excellent dose of sci-fi, leaving its viewers as invested in the gang pulling off the job as they were waiting to see if a spinning top finally toppled.
Inception is not by any means a difficult film to follow. Yet where many films would spoon feed their audience, Inception trusts that you’ll be able to keep up. There is, naturally, exposition – something completely unavoidable with a premise such as this – but it gets to the point and gives its viewers just enough of what they need in order to understand. The film even warrants repeated viewings as new details and plot intricacies reveal themselves.
Across its two-and-a-half-hours, the story of Inception delves deeper into its concept of traversing dreamscapes, while being relatively bare of action for a summer hit of its kind. Nolan instead presents his idea with shape and purpose, avoiding the pitfalls of his characters dreaming up giant guns and non-logistical car chases. Indeed, rather than the mindless barrage of bullets and explosions we are typically accustomed to, Nolan structures action that directly affects the next conceptual stage. A car flip in one dream means altered gravity in the next, and an avalanche in the one after that – there is no spectacle for the sake of spectacle.
Since its tackling of this simplistically complex narrative, we have seen a slow expansion of elevated stories. Blockbusters that were typically on the nose have become more nuanced, the most simple tales now layered. The belief that audiences won’t just turn off when they have to think for themselves has started to spread – albeit slowly and without direct comparison.
By trusting its audience, Inception inspired others, albeit minimally, and we began to see titles such as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – a prequel film that immeasurably stepped up its game from the previous installment. Or Gravity, which placed its viewers amongst the stars in a big budget, yet wholly reserved space drama. Or eventually Nolan’s very own Interstellar, which would prove itself even further removed from what a big-budget film should be.
Inception did not become the hallmark on how to make a hit however. In an age where “success” is reserved for those grossing over the billion-dollar mark, Inception’s success was relative. Faced with the option between a film that takes narrative risks, or something tried and tested, the choice for many studios remains obvious. The bigger yet more thought-provoking films such as Blade Runner 2049 have proven that audiences will not always respond to more nuanced tales, whereas another Fast and Furious film will easily rev its way up into the Billion Dollar Club.
Smash cut to just last year and cinemagoers were sitting down to watch Avengers: Endgame. The complexities, or lack thereof, in any of the MCU films could easily be debated in another article, yet instead of the stereotypical origin story which the universe had become known for, Endgame was a ridiculously large affair with the kind of story you had to pay attention to. There were dozens of characters, each with their own arcs and relationships, as well as alternate timelines, and all of that was wrapped up into a runtime pushing three hours. Endgame’s relation to Inception isn’t immediately apparent, yet it highlights that another layered and expansive story made its way into the mainstream – and this one just so happened to become the highest grossing film of all time.
Since the release of Inception ten years ago, the blockbuster industry has attempted to grow and mature. There is and always will be a place for the mindless action film, or further unneeded sequels, and they in their own right have merits. However, Inception’s influence has trickled its way down through the years, highlighting the audience demand for more challenging stories in the mainstream space, and signalled by the changing nature of the blockbuster over the last decade. The anticipation building for Nolan’s next, Tenet, only furthers this point. Much like Inception, it features another original premise which already threatens to perplex its audience as it tantalizingly hangs over its constantly postponing release date.
While a world filled with blockbusters that break the mould just as Inception did a decade ago seems more a far-flung dream than a reality, the subtle snowball effect that Nolan’s work has inspired gives hope for a cinema landscape that doesn’t pander or rehash. Yet as Tenet approaches with similar aspirations to its spiritual predecessor, audiences will wait with bated breaths, as the totem spins, threatening to topple over.
Written by Aaron Bayne