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Credit: Warner Bros.

This Week in Genre History: Inception dreamed a little bigger 10 years ago, darling

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Jul 22, 2020, 10:36 AM EDT (Updated)

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

"I believe, you know, as history unfolds, certain films will disappear, and certain ones will stand the test of time,” Leonardo DiCaprio said in the summer of 2010. “And you never know which ones those are. And you’ve just got to go for the opportunities of films you think might be memorable.”

In the last decade, the Oscar-winning actor’s choices have been pretty impeccable. With the exception of J. Edgar, every feature film he’s picked during that time has been a major hit and well-reviewed — no other star can make that claim. And the hot streak got going with Inception, which arrived in theaters on July 16, 2010. 

Ten years later, we’re still arguing about the film’s themes and what that ending means. But what’s abundantly clear is that this twisty thriller is an increasingly rare thing in Hollywood: a big-budget studio picture based on an original story and featuring a huge cast of acclaimed actors. Inception was an ideal pairing of a risk-taking movie star and a visionary auteur. Very few summer blockbusters take as many chances as this one did. That so many of its gambits actually succeeded is even more impressive.

A high-tech, sci-fi heist film, Inception stars DiCaprio as Cobb, who leads a team of thieves who infiltrate their victims’ dreams to steal ideas from their minds. But their latest mission will be a unique challenge: They are hired by Saito (Ken Watanabe), a scheming entrepreneur, to enter into the subconscious of Robert (Cillian Murphy), whose father is a wealthy, dying businessman — and a competitor of Saito’s — and implant the notion that Robert should break up the company. Costarring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, and Michael Caine — and Marion Cotillard as Cobb’s dead wife Mal — the film is a rumination on grief, memory, regret, and second chances. It also contained some incredibly mind-bending action sequences that fully capitalize on the gravity-defying possibilities of dream logic.

In just about anyone else’s hands, Inception would probably have been a ponderous, pretentious mess. But Christopher Nolan and DiCaprio gave it heart and soul without forgetting to make the story immensely crowd-pleasing as well. The script took Nolan 10 years to crack. It was worth the wait.

Why was it a big deal at the time? Imagine being Christopher Nolan in 2008. You’re an acclaimed indie artist who won plenty of praise for your ingenious low-budget thriller Memento. From there, you jump to the majors, first directing Insomnia (with Al Pacino and Robin Williams) and then get asked to resurrect Batman — which you do brilliantly with Batman Begins. Then, you follow it up with The Dark Knight, the film that almost single-handedly legitimized the idea that superhero movies could be art. (Of course they can be, but you know how snobs are.) After The Dark Knight, which opened on July 18, 2008, Nolan was the king of smart summer blockbusters, and whatever film he’d do next would be highly anticipated.

And then you have Leonardo DiCaprio, who at that point had already been nominated for three Oscars and was earning a reputation as the Titanic heartthrob who was also a serious actor. (He’d been part of The Departed, the 2006 Best Picture-winning film that was his third collaboration with revered auteur Martin Scorsese.) A favorite of audiences and critics alike, DiCaprio only bolstered his rep with Shutter Island, which came out in February of 2010 and made nearly $300 million worldwide. The guy was huge at the box office, so his teaming up with Nolan was as close to a sure thing as you could ask for in the movie business.

In addition, Warner Bros. cleverly marketed Inception, not giving out a lot of plot information in the initial trailer but emphasizing the story’s high stakes and narrative audacity. And in the process, fans were treated to Hans Zimmer’s soon-to-be-iconic score and its bellowing “Braaaaam!” — which instantly became Inception’s dramatic punctuation mark even before anyone had actually seen the movie. 

At a time when superheroes, sequels, and pre-existing intellectual property were becoming increasingly important in Hollywood, Inception dared to be its own creation — which was part of the reason why Nolan struggled for so long with the screenplay. 

“The problem was that I started with a heist film structure... But I eventually realized that heist films are usually unemotional,” the filmmaker said at the time. “They tend to be glamorous and deliberately superficial. I wanted to deal with the world of dreams, and I realized that I really had to offer the audience a more emotional narrative, something that represents the emotional world of somebody’s mind. So both the hero’s story and the heist itself had to be based on emotional concepts. That took years to figure out.”

Sporting a cool concept, big names, impressive effects, and stellar buzz, Inception seemed poised to be — if not the season’s hugest hit — certainly the most eagerly awaited movie of that summer. All it had to do was deliver.

Credit: Warner Bros.

What was the impact? Inception was the No. 1 movie in the nation for three straight weeks, going on to gross $828 million worldwide. (In 2010, only Toy Story 3, Alice in Wonderland, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 made more money globally.) Beyond inspiring endless debate about its meaning and what its final image was supposed to indicate — Is Cobb really reunited with his family, or is he still in the dream? — Inception further fortified Nolan’s and DiCaprio’s commercial muscle. In modern Hollywood, it’s very hard to have a hit without being attached to a popular franchise, but the director and actor have managed to establish themselves as hitmakers just on their own names. In a world of endless IP, Nolan and DiCaprio are brands in and of themselves, which isn’t the case for many other talents in the film business.

But Inception’s impact can be felt in other ways, too. For instance, the film was nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture, winning four. And for the next 10 years, anyone involved in the film would inevitably be asked about the ending, grilled on what their interpretation was. (Michael Caine has said that Cobb is in reality. DiCaprio says he doesn’t have a firm theory of what happened. Nolan believes Cobb “was in his own subjective reality.” So take your pick.) Quickly, Inception became one of those movies that provoked 1,000 fan theories. And it also forced other filmmakers to change up their projects because Inception had done what they wanted to do, but better.

For instance, take Matthew Vaughn, the director and co-writer of the following year’s X-Men: First Class, who admitted that they had to rethink their script after realizing some similarities between his film and Nolan’s. “[M]y heart sank when I saw that a few of the ideas we had were up [on the screen],” Vaughn recalled. “So it’s either leave it in and look as if you’re copying or change things. We completely ripped out about 12 pages of the script and the storyboards.”

But if you want to understand just how huge Inception was that summer, fan-made videos started popping up on YouTube that used the audio from the Warner Bros. trailer and inserting it onto other footage — most memorably, Toy Story 3, that season’s other blockbuster.

Truth be told, we kinda wish Buzz and Woody would start trying to enter the world of the dream.

Has it held up? The expectations were so high for Inception that the film probably could never live up to the hype. And yet, this movie remains supremely satisfying — not to mention a surprisingly emotional experience as Cobb tries to make peace with his wife’s death and fights to get back to his children. Talking about his character, DiCaprio once pointed out, “He’s almost like an addict, he’s an addict to the dream world and an alternative reality and he keeps escaping to that reality to not come to terms with the truth of his past trauma.” As much as Inception is a James Bond-ian action-thriller — especially during the movie’s epic snow-skiing sequence — it’s also a story about denial, and DiCaprio (similarly to what he did in that February’s Shutter Island) expertly portrays a damaged man who cannot accept the tragedy of his life.

Everyone involved in Inception has gone on to do great work since. Hardy would be Bane in the director’s Batman threequel, The Dark Knight Rises, and Caine continues to be one of Nolan’s key ensemble players, slated to appear next in Tenet. As for DiCaprio, he’s merely won an Oscar (for The Revenant) and been in a string of smashes, from flashy literary adaptations (The Great Gatsby) to subversive, hyper-violent Westerns (Django Unchained). And Nolan keeps doing his thing, leaving the Dark Knight behind for Interstellar and Dunkirk, with the Inception-like Tenet waiting in the wings

“I find filmmaking very difficult emotionally,” Nolan said a few years ago. “I don’t want to moan, because it’s the best job in the world, but I do find it difficult... When you know how hard it is to make a large-scale blockbuster, the idea of doing it again, in the same way, takes a lot out of you. [But] if you make something that you really love, there’s going to be something of value.”

Credit: Warner Bros.

Nolan clearly did that with Inception. None of us have been able to spin a top without thinking of it since.

Tim Grierson is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Will Leitch review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

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