Why It Works: Inception

Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.


With DUNKIRK landing in theaters this weekend, Christopher Nolan has added another critical darling to his impressive body of work, surprising no one (you can read our review here). Starting with smaller films like MEMENTO and INSOMNIA, Nolan would go on to become perhaps the most ambitious filmmaker of his time, exploring new territory with each film. Perhaps the most Nolan-y of all Nolan films is his 2010 juggernaut INCEPTION, which was a massive success by just about every metric available. INCEPTION builds on existing science fiction narratives to take us further down the rabbit hole than we've ever gone, leaving audiences flabbergasted, satiated, and unquestionably frustrated by the end. Here's why it works:


Dom Cobb is not only our protagonist, but he's also the only truly fleshed out character in the film. Early on, we know he's sharp, good at what he does, and desperately misses his children, which is enough for us to like him on a surface level, but it's clear there's more going on with him. As the story progresses, we learn his wife Mal killed herself, for which he not only feels responsible but which is also the reason he's not allowed back into the United States. As we learn the depth of Cobb's pain, his inability to let go of Mal's memory, and his constant need to confirm his own reality, we easily find ourselves sympathetic to his plight.

In a more traditional telling of the story, Ariadne would be the main character, and we'd follow her- bored with life and frustrated at school- until the mysterious Cobb comes into her life.

Rounding out the cast are Ariadne, the vicarious vessel through whom we learn about the world, Arthur, who tries to keep Cobb sane while also kicking ass on ceilings, Eames, a master of identity theft and making Arthur's life miserable, Saito, Cobb's way to his children and a vision of what a lifetime in limbo looks like, Yusuf, the questionable chemist, Fischer, who is the target mark of the team's mission but who's relationship with his father provides another coat of sympathy, and finally Mal, the ghost and memory of whom serves as a constant foil for Cobb.

ARTHUR: Quick, give me a kiss. (They kiss.)
ARIADNE: They're still looking at us.
ARTHUR: Yeah, it was worth a shot.


Like a dream within a dream within a dream, INCEPTION offers several layers of substance to keep us engaged. On the surface, the idea of breaking into someone's mind to steal information is interesting, and films like THE MATRIX and STRANGE DAYS allow us to accept the premise fairly easily. As the concept of inception- or planting a thought in someone's mind- is largely uncharted territory, though, our heroes have to constantly adapt, rather than coasting through another day at the office.

"Mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling."

One level down, we have the immediate action of INCEPTION, which ranges from the tension between characters and heightened stakes as Cobb reveals that dying within the dream will send the dreamer to limbo instead of waking him up to the more straightforward and entertaining action of snowmobile chases and mind-bending combat sequences. Finally, we have the emotional core of the story, in which we not only route for Cobb to reuinite with his children but also slowly discover the mystery of Mal's fate and the depth and origin of Cobb's grief.

"You're waiting for a train..."


Okay, here we go. When you're done here, I strongly advise you to go watch this video, in which fellow JoBlo-er Luke Ryan takes a deep dive into INCEPTION's infamous ending. The ending we're shown wraps up pretty nicely- the teams is successful in their mission, Saito grants Cobb entry into the country, and Cobb is finally reunited with his kids. As Nolan cuts before Cobb's spinning top totem topples, however, we're left to question whether or not the entire story is real or has been a dream all along. Nolan claims that there are no clues as to whether or not Cobb is dreaming, so (if we're to believe him) we're left with a very big unanswered question. The point Nolan seems to be making here is that it doesn't matter whether Cobb is dreaming or not, because he doesn't exist in the first place- he's a character in a movie. The character whose story we're following is the Cobb we're presented- that's our protagonist whether he's "real" or the figment of another Cobb's imagination. Hell, you can argue any movie is actually the dream of one of its characters (and plenty of people do), but sometimes it's a lot more rewarding to sit back and watch the story you're being told.

Nolan will say he hired DiCaprio for his acting ability, but he just wanted someone who looked like him.


As going into people's minds is nothing new in fiction, INCEPTION feels familiar to an extent, and yet the Nolan touch makes for a final product which isn't quite like anything we've seen before. Christopher Nolan's direction and Wally Pfister's cinematography make for an visually stunning film which never fails to delight and captivate. Nolan's script is at once intimate, grand, and entertaining and works with the entire production team to make sure we always have at least a broad grasp on which level of reality we're in and how one affects the other. The incredible cast of Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Pete Postlethwaite, and Michael Caine provide the right blend of gravity and charm, with the costume department making them look very damn dapper in the process. Finally Hans Zimmer delivers one of the best scores of the 2000's to date, ranging from monumentally grand to deeply personal and hitting all points in between, never failing to drive the action forward no matter the tone. As with many Christopher Nolan films, INCEPTION represents the sum of several outstanding parts working together to make something greater and will no doubt forever stand tall as one of the finest films of its time, even if the ending is a bit frustr

Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!

If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at [email protected].

Source: JoBlo.com



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