Inception Turns 10, Just When Our Dreams Are At Their Weirdest
Ten years ago today, Christopher Nolan's Inception had its Leicester Square premiere. The anniversary was meant to tie up neatly with the release of Nolan's new one, Tenet, but if we learned nothing else from his films it's that time rarely behaves the way you expect it to.
Leo DiCaprio's Dom Cobb brought new meaning to the phrase 'inside job', journeying into the deepest psychological depths of an unexpectedly sympathetic multibillionaire (Cillian Murphy) with a motley crew of specialist brain-fiddlers.
If a blockbuster about where inspiration comes from and the infinite variety of the human brain sounds unlikely now, it sounded even less likely then. A lot of reviews at the time talked about how complicated and nonsensical it all was. The Times said it was "an unknown quantity and, for some, still incomprehensible after two and a half hours". The Telegraph called it "both unmissable and maddening". That's the part of it that the film's most enduring legacy sums up: the suffix "-ception," bolted onto anything that's a thing inside another thing inside another thing.
But no film that apparently complicated could be absorbed into the idiom so totally. It's really very simple. It's a family drama, wrapped in an effects-driven action blockbuster, driven by a one-last-job heist plot.
It set the template for a Nolan film too: a time-scrambling construction; an ensemble cast of the great and good including Michael Caine, this time dusting off his crumpled professor thing from Educating Rita; and, at its heart, the sense that despite all the incredible things in the universe, there's nothing quite as fascinating as what's going on in someone's head.
The success of Inception didn't herald a new age of incredibly expensive original blockbusters. Inception arrived two years before Avengers: Assemble totally changed what a big hit even looked like, and how studios went about making sure they happened. All but two of the top 50 highest-grossing films of the 2010s was either a sequel, a spin-off, or a part of an existing universe.
We're kind of used to Nolan's gambits now. You'd have been disappointed if Tenet didn't melt the boundaries of past, present and future. Returning to it, though, there's a different resonance — "now more than ever," as every single advert puts it at the minute.
This year feels particularly intensely dreamlike. We've spent the last four months journeying into our own subconsciouses, using this enforced break from our usual distractions to have a good old root around among the weeds. Your dreams have been more vivid and strange than usual, though sometimes less strange than being awake. The rhythm of your day is off its usual axis. It's hard to even know what day it is. You dimly remember getting into linocut printing a few weeks back. You can't be sure.
Outside, it feels like everyone is living in the stage of lockdown they want to. Contradictory directives are apparently all true. The pubs are open, but you shouldn't go to them, but you need to give them money, but now they're open they're paying, even more, rent back than they were before, so they're even more kiboshed than when they were shut.
Even before all this, you could construct your own reality by only listening to people whose opinions you already agreed with. Reality has rarely felt so slippery or malleable than it does now, when our mutual loneliness and suspicion are slowly fading but it's hard to convince yourself that anything's gradually getting better.
Back on the red carpet at that London premiere, Michael Caine held forth about his subconscious.
"I have a funny attitude to dreams," Caine said. "Every dream that I ever had that seemed impossible came true. So I don't care about dreams. The dreams while I'm awake are better than the ones when I'm asleep."
Caine might not be a brain surgeon, but he might have been right.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.