Why Inception is the greatest movie ever made

Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb in "Inception." Photo Credit: Warner Bros / MovieDB

More often than not the title ‘greatest film of all time’ is an illusion. At best it’s a relative claim, and even masterpieces like Lawrence of Arabia or The Godfather have their fair share of nitpickers.

Director Christopher Nolan’s film Inception is, perhaps, the only film in the last ten years to successfully bridge an original plot with A-list casting.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, a professional thief who ‘extracts’ information from the subconscious of a target. Blamed for the death of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), Cobb is given the opportunity to return to his children if he completes ‘inception’: planting an idea in the mind of industrialist Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy).

Much of the film is a convergence of Nolan’s skill and ambition as an auteur. It’s a science-fiction hybrid of The Matrix, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and What Dreams May Come, but is also replete with the realism, pathos and scope which define Nolan’s work.

Inception was consolidation as a much as inaugural standard for Nolan’s later films including The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Interstellar (2014) and Dunkirk (2017). The convolution of Memento (2000), the cinematic authenticity of the Dark Knight series and the structural playfulness of The Prestige (2006) are all evident throughout.

The ease, too, with which Nolan brings together an ensemble cast accustomed to top billing owes a debt to the experience of directing Al Pacino and Robin Williams in Insomnia (2002). It’s also a throwback to all-star epics like Spartacus or Cleopatra and The Man Who Would Be King which are rarely seen anymore in modern cinema.

The skill with which Nolan synthesises talent and script in a thematically unique and enveloping story began with Inception. The intersection of loss and rumination are intrinsic, and the casting of DiCaprio and Cotillard with their sensual, obsessive magnetism sits on the edge of madness that is wholly believable.

Hans Zimmer, a frequent collaborator of Nolan, is undoubtedly the emotional maestro at the helm. His juxtaposition, from the slow piano keys in the opening titles to the grandiose brass fanfare and synth electronics notes, capture the regalia and scale of the dream world. Edith Piaf‘s ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’ just adds to the unique sound and spectacle. Using the guitar work of former Smith’s member Johnny Marr, however, creates the most powerful, and crescendoing subtleties.

It’s a remarkable achievement because the music beats with the heart of the picture, particularly with ‘Time’ used in the ending. Thematically, it’s the duality of longing and loss that echoes throughout the film’s 148 minute running time and survives the absurdity of the premise of the picture. The drive to return home, the haunting visions of vistas and people imagined and real is drawn upon by Nolan and replicated in nuanced performances but held together, as always, by the stunning, sombre, and entrenched soundtrack from Zimmer.

A heist film involving dreams must have been a hard sell to Warner Bros. An unfounded story abounds that Warner Bros. only let Nolan do Inception because The Dark Knight (2008) was such a spectacular critical and commercial smash. In fact, Nolan pitched an outline ten years prior but acknowledged he needed more filming experience to produce Inception because of the scale of the dream world. It is unapologetically, and quite literally, cerebral and trailers themselves don’t do justice to the overtones of the film. The pacing is too subtle and the action too justifiable to be explained away as action vignettes, and it might be better described as commercial art.

Whatever the origins, it stands out, even seven years later, as a critical anomaly. Everything about the films says that it should have been a critical success and a commercial failure. Nolan’s filmmaking style has always been somewhat self-aware and full of risk. His characters inhabit a world in which they know that they are the last reminding refuge of good cinema: their time on screen is finite, their composition succinct and their purpose is to achieve a plot point.

This is perhaps why the science-fiction elements combine so well with the thematic maturity that enjoys an ambitious ending. Nolan brings to life the yin and yang of life and the relativism of perspective. Unresolved purpose, to say nothing of the relationship between conscious and unconsciousness motive, is the nature of life.

The combination, too, of action and slower moments is what makes the film tick and stand out. The finale is a saunter accompanied by crescendoing music. The dream sequences, the ‘kicks’ and the action sequences never feel out of place as intensely violent. To the contrary, it seems like a fight through purgatory to get home. The stunt coordination is rugged, and brutal in places, but polished and expertly put together. Eames’ manoeuvres through the final complex inspired a campaign for Hardy to take over Bond, and rightly so. It’s a masterclass in stunt coordination and as real as anything in the Batman film series with all of the undiluted charm of realism that makes it captivating.

Is it without weakness? Well, the dream world is too ordered. Nolan’s commitment to realism is also the film’s failing. It offers too much of a limited presentation of the capriciousness of dreams and mental ardour. Trains through cities and visits from Mal are much as we get to indulge this, and while bizarre vignettes would be out of place, the dreams are too rule based.

Cobb also feels just too young. Even if we indulge for a moment, DiCaprio’s flawless face, the protagonist is not quite wearied enough. Guy Pearce, Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey play remarkably similar characters and look like haunted men ready for a spiritual, as well as physical, feat, to get to where they need to be. It’s a small flaw, and in truth, the stylishness of DiCaprio, and the chemistry he shares with his co-stars, makes this forgivable.

It would be wrong to call this film anything other than an ensemble effort, but the emotional crux is a marriage survived by a man who can’t let go and lives his pain in his nightmares. DiCaprio and Cotillard were perfectly cast in an ethereal splendour. Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Tom Hardy, Dileep Rao, Tom Berenger and Michael Caine are all integral as the team infiltrate successive layers of Fisher’s subconscious dream state. Murphy, in particular, rightly deserves kudos for the emotional punches he brings with the late Pete Postlethwaite.

Where the genius of Nolan comes into the film is by giving the audience a touching resonance to any genre of film. Emotional depth of this magnitude in pictures are remarkable rare, particularly what is a sci-fi drama and what saccharine elements there are don’t overkill. It’s a confined story; there’s no prolix. His co-producer, Emma Thomson, Syncopy and Legendary Pictures have made intelligent films with none of the fastidious or snobberies that usually go with them. Nolan is a cinematic auteur, and rightly proud of it, and Inception is the film which made him such.

The best anyone can hope for is an acknowledgement of a film’s status even if they have a distaste for it. Is there a secret to achieving even that? Movies are in the eye of the beholder, but ‘great’ pieces, whether small or large budget productions, enjoy the Shakespeare effect: if the themes explore human nature and exist on an emotive level as much as an intellectual one, they’ll grab the crown.

And Nolan’s do. The final scene of Inception, like all of Nolan’s films, saves an emotional wallop until last alongside considerable ambiguity. That’s his style, but to be thinking about Inception seven years later is a testament to his skill and the near perfection of the film.


Alastair Stewart 13 Articles

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and mentor. In 2013, Alastair founded DARROW, Scotland’s only dedicated forum for more than 200 up and coming writers. The magazine works predominantly with 16-35-year-olds to give them the tools they need to share their ideas, hone their craft and thrive as writers, journalists, and storytellers. He regularly writes about politics, history, and culture for magazines across Europe.