Creating An Imagined Reality: The Cinematic Brilliance Of ‘Inception’ (2010) Ten Years Later

“What really makes Inception such a unique and memorable film is the fact that much of its action takes place within the subconscious minds of its characters.”

“Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.”

-Dom Cobb, Inception

When Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) was released a decade ago, it became one of the most talked-about films that summer. Action-packed and full of plot twists, Inception also garnered attention because of its high-profile director and impressive ensemble cast— Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page, just to name a few. Ultimately though, the film’s now-infamous ending is what sparked much of the widespread conversation and debate surrounding it. Does the top fall over? Does it stay spinning? Was it real? Was it a dream?

Considered overrated by some and a masterpiece by others (and I’m in the latter camp here), Inception takes the concept of “psychological thriller” to a whole new level. Its central conceit seems simple enough: a team of con artists with specific skillsets are tasked with successfully deceiving their target in order to accomplish a high-stakes mission. However, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill heist film. Instead of stealing a valuable object, Dom Cobb ( DiCaprio) and his team must implant an idea in Robert Fischer’s (Cillian Murphy) mind, using a complicated dream-sharing technique known as “Inception” to do so. 

“What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm?” Cobb asks early on in the film. “An idea,” he says, answering the question himself. “Resilient… highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate.” The concept that a simple idea can manifest into something much more significant is one of the central themes in Inception. The film heavily relies on the power of suggestion, convincing the characters and audience alike to buy into the narrative it creates. From a cinematic perspective, Inception works as well as it does because it manages to organically thread together its many complex plot points, culminating in a simple yet powerful ending that feels earned.  Without being fully committed to these ideas, the emotional payoff wouldn’t have been anywhere near as rewarding. 

Characters in the film 'Inception' stand on a city street. Behind them, the street curves sharply upwards.
The cast of Inception standing together in a distorted world. Image credit: 2010 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Just as the dreams in the film begin to collapse when the dreamer starts to realise what’s happening, the high-concept premise Inception hinges on could easily collapse in on itself if it doesn’t feel believable. That’s why the film wastes no time in establishing the language and rules of the dream world it asks the audience to spend time in, introducing this information early on. In order to wake up after going under, you have to be triggered by the sensation of falling, called a “kick.” Dying in a dream can also wake you up— that is, unless you’re in a dream within a dream, in which case you descend into a state known as “Limbo,” too far gone to return. 

What really makes Inception such a unique and memorable film is the fact that much of its action takes place within the subconscious minds of its characters. As a result of this imaginative setting, it can push the limits of what’s possible, challenging the very construct of reality throughout. It plays with architecture, perception, physics, and temporality in new and surprising ways, resulting in many unforgettable and iconic moments: an imagined Parisian cityscape folds in on itself; a hotel hallway turns into the grounds for a zero-gravity action scene; a van drives off a bridge, free falling into the water below for what seems like forever. 

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a scene from the film 'Inception.' His character is wearing a suit while in a rotating hallway, while a man on the wall watches.
Arthur stepping between walls as the corridor spins. Image courtesy of Stephen Vaughan | 2010 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Every component is masterfully crafted and interconnected, like puzzle pieces that gradually come together over the course of the film. It’s no coincidence that Ariadne (Page) is an expert at creating complex, maze-like worlds— her name is a clear nod to the Greek Ariadne, who played a key part in the myth of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth. Other details and motifs that appear trivial at first often end up being of the utmost importance when they recur later on, embedded throughout the film’s many layers without feeling too contrived. A seemingly arbitrary number becomes a pair of hotel rooms, and later on, a password. The train that crashes through the first level of the dream world has greater significance once the audience realizes it’s been manifested from Cobb’s memories of his deceased wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), who he keeps prisoner within his dreams. 

Of course, it would be remiss to reflect on Inception without mentioning its soundtrack, which is a pivotal element. From the use of Èdith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” as a trigger to awaken characters from a dream, to Hans Zimmer’s distinctive, stirring instrumentals underscoring the action, music adds another layer of dramatic intensity. Zimmer’s score is cinematic in and of itself, often making use of thematic musical cues but distorting them in order to signify key turning points. When paired with the film’s visuals, it only becomes even more powerful.

Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from the film 'Inception.' His character is hunched over, watching a top as it spins.
Cobb looking at his totem (a spinning top). Image courtesy of 2010 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

It’s an interesting experience revisiting Inception at this time— a film that questions the reality of its world, when the reality of the world that existed back when it was first released is no longer. At times, life as it is now in 2020 can feel like a strange dream we’re all collectively experiencing, one we wish we could wake up from at any moment so things would be back to “normal” again. But there’s no “kick” that can jolt us awake, because we’re not actually asleep. Instead we’re wide awake, having to adjust to and create a new reality for ourselves.

As for that decade-old question of whether the top falls over at the end or continues to keep spinning… I don’t think there is one definitive answer. That’s because the concept of reality within Inception is a subjective one. The ambiguity of the film’s final shot feels intentional, challenging people to decide for themselves what they believe to be true. In other words, the ending is as real as you want it to be. It is this skillful interplay between cinematic imagination and our own perception of reality that ultimately makes Inception such a brilliant film— one that people will continue to rewatch, discover, and talk about for years to come.