INCEPTION’s Inception: Review and Conversation with Christopher Nolan & Creative Team

From L.: Rao, Hardy, Gordon-Levitt, DiCaprio, Page, Watanabe

Watching Christopher Nolan’s Inception (opening July 16), I thought of my college Japanese instructor during my second year of studying the language, the hardest I’ve ever learned. The teacher had just transferred from Yale and spoke to us in Japanese as if we were natives, refusing to stop and explain things even if most of us just gaped at him, hopelessly lost. Finally, a frustrated classmate whined, “C’mon, give us a break. We’re not Yale.” (For the record, we were at the University of Virginia, a perfectly good school, thanks very much.) Our teacher stopped and said, in perfect English, “I will not come down to your level. I want you to come up to mine.”

With his latest movie, Nolan seems to be saying the same thing to audiences. Inception is a complex maze, one that will require lots of brain power and concentration to understand. Even though I didn’t get all of it (I’ll need to re-watch it on DVD with subtitles), I enjoyed trying to grasp the movie’s concepts and was grateful Nolan didn’t make it easy for us.

I’ll do only a vague plot summary since the less you know about it, the better. But there will be mild spoilers in the Q & A section below where I recap some behind-the-scenes tidbits Nolan and his creative team shared when they showed up after the screening to discuss their process. You might want to come back and read that after you see the movie to learn how they pulled off some of the eye teasers.


Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an expert extractor, someone who enters people’s dreams to steal their most valuable secrets. He has a team of assistants consisting of characters played by Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dileep Rao and the charismatic Tom Hardy, each of whom has a special skill. Cobb also has the talent of inception, the power to plant an idea in someone’s mind and make the dreamer think it’s his own. It’s this ability he must use to finish one last job for a powerful client, Saito (Ken Watanabe), who can help Cobb return to a life from which he has been exiled.


Because Inception takes place mostly in dreams, it contains some eye-popping imagery. One sequence is reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey and a fight scene involving Gordon-Levitt calls to mind not Batman, but Spider-Man. And lest you think it’s mostly CGI, it isn’t (see Q & A).

DiCaprio, doing solid work in his second movie this year featuring altered reality, heads an impressive cast, though most of the actors are underused. Page doesn’t get to whip out any of her sass as Ariadne, our exposition facilitator; Michael Caine’s part could’ve have been done by any number of actors; and Cillian Murphy, with his unsettling blue eyes, plays it straight when he’s more interesting as characters who are creepy and freaky.


The two standouts are Marion Cotillard as Mal and Hardy as Eames. Cotillard is a divine presence, gorgeous and menacing and vulnerable all at once. The British Hardy, whom I’d never seen before (his credits include RocknRolla and the next Mad Max movie, in which he’ll take over the titular role) has the kind of magnetism that signals future stardom on these shores.

And then there’s Nolan. I’m just going to call him the next Best Original Screenplay Oscar winner right now because I doubt any other script this year will beat Inception in originality. Watching the movie was a little like dreaming for me—experiencing it in the dark, submerged in fantastical imagery, having uneasy sensations but not wanting things to end right away because I wanted to see what happens. When it was over, I wasn’t sure I could explain everything. There are curious plot holes but as with a lot of sci-fi, I can’t argue much about real-world logic. Perhaps to balance out the movie’s more bizarre aspects, Nolan gets quite literal with the names (Mal’s is a big clue and in Greek mythology, Ariadne helps Theseus escape from a labyrinth) and a couple of chess references (because it’s a mind game?). The emotional impact is lightweight but still, I hope Nolan uses his power of inception to plant in the minds of Hollywood studio executives the idea that we need more smart, creative entertainment like this.

Nerd verdict: Open your mind to Inception

Q & A

*Mild Spoilers*

After the screening, Pete Hammond moderated a session with Nolan, his producer/wife Emma Thomas, cinematographer Wally Pfister, composer Hans Zimmer, production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas and casting director John Papsidera. Except for Dyas, everyone had previously worked with Nolan before this movie, most going all the way back to Memento.

I couldn’t transcribe everything but here are some highlights:

  • Nolan had wanted to do something about dreams since he was a kid but it wasn’t until 10 years ago that he zeroed in on the idea of doing a heist film that takes place within dreams. Despite his clout after the success of the Batman reboot, he finished the entire script before pitching it to Warner Bros. because he wanted them to see his whole concept.
  • Heist films are usually methodical but Nolan decided to make this an emotional love story because that’s what keeps him passionate about what he does.
  • The biggest challenge for producer Thomas was shooting in six countries, including Morocco, France and England. When she read the first 80 pages of Nolan’s script many years ago, she had no idea how it could be brought to the screen. By the time the script was completed, she had the Batman movies under her belt and was more equipped to take on a big project like this.
  • Pfister said Nolan made clear there would be no strange color palettes to indicate when someone’s in a dream. He wanted all scenes to look real so audiences would never be sure where they are. Pfister and Nolan do very little pre-planning when it comes to lighting, keeping it natural and allowing the locations to dictate how they should light them. There was never any scheme to use lighting to delineate between the dream levels.
  • Dyas spoke about creating duplicates of the same sets—a horizontal version,  a vertical one, etc. During the pivotal gravity-free scene with Gordon-Levitt, the hotel corridor was set inside a gimbal then rotated with Gordon-Levitt inside and a camera mounted to one wall. Because the actor was on wires, Nolan had to direct him like a puppeteer.
  • Papsidera was so adamant about Cotillard playing Mal, he pushed Nolan to travel to the Moroccan desert to meet with her (she was filming another movie). Somehow they missed each other there and ended up meeting in Paris. Coincidentally, an Edith Piaf song plays an important part in the movie but Nolan had written that in the script 10 years ago. He considered changing it after Cotillard came on board but then decided he liked having that connection.
  • During the sequence when the team is skiing, Pfister had to hire Chris Patterson, an experienced skier, to shoot footage while going downhill. Nolan really wanted the handheld effect to put viewers inside the action but it was something Pfister couldn’t do. Patterson had to capture every shot while skiing and they’re not sure how he did it without slamming into trees.
  • Nolan looked at different formats to shoot the movie. It was mostly shot in 35mm, some 65mm, up to 360 frames per second. Nolan tested 3D conversion in post-production and got good results but didn’t have enough time to do it in the scientific way he wanted.
  • When asked if any images from his subconscious are in the movie, Nolan said he had no idea.

Photos: Warner Bros.



  • Reply
    July 15, 2010 at 8:16 am

    This sounds very similar to the main concept of The Manual of Detection. Have you read it? Of course, that book was quite odd and had a strangely light-hearted tone.

    Sounds interesting. Thanks for the review. I hope to check this one out, for sure. I love heist movies.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      July 15, 2010 at 10:44 am

      I thought of Manual, too, but other than having people enter others’ dreams, the similarity ends there. The book was strange but I enjoyed it. And of course we discussed how gorgeous the cover is.

      I’d be really interested in your thoughts after you see this.

  • Reply
    July 15, 2010 at 9:57 am

    I bought my IMAX ticket for this yesterday online. Besides TS3, this is the other film I’ve waited for this summer. Thanks, Elyse.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      July 15, 2010 at 10:45 am

      Oooh, your mind will be boggled on a much grander scale!

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      July 17, 2010 at 7:55 pm

      So, how was it on IMAX???

      • Reply
        July 17, 2010 at 8:33 pm

        I have the 11:30 AM showing on Sunday. I’ll let you know for sure 🙂

        • Reply
          July 18, 2010 at 3:51 pm

          A-W-E-S-O-M-E!!! You must, must see it in IMAX, Elyse. And the not the IMAX-lite that’s out there–a real one like the one near me (and Deb’s work). Hey, that’s an idea for after work, huh? Think about it… ;-).

          • Reply
            Pop Culture Nerd
            July 18, 2010 at 4:19 pm

            I’ll consider it since I imagine it would be quite an experience, but I was too lazy to see myself in IMAX (in the movie you know about) so I may not get around to it.

            Thanks for reporting back! Check out this article about a possible sequel. I don’t think there should be one. You?

            • Reply
              July 18, 2010 at 4:48 pm

              I LOVE the way the movie is and that it CAN stand alone. It doesn’t demand a sequel, but if Mr. Nolan wants one, I’ll definitely go an see it. You can certainly see why a studio would WANT a sequel (especially now that it is successful and will drive debate about that last scene among all of its ticket-goers for the next months and years). After investing millions to produce and market this, the studios want another big paycheck down the line. Their current thinking is sequels are the best way to go about insuring more big movie openings in the near future — thereby bringing about more amnesiacs to an original idea (like INCEPTION) the studios really need.

              BTW, I really appreciate Leonardo DiCaprio’s thoughts on this:

              “This is an interesting movie, because I really believe people can extract what they want from this film and interpret that in a lot of different ways. I think that’s something that doesn’t come from the Hollywood studio system very often nowadays. Oftentimes, I get scripts that came to me recycled from other ones. Chris [Nolan] pulled off something pretty ambitious, pretty existential, pretty cerebral and daring with this movie, and I jumped on the opportunity to do it and work with him.”

              Lastly, I heard a couple of people talking about a possible sequel as I exited the theatre. Unfortunately, the studios seemingly are building in to audiences that expectation. I’m not all against the idea of sequels. What I’m against is the profit mentality that breeds them for the sake of the bottomline and not for the sake of a good story told through moving pictures.

              Thanks, Elsye

              • Reply
                Pop Culture Nerd
                July 20, 2010 at 2:32 pm

                Eloquent as always. I couldn’t have said it better. Thanks, le0.

  • Reply
    July 15, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    Been dying to see this movie. Glad to hear it lives up to the hype.

    Thanks for thumbs up on it, PCN!

  • Reply
    Shell Sherree
    July 16, 2010 at 4:13 am

    Wonderful ~ I was hanging out hoping you’d review this one, PCN! I’m fascinated and I’m really looking forward to experiencing it, so I’ve skipped the Q&A and will return!

  • Reply
    Jim Samuels
    July 16, 2010 at 9:40 am

    Interesting story about casting Cotillard. Hung out on the set for the feature doc, “Casting By” during the Spring. John Papsidera gave an amazing interview about working with Nolan, casting “Dark Night”, etc. Not sure when the doc will be out but should have some good, interesting stuff in it.

  • Reply
    Pop Culture Nerd
    July 16, 2010 at 7:09 pm

    EIREGO—Enjoy having your brain twisted.

    Shell—See you after the show!

    Jim—Welcome to my site and thanks for the heads up about the doc. Will keep my eyes out for it.

  • Reply
    Naomi Johnson
    July 17, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    Inception got a great review from the local paper. I’m still on the fence about seeing it though.

  • Reply
    July 17, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    Just saw it! AWESOME!!! A REAL MIND F#*@K!! I’m going to see it again.

  • Reply
    July 17, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    I… was…..Wow, just Wow. Great movie. It was like a cool drink of water for my brain.

  • Reply
    Pop Culture Nerd
    July 17, 2010 at 7:54 pm

    Naomi—Are you a fan of Nolan’s other films? If so, see it. If not, don’t.

    EIREGO & Reader#9—My brain was also grateful this movie didn’t cause it to lose any cells.

  • Reply
    Jen Forbus
    July 18, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    I so like your instructor!! Lately I’ve been getting overwhelmed with people who have such low expectations.

    Haven’t been hitting the theaters much lately, but I’ll probably look for this on DVD later.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      July 18, 2010 at 1:17 pm

      I liked him, too. I’m inspired by people who want me to be better, not by those who treat me as if I’m slow.

  • Reply
    Jose McNabb
    July 24, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    The only thing that I can say about Inception is it’s brilliant! Nolan has outdone himself (again)! I was a little skeptical going into the movie, I love Leo and Nolan, their movies are always good. Without seeing it you really think how is this going to work? It sounds a little strange. Still, when you see it you realize how mind blowing an experience it is! Nothing less than ten stars! Amazing!

  • Reply
    Shell Sherree
    August 10, 2010 at 1:50 am

    Oh boy, oh boy!! Though my head hurt from trying to puzzle it all out, what a ride. As you said, it felt like being dumped into an immersion class from the get go. And the ending ~ oh boy! I can live without a sequel, as I always worry that the sequel will fail to live up, but I’d definitely go and see it if one was produced. And I thought the score was fabulous and just kept notching up that intensity until it was almost unbearable. It was great to come back here now and find out more. I was curious about the use of the Piaf song and its obvious connection to Marion Cotillard, so I enjoyed having that question answered. And I’m SO looking forward to seeing more of Hardy. I thought he was wonderful.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      August 10, 2010 at 11:44 am

      Oh yay, glad you liked it! My feelings about a sequel are about the same as yours.

      Thanks for coming back to read the Q & A notes.

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