Backlash

Inception at 10: How Christopher Nolan Turned Exposition Into Entertainment

As Inception turns 10 this week, we look at how Nolan's particular brand of info dumping came to define his dream state thriller

In Backlash, we explore the films that were originally beloved by critics and audiences alike, only to face heavy scrutiny or a notable decrease in popularity as time went on. But how do these films fare now – and was the backlash deserved or unwarranted?

On opening day, 2010, I settled in to watch Christopher Nolan's Inception, already convinced of its greatness on the basis of the trailers and the general furore surrounding its release. Following the filmmaker's game-changing Batman reinvention The Dark KnightInception's vaguely outlined concept – its story of “dream stealers,” city streets folding in on themselves, Joseph Gordon-Levitt defying gravity in a hallway brawl – appeared to have all the makings of a stone cold masterpiece.

Watching the film was an overwhelming experience – a visual and aural overload, with scenes nesting inside one another, like a cinematic Russian doll, all the while Nolan's narrative approach – cutting between dreams, and dream layers – proving mesmerising and confusing in equal measure. As what seemed at the time like the most complex narrative ever played out across 148 captivating minutes, characters delivering explanations about the practices of corporate espionage, dream logic, and something called “limbo,” I remember thinking: I'm going to need to see this again (and again and again). Yet nothing about my failure to properly comprehend Inception that first time round dissuaded me from its masterpiece status. Of course it was a masterpiece.

How time changes things, though. Rewatching Inception, which remarkably turns 10 years old this week, I was instantly struck by how easy its main concept is to follow if you're actually paying attention… and how, in its deadly serious approach to telling its story, silly and ridiculous it all seems. Before, the constant explanations felt like they were flying over my head. Now, eight years after my last viewing of the film (my third at the time), the film's exposition – the practice in which large amounts of information are conveyed in order to explain a theory or idea – didn't strike me as complicated, but merely relentless. Inception, I realised, is 95% expositional.

It's not as though I'm the first person to realise this. There had already been a fair degree of backlash in the months following the film's initial release regarding its exposition-heavy script, not to mention a host of other criticisms. While the initial praise seemed to hinge around its status as a “smart blockbuster,” others turned on Inception for numerous reasons, including Nolan's clinical filmmaking style, his failure to direct great action, and the film's reliance on a dream logic far too rigid to actually emulate the state of dreaming. I've personally always felt uneasy about the central goal of the film; the aim to implant an idea as boring as “dissolve your father's company” into a subject isn't exactly the most thrilling.

But if you're looking for issues the film's wall-to-wall exposition still feels like the most frequently derided aspect of Inception. Yet Nolan's film is merely following in the tradition of The Matrix, another – though I'd argue vastly superior – sci-fi blockbuster made almost entirely out of exposition, Morpheus explaining to Neo the rules of a new world the way DiCaprio's Cobb does with Ellen Page's Ariadne. That film's influence is all over Nolan's Inception, of course – not that he's ever tried to hide the fact.

The Matrix covers its exposition-heavy dialogue better than Inception does. Whereas The Matrix seems to effortlessly offload information in a way that feels far more natural, it's impossible to ignore the fact that Inception is a film in which characters are endlessly explaining what they are doing to one another. Nobody here really seems like a genuine person with three dimensions, but instead as mere vessels for Nolan's explanations to function. In a way, Inception is a film about its own explanations.

But the question of why this exposition is so fun and the exposition in, say, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, is completely mind-numbing, is the key to understanding the film's lasting appeal. Nolan is such a sleek filmmaker that his aesthetic forces you to buy into his lofty ideas. When Nolan deploys a new rule or a world-building condition, he instantly backs it up with a visual cue or a moment that seems to justify the offload of information. There's no time to question it until later because the pace is so relentless – the filmmaker keeps the plates spinning (and keeps adding more) to distract you from the fact that everything that's happening is being described. There is a self-serving quality to such practices, perhaps, but if you're engaged and having a blast, does this cinematic sleight of hand really matter?

In a strange way, the constant flow and exchange of ideas also achieves a kind of unexpected poetry. Nobody in Inception talks like a human being, but that's not really the point. Take this dialogue, for example, from Cobb: “She had locked something away, something deep inside her. The truth that she had once known, but… she chose to forget. Limbo became her reality.” It's overwritten, but oddly resonant. Everyone is asking and answering exactly the right questions at the exact right time, establishing a strange and cerebral rhythm that becomes riveting. If the movie is about exposition, Nolan is – at the very least – intent on dazzling you with his info dumps.

It helps that Nolan's reliance on relatable elements, like the film's totems or the idea of a “kick,” feed back into our own experiences, grounding a jargon-y narrative in something familiar. Everyone has experienced that “kick” feeling at least once and so Nolan cleverly hijacks it to connect the logic of his world to the logic of our own – a trick he also borrowed from The Matrix, where strange, everyday sensations – like déjà vu – are explained as “glitches” within that film's internal computer system. With these sly tricks, Nolan creates exposition that is surprisingly relatable and – most importantly – made bearable for the film's extensive runtime.

Done badly, of course, exposition sticks out like a sore thumb, separating bad screenwriting from good screenwriting, the difference between a nuanced suggestion within an ambiguous line of dialogue and a derailed freight train crashing onto the street. The second you accept that the joy of Inception is its unashamed commitment to narrating itself and not as a mind-bending work of genius, the better Inception delivers as a top-notch popcorn movie; more akin to The Terminator than it is Solaris. 

I'm not sure Inception has much to say, about life, or dreams, nor does it feel like a particularly intelligent movie in retrospect, though you can certainly admire the audacity of its structure and Nolan's deliverance of multiple set-pieces playing out across several timeframes. Yet it's in the establishing of a fake science and its unashamed commitment to delivering on the rules set up by its own conceit that the filmmaker manages to turn over two hours of “telling us stuff” into something genuinely thrilling. The cleverest thing about Inception isn't the idea itself; it's in how Nolan manages to make the relentless flow of information into the most cathartic entertainment.

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