I couldn’t use brevity to describe the plot of Inception (2010) if I tried. There’s simply too much to compress in Christopher Nolan‘s dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream heist extravaganza that’s also a tale of enduring parental love and a sleek noir. Instead, on its 10th anniversary, let’s revisit the film through its imagery. Picking the spinning top at the end would be too easy, so here are 5 more:
1. Cobb washing ashore
“You never really remember the beginning of a dream, do you? You always wind up right in the middle of what’s going on,” Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) tells Ariadne (Ellen Page) as he tries to explain the finer points of building worlds inside one’s head. Fittingly, the movie about dreamscapes and the dangers of staying in one for too long begins in the middle, with Cobb washing ashore, and then unravels how he got there. Applying the internal logic of the dream world to the film allows Nolan to play with audience expectations, right until the end. Ten years later, we’re still trying to figure out if the film’s ending is a dream or not. Why? Because he’s incepted that idea in our heads.
2. Cobb’s projections of Mal
Physical manifestations of guilt make an appearance in the 2002 Nolan film, Insomnia, in which the unrelenting sunlight streaming through the protagonist’s windows keeps him up, as does his troubled conscience over the murder of his fellow cop. Something similar happens in Inception. Cobb’s desire to see his children once more propels the narrative, just as his guilt at his wife’s death obstructs it. We never see the real Mal (Marion Cotillard) in the film, just Cobb’s memories and projections of her. Because he inadvertently led her to commit suicide, she appears, embittered, durng his heists and tries to sabotage him.
3. Cobb escaping Cobol agents in Mombasa
Trying to evade the agents of his former company, Cobb finds himself running through narrower and narrow maze-like lanes in Mombasa. The scene is another nod to how the real world and the dreamworld have a tendency to converge in his mind – mazes have, until this scene, only been an architectural component of dreams. Cobb would know, he’s a former architect.
4. Ariadne experimenting with the dreamworld’s architecture
Inception’s an emotional rollercoaster, but it does pause to flex its visual storytelling muscles. As Ariadne tests the limits of the dreamworld for the first time, she bends physics and defies gravity. As she hoists up a section of the street, she figures out how creation in a world without laws can be boundless, pure. Infinitely looped steps and rotating hallways feature later in the film and are just as thrilling, but here’s where it all begins.
5. Cobb going home
The film is one long series of goodbyes. Cobb rushes his last goodbye to his children, leaving before he can see their faces one last time. He spends most of the film unwilling to say goodbye to the Mal he remembers, choosing to create a prison of memories instead. Even Fisher (Cillian Murphy) gets a cathartic goodbye in the dream, something his emotionally distant father wouldn’t have granted him otherwise. The film’s most moving goodbye is still the one that goes unsaid. As Cobb passes through the airport after successfully performing inception, he glances at each of his team members. They can’t acknowledge each other on account of the heist’s covert nature. Still, it’s one goodbye punctuated by triumph and not tragedy.