With the recent release of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, I thought I’d look back at the filmmaker’s career— and mine. Ever since The Prestige, a new Nolan film is an event in my life. He is the single-most influential writer/director on my own writing, and the film of his that has had the greatest impact on me is Inception.
When Inception came out in the summer of 2010, I was two years out of college and contemplating what to do with the rest of my life. I was thinking about trying screenwriting, but I wasn’t sure I had what it took to write feature-length original movies. I thought maybe I could be a sitcom writer or something and work in other writers’ worlds with preexisting characters. But seeing Inception changed my perception. It had everything I wanted to see in a movie, and I knew what I wanted to do with my life: make movies exactly like Inception.
So what was it about Inception that inspired me so much?
1. The Visual Style
The trailer alone flooded me with inspiration. The noir visuals with guns, chases, and actors dressed in slick suits in a big city. Plus the science-fictional visuals that take place inside the mind. I loved everything about the way the film looked in that trailer, and it left me craving more.
2. Intelligent & Accessible
It’s one thing to make a smart complex science fiction film, but to also make it accessible to mass audiences is a rare feat. I want to write smart sci-fi, not just for sci-fi geeks, but for everyone. “Inception is the best movie of the year thus far! Wow” – LeBron James on Twitter. I am amazed that Christopher Nolan was able to make a film that LeBron and I could love equally, and I strive to do the same through my work.
3. Sci-Fi Noir
My two favorite genres are science fiction and noir, and I love nothing more than a combination of the two, as in Blade Runner, Minority Report, Gattaca, and of course, Inception. So many crime stories have been told, it’s almost impossible to come up with an original noir plot. But if you introduce a science fictional element, it can open up new possibilities to construct a narrative that can’t be told in the normal world. There have been countless heist stories in film history, but never one that takes place inside someone’s mind— or in a dream within a dream within a dream…
4. Grounded Science Fiction
I love science fiction that takes place in our world, except for one fantastical twist or piece of science fictional technology, and that, likewise, doesn’t get bogged down in trying to explain how or why it works. Like the memory-erasing machine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And the dream machine in Inception. Keeping the story grounded in our otherwise recognizable world not only helps keep the film more accessible, it also let’s you focus on that one sci-fi concept and mine it for its full potential.
5. Big Budget Action and Effects
Most films that try to tell a tale as complicated as Inception, like Memento for instance, are made on a low budget with limited effects. A film doesn’t need big action and effects to be great— there’s nothing worse than mindless explosions for no reason— but if you are able to develop the plot around mind-blowing action and visuals that no one has seen before, then you can create something truly special. Like a city street folding onto itself. And zero-gravity fight scenes.
6. An Unforgettable Score
I hate the generic-sounding scores that so many movies and television shows have. A great original movie needs an equally great and original score, and Hans Zimmer delivered with Inception. I don’t know of a film score that’s been ripped off and parodied more than Inception’s, which should be taken as a sign of flattery.
Memento and The Prestige were the first Nolan movies that I fell in love with. A film told in reverse, and a film about magic tricks that is in itself a magic trick. I was fascinated by the puzzle nature of those films, and Inception continued that trend. I loved trying to decipher what was real and what was a dream, and I love still being unsure as that top continues to spin.
Inception may not have as many dramatic twists as The Prestige, but there are plenty of surprising plot turns in the film. I love a good twist and try to incorporate at least one into all of my stories.
I love a good ambiguous ending that leaves you thinking after the credits roll. The spinning top at the end of Inception is an image I’ll never forget, and I still puzzle over its meaning. Whereas some films frustrate by being too open-ended, Inception provides closure with Cobb’s reunion with his children, while also leaving you wonder if it was all a dream or not. I try to achieve a similar blend of closure and ambiguity with my endings.
10. The Tone
Some critics of Nolan complain that, like Kubrick, his films are too cold and emotionless, or they need more humor. But for me, the balance is just right. I seem to share the same tastes and sensibilities as Nolan. Inception in particular feels like it was made specifically for me.
I can’t say Inception is the greatest movie ever made, but I can say it’s one of my personal favorite movies, and it’s definitely the most influential movie I’ve ever seen. It hit me right at the perfect time when I was developing my own voice as a writer. Four years later, I’ve written what I hope to be my own Inception— Prolepsis.