What are the literary, dramatic, and cinematic elements of the movie Inception from Christopher Nolan? Please explain thoroughly.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One could argue that much of Christopher Nolan’s work has had to do with the study—and then adaptation, visualization, and dramatization—of impulses originating from the unconscious. Objectively, in terms of narrative purpose and beyond the telling of existential crime stories, his guiding mission appears to involve overcoming the challenge of transforming literary or intellectual abstractions into drama.

The Mystery genre has many permutations, so my label for a film of this form and outline is the psychological thriller. In other words, Inception uses a mutant-variation of the jet-set thriller and makes it metaphysical. In it, we watch a team of charismatic, highly intelligent, and attractive actors known for an ability to pierce us to the heart yet still kick action-hero butt as they set off on a Meta-tastic epic fantasy. My approximation of the plot is this: they are "architects" designing extra-dimensional virtual reality systems stacked with multiple levels that tap into content from others's unconscious minds. In a sense, this power can be directed and weaponized. There are rules that both smooth-over or embody and reinforce the paradoxes of this dream-space in similarity to the way that any time travel, alternate universe, or any pseudo-sci-fi formula must have its underpinning of logic to function narratively.

Christopher Nolan, as a filmmaker, often plays 4-D chess. The protagonists struggle, moving through the shifting lines between dreams and memory, fantasy and reality.

What follows is not an outline of the elaborate story. Instead, I’m thinking of an example of a thought-experiment from Mindfulness research by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. This exercise is about how our minds process linear information. As we listen to someone else construct a sentence, we "hang on every word," and their meaning continually shifts and evolves as the information accumulates. Our minds must make thumbnail drafts of where we think the sentence is going. As the speaker advances through the sentence, we must revise our preconceptions until the entire sequence of words actually plays out. What I’m trying to say is that description is akin to the experience of Nolan’s vision, as it shifts and changes, loaded with multiple layers of information, often picking up significance as it doubles back onto itself. As there is a wide array of ideas at play, so too are the many film-making tropes, employed as sort of a narrative location marker for when the plot takes a curve too fast.

Christopher Nolan is an individual at the helm of huge—and hugely ambitious—filmic statements, but there are any number of literary and cinematic precedents for his speculative fictional sensibilities. Good artists borrow, but great artists steal, as they say. Nolan is beholden to several previous generations of speculative thinkers. A brief list would includes Philip K. Dick, the futurist to whom all human senses are totally unreliable and subject to manipulation. His novels are puzzles of false perceptions, featuring characters responding to paranoiac confusion. Another progenitor of absurdist premises about the search for meaning among duplicate and decoy worlds is Douglas Adams, of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, or Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Both writers (likely) sublimated their anxieties in their work, needling an imaginative hedge against the instability of contemporary society.

Also, the idea of an alternative plane in which identical characters play out divergent variations of reality, often unknowing which is which, is the cornerstone of the Matrix saga. Each of the writers or creators I’ve just referenced have extensive works available in print, television broadcast, and cinematic formats.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Christopher Nolan's 2010 film, Inception, tells the story of a professional extractor, one who steals secrets from people's unconscious minds, who is forced by circumstances to take on the dangerous challenge of performing an 'inception,' the act of planting an idea in the mind of another.

How is it dramatic? If we accept the idea that drama is the revelation of character as one valid definition of that art, the inception team's goal of persuading the young heir to an energy conglomerate to realize he needs to shed the powerful influence of his late father, would be one example. Another would be the need of the lead character, Dom Cobb, to resolve his issues over his wife's death in order to achieve the personal goal of returning to his children.

How is it literary? Although it has literary qualities, such as the totems distributed to the members of the team, these objects seem more literal than symbolic, with a didactic imperative often in found in Nolan's films. The lack of narrative and character depth, and the omnipresence of film archetypes and cliches conjure Umberto Eco's description of Casablanca, as a "reunion of archetypes."

How is it cinematic? To continue to apply Eco's comments on Casablanca, it's not just a movie it is "movieness." So, too with Inception. Its effect is almost entirely dependent on immersion in a visual realm of fantasy which only film can produce in such a visceral manner. And in its tour-de-force last hour, as Nolan intercuts between four 'dream states,' in effect, four different films, he evinces a propulsive momentum that showcases the power of the medium.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The film Inception offers a number of instances of devices we would call literary devices. Each of these can also be construed as a cinematic narrative device used in the film's story-telling.

First, there is the symbolism surrounding each character’s “totem”. The totem represents something emotional and historical for each character, while also gaining thematic significance at the end of the film as the protagonist’s totem, a top, teeters between conclusions. This symbol is given a very specific surface meaning, but can also be interpreted as a having a deeper meaning related to the theme of “uncertain reality” which is at the core of the film.

Inception also utilizes a series of “frames” or “frame narratives”. This is a literary device commonly used to open and close stories. Examples of literature using frame narratives would include Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness and Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Some other cinematic elements: voice over; slow motion; color choice to distinguish time settings.


Approved by eNotes Editorial Team