It’s Been 10 Years, and I’m Finally Ready to Admit I Don’t Get ‘Inception’

The mind is deep, but is this film, really?

In the annals of film history, there are a select few cinematic masterpieces that manage to rise above all others, perfectly encapsulating our present moment while drawing in generations of viewers, artfully showcasing the true breadth and depth of the human experience. And then there are the films that men put in their Tinder bios. You’re probably already thinking about them, but I’ll name them just in case: Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, the Martin Scorsese movies with guns, and of course Tarantino’s feet-forward films. But today, I’m bravely coming forward to speak on one of the most prolific dude bro films of all time and finally say: I don’t get Inception

Before anyone decides to revoke my film Twitter card, let’s take the time to unpack this some. The average filmgoer has most likely seen, or at least, heard of Inception. When director Christopher Nolan first pitched the script in 2002, before Batman Begins, it existed as a horror film about dream stealing. But by the time of its premiere in July 2010, Nolan had crafted the treatment into an expressive film noir action movie. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt at the height of his adorableness, the film was created to be the ultimate summer cash cow. With its $100 million marketing campaign, Inception truly had it all: an acclaimed director, several famous stars and no scenes where women speak to each other. It was made to be a hit. 

In 2010, I was the incredibly mature age of 12 years old. As a PG-13 movie that features almost no sexual content, Inception was deemed the perfect film for my Christian family to watch together. When we finished, I said, “Cool.” I’m not sure whether or not I watched it before I decided to screw it all and move to New York to study media and film, but imagine my surprise when I discovered that almost every (straight) male film student I met in the city considered it near sacrilege to not worship at Christopher Nolan’s feet.

So here’s my first concession. I understand the basic plot and focus of Inception. DiCaprio plays a dream thief who will be able to go home if he and his team implant a memory. I get it. Time is fake, the mind is deep and you should never fly first class unless you want your brain to get hijacked and have your conscience convince you to sell your father’s hard-earned company. But there is something about the archetype of the anti-hero that I find hard to become emotionally invested in, especially when it takes precedence over any other detailed backstory. I don’t hate the film. I just think it’s okay. 

What I didn’t understand was how Inception went from simple action film to god tier in the canon of male directors. It wasn’t the highest grossing film of 2010 — that accolade went to Toy Story 3. It didn’t even win the most Oscars — rather, Inception tied for four Academy Awards with The King’s Speech, but lost the coveted statue for Best Picture. The key then, lies in its director and the history of America’s obsession with films by men, for men. 

Welcome to what I like to call dude-bro cinema. While the name itself invokes a certain rhetoric, as we’ve discussed before, it’s clear that there is a developed consensus on the type of films that exist on an exalted plane of reverence. These movies subscribe to an articulated type of aesthetic: the lone warrior forced to deal with the phantoms of the past; the anti-hero on a suicide quest to burn out bright and fast; a dark planet and its warriors forced to fight against an ever encroaching enemy. 

There are many famed directors irrevocably attached to projects like this: Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, James Cameron. While most of these films are created by male directors, they succeed because they manage to perfectly encapsulate a specific male coded fantasy. For the sake of the art, I think it would be unfair of me to prescribe that fantasy as innately wrong. But, the further into the film industry I go, the clearer it becomes that this elevation of cinema is more than just a divide in gender. It’s not just these male directors that are praised, but specifically the movies they make that most represent this male-coded desire. The prowess of these directors and the popularity of the films they create elevate them to a new, and almost untouchable level. 

I love Scorsese as a director, but I have yet to be childishly berated in class over the film Hugo or Silence. No one has ever called me uneducated over liking The Hurt Locker, a quintessential action film, but it would take more hands than I have to count the times I’ve been told “You just didn’t get it” when I presented a critique of one of these film aficionados. I’ve probably seen Inception over six times, which is six times less than I’ve had a Tinder match gush over a Tarantino film. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s even a popular saying: “If a man says Fight Club is his favorite movie in his dating profile, run.” 

I spent my time as a media and film major constantly waffling between the innate desire to just agree and move on, or keep my mouth shut, all to avoid being told I didn’t belong in the field I had chosen. While I am not one to be intimidated by people who refuse to consider the full breadth of films available outside of our narrow American conception, I can only imagine the wannabe writers, directors, producers or just viewers, shut out of the conversation because they dared to critique the greats. Cinema has historically thrived when films created and allowed for a breadth and variety of detailed criticism. This is what allows movies to thrive, not as legacies, but as art. 

So, I am bravely taking a stand. I have seen Inception (more than once). The special effects are cool. I love Ellen Page. I think we should bring back the era where we paid Joseph Gordon-Levitt to stand around in tight vests. But I just don’t get Inception. And that should be okay.