After the mental calisthenics of watching and trying to unpack Tenet, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to return to another of my favorite Christopher Nolan time-bending films, Inception. This was especially the case after my 13-year-old daughter—whose introduction to Nolan was Tenet—asked if all of his films were “that confusing and hard to understand,” and after I saw that a 4K HDR transfer was available for download from Kaleidescape.
Scoring an impressive 87% Rotten Tomatoes critics’ score and 91% audience score, Inception made over $825 million at the box office, and was a critical success as well, winning four Academy Awards for Cinematography, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects, with additional nominations for Original Screenplay, Original Score, Art Direction, and Best Picture.
The core plot of Inception is actually fairly simple—getting someone to do something you want them to by planting a simple idea in their subconscious that they believe is their own. But it is the path of getting there that is so complex and visually stunning to watch, as Nolan creates dream worlds within worlds within worlds, with time expanding exponentially the further down you go. What takes seconds in “real life” might equate to hours or even decades multiple dream-levels deep.
Similar to lucid dreaming—a dream where the person is aware they are dreaming and can then exert control over the dream universe—Inception allows for group dreaming where an architect designs and builds the dream world, which is then populated by others who can control the dream, with the actual dreamer filling out the world with the characters of his subconscious mind. (If you’ve seen the film, you’ll understand; if you haven’t, trust me that it actually makes a lot of sense.)
INCEPTION AT A GLANCE
In the wake of his mindbending Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s dream-world thriller Inception gets the 4K HDR treatment, with a slew of bonus features to help you figure out what it all means.
Tons of detail and resolution in nearly every frame, with plenty of opportunities for HDR to make things pop from the film’s muted palette.
The 5.1 mix features plenty of subtle ambient and aggressive surround effects to place you in the action, and massive low-frequency information that will take your subwoofer—and walls—to their limits.
Besides the striking visuals and stunt sequences, another element that really elevates Inception is the fantastic cast, with practically every role handled by A-list talent. This includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Tom Berenger, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, and Michael Caine. DiCaprio does an especially good job here, as do Gordon-Levitt and Watanabe.
The film revolves around Cobb (DiCaprio), an expert “extractor” who is able to steal valuable information from someone’s subconscious while they are dreaming, being hired by Saito (Watanabe) to infiltrate the dreams of Robert Fischer (Murphy)—the newly appointed CEO of a multi-billion-dollar energy concern—in order to plant the idea in his head to break up his company to avoid a future monopoly. In return, Saito promises he can arrange for Cobb—who has been on the run for years after having been wrongfully accused of killing his wife Mal (Cotillard)—to be able to come home to see his children.
Cobb’s subconscious is haunted by memories of Mal—with whom he spent a decade in the abyss of their shared subconscious and where she ultimately lost track of reality—and any dreamworlds he now creates are quickly corrupted and
overrun by her. He hires one of his father’s (Caine) top students, Ariadne (Page), whom he teaches how to design and construct elaborate labyrinthian dream worlds that will give his team more time to move about before they are discovered and attacked by the dreamer’s subconscious. (Again, this all makes sense when you see the film.)
The dream worlds are often filled with fascinating Escher-like architecture—entire city blocks that twist upwards at 90 degrees to fold back onto the world, rooms filled with never-ending staircases, topsy-turvy gravity, and cities disintegrating as the dreamworld collapses.
You’ll likely find yourself asking, “How did they do that?”
and fortunately there is a slew of featurettes included with the download that provide answers to many of your questions. It is especially impressive when you see that many of these are actually in-camera practical effects as opposed to CGI trickery. Especially interesting is a short animated graphic-novel-esque prequel film, The Cobol Job, which gives some interesting backstory on how Cobb ends up encountering Saito in Inception.
While I don’t think of Inception as an action film, it actually has a surprising amount of action, with the dreamworlds filled with car chases and numerous shootouts. One of the final dream levels—a heavily fortified hospital on top of a snow-covered mountain—always reminds me of a level of a Bond-like video game, using snipers, stealth, and force to overcome a large force on skis and in tracked vehicles to infiltrate a massive complex and achieve the objective.
Originally shot on 35mm and 65mm film, there is no information on the resolution of the digital intermediate used here, but there is tons of detail and resolution in nearly every frame. Closeups reveal loads of facial detail, and you can especially appreciate the detail, design, and fabric texture in the actors’ clothing. For example, in the opening moments, we see Cobb lying in the surf, and there is sharp line texture and detail in the fabric of his jacket. Later, in the snow-mountain scene, you can appreciate the slightly pebbled texture on the leather accents of Cobb’s teams’ uniforms, or a delicate white-on-white pattern on one of Saito’s shirts. Long shots of Paris and Mombasa are also sharp and full of detail, as are the busy city streets of the Paris dream world, where every building edge is sharp and defined. There are the occasional shots in soft focus, but this appears to be more a limit of the original material.
While the film has a generally muted greyish, overcast, or steely-blue color palette, there are still plenty of opportunities for the HDR grading to improve the viewing experience. One big difference I noticed over the Blu-ray transfer was the enhanced pop of the white shirts worn by many of the actors, and the brightness of the overhead lighting in rooms. The early scene in Saito’s castle especially benefits from this, with the lighting looking far more realistic and bathing the room in a rich, warm, golden glow. Interior scenes also benefit from rich shadow detail while still delivering bright highlights either from light streaming in through windows or internal lighting, and the added contrast also benefits the snowy scenes, providing more detail and depth to the white-covered landscape.
Nolan famously eschews next-generation audio formats like Dolby Atmos, and we are once again “limited” to a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master mix here. Even so, it is pretty dynamic, with plenty of subtle ambient and aggressive surround effects to
place you in the action. From street sounds at a Paris café, to a freight train whizzing past in the side surrounds, to the creaking and groaning of an elevator shaft and cabling, to dynamic gun fire and bullet strikes discreetly placed around the room, to the distinct sounds of objects exploding in air, Inception’s sound mix is active and entertaining.
The film also features some truly massive and immense low-frequency information that will take your subwoofer—and walls—to their limits. From the opening scene, the sounds of waves crashing at the beach pound your room with bass. Even more aggressive are the deep—and lengthy—bass signals when a dreamworld is collapsing, or the crashing of an avalanche.
Another thing Nolan is becoming infamous for is difficult-to-understand dialogue. This was a real complaint of mine from his two most recent films—Tenet and Dunkirk—where dialogue was completely unintelligible for many key sequences, often drowned out by effects and music mixed significantly louder (and characters mumbling behind masks in the case of Tenet). While most of Inception isn’t plagued with this, there are still a few moments where dialogue is buried beneath other sounds.
Nolan re-teams with frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer for the score here, and it
is often an aggressive, dynamic, stress-filled mix that comes at you from all corners of the room. The film’s finale is heightened by the score, which is like a constant assault on the senses and will get your heart pumping. One of the songs, “Mombasa,” reminded me of the frenetic electronica and bass assault of a Blue Man Group track.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, Inception remains incredibly entertaining, and as visually exciting and entertaining as any modern film. With a new 4K HDR transfer, the film looks better than ever, making it the perfect time to revisit this modern classic.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at
@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.