Since the psychological mindfuck that was three consecutive viewings of Memento, I’ve concluded that Chris Nolan is one of the most original thinkers in modern filmmaking. And Inception, with its daring world of pliable dreamscapes and mind-probing, only reinforces the theory.
But it wouldn’t be accurate to call Inception wholly original. There are no new ideas, after all, and allowing characters to run roughshod inside each other’s psychic worlds has always been a go-to canvas for the more psychotic imaginings of filmmakers.
Nolan’s take on dream-hopping is undeniably brilliant – but who got there first?
Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947)
One of the original German surrealist filmmakers, Hans Richter’s cult classic follows Joe/Narcissus, who discovers a gift for viewing the contents of his own mind, and sets up a business selling increasingly nightmarish dreams to increasingly abstract clients. The avant-garde dream sequences seem outdated now, but its influence is huge - it's one of David Lynch’s favourite films.
Hugely underrated but eerily similar to Inception, the film focuses on Dennis Quaid, a psychic on the run who becomes embroiled with a government scheme to link into the minds of their subjects through their dreams, to a soundtrack of smooth drone and saxophone. Nolan has since perfected an idea that was germinating in this gem of a film.
Terry Gilliam is a modern master of the dreamworld, and his unique visual and conceptual influence is dripping all over Inception. The film’s temperament swings as dreams turn to nightmares for Sam, a hapless government employee who tries, literally to find the woman in his dreams, creating endless new and terrifying worlds within his mind. A cult classic, with a rare out-of-character turn from fellow Python Michael Palin as a torturer.
The Cell (2000)
A clear-cut case of ideas too big for our stomachs, so to speak. But while the film was undeniably ridiculous (it stars the eternally expressionless Jennifer Lopez as a sexy child psychologist for starters), the ideas were actually quite similar to Inception, as Lopez enters the mind of a comatose serial killer to extract the whereabouts of his final victim while his murderous mind self tries to kill her.
Waking Life (2001)
More of a gentle existential probing of the world of REM, Richard Linklater’s animated film is at times thought-provoking and immensely pretentious in equal measures. But his theory on how to tell if you’re still dreaming (see the video below) is a precursor to Nolan’s “totem” technique.
Sleep Dealer (2008)
This low-budget indie sci-fi displays one of the richest fictional universes on screen. Like Inception it's set in a near-future, where poor migrant workers are fitted with “nodes”, plugging their nervous systems directly into the internet so they can sell their memories, and their consciousness can perform menial labour while their bodies remain on the legal side of the US border. The word “dystopia” barely begins to cover it.