Muscle Memories ‘Inception’ Gave Me a Way to Dream
Again and again, I’ve lost myself to movie time. I’ve lost myself to dream time, too.
This is Muscle Memories , a column by Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya that examines her relationship with action movies.
When Billy was ten years old, he went into town to see a movie. He left the house without a word to his parents, but that was the usual. He spent his days with friends, often getting up to no good. His too-toothy grin was full of mischief. Years later, when his youngest grandson would crack a smile after getting in trouble, everyone saw a flash of Billy.
Billy had an active imagination. Some days, he played with fire. Literally. He and his friends would dip the wild, bushy ends of cattails into gasoline and light them up, makeshift torches to guide the way as they trod the lakefront grounds of Alpena, Michigan. But on this day, he was alone.
There were two movie theaters in town: The Lyric and Walt’s. Walt’s was the fancy joint. Tickets went for fifteen cents and included the movie, a cartoon, and a world-news program. The Lyric sold tickets for twelve cents and also showed the news. One time, during a double feature at the Lyric, a big rat ran across the feet of Billy’s friend Bob. Billy didn’t see the rat himself, but he claims he heard the skitter of its little feet on the theater floor, and he certainly heard Bob scream.
Billy only had twelve cents in his pocket that afternoon. If you were small enough that your head didn’t poke over the top of your seat, he knew, you could get away with staying for a second show. He didn’t need to tell the boy running the ticket counter what he was there to see. There was just one movie showing all day: Fighter Squadron . A war movie. It was 1948. They were mostly war movies then.
Movies in general weren’t really Billy’s thing, but this one was special. This one had been filmed at Oscoda Army Air Field on Lake Huron, just fifty miles south of Billy’s hometown, Alpena. This movie could put the mitten-tip of Michigan on the map, he marveled. Northern Michigan in brilliant technicolor.
Billy arrived for the 1 p.m. showing of Fighter Squadron . He watched the world news that screened before it, and then he watched the movie, all ninety-six minutes of screaming sergeants and maverick pilots and soaring aircraft. Then he stayed in his seat until it all began again at 3 p.m., the same news stories, the same movie with the same characters and the same plot. He watched it again at 5 p.m., again at 7 p.m., and when it was time for the final showing at 9 p.m., there was Billy, still perched in his seat, still staring wonder-eyed at the screen, too absorbed to think about the fact that he hadn’t moved or eaten in hours.
His parents didn’t worry when he wasn’t home for lunch, and they still didn’t worry when he wasn’t home for dinner at sunset. Around ten, a switch flipped. Billy’s mother Jane became convinced her son had been snatched up, drowned in the lake, hit by a car.
Before he could get to the end of his fifth viewing, Billy heard someone in the theater calling his name over and over. He saw a bright light. The beam of a police officer’s flashlight. He stayed still at first, knowing he was in trouble. But being the only solo ten-year-old in the theater, the jig was up. He trudged home and got an earful from his mother. But he didn’t regret his day at the movies one bit.
Why? I ask my grandpa Bill. I’ve heard this story a million times. He tells it with so much texture and detail. Even after the stroke, he remembers the title of the movie, the cost of the tickets at each theater, Bob’s first and last name. The words come slower, and he accidentally calls his mother his father, but so many details he gets right over and over. This time, I finally ask why he did it, why he sat in a theater just to watch the same movie four times in a row . I’m not confounded by his choice the way the rest of my family is, but I am curious about it.
He throws his hands up in the air, leans back in his chair, and says: “It was a good movie.”
A series of tweets I posted in 2010:
July 17, 9:21 a.m.: Maybe I will go see Inception again tonight. I don’t even care if I have to go alone.
August 12, 5:31 p.m.: Inception tonight. I wonder if I have the script memorized .
August 13, 12:25 a.m.: Inception is still magical the fourth time around .
October 6, 12:44 a.m.: this is a tweet within a tweet within a tweet. #inception
November 19, 6:55 p.m.: inception for the 5th time~
The record stops there, though according to my memory, I saw Inception a total of six times in theaters. Eight hundred eighty-eight minutes in a cool, dark theater watching the same story over and over, memorizing its contours. And sure, it wasn’t all on the same day like my grandpa. But that’s still a lot of times to watch the same movie on the big screen. In 2010, I was eighteen and entering my first year of college. I’d finally gained some independence. If I wanted to see the same movie six times, no one could tell me otherwise.
When my grandfather tells his Fighter Squadron story, the rest of my family is incredulous. They think it’s hilarious but also absurd. How could you watch the same movie that many times in a row? they ask, bewildered.
If I wanted to see the same movie six times, no one could tell me otherwise.
I wanted to know why, but I didn’t need to ask my grandpa how it could be possible. It’s so easy to get swept up in a movie’s world, to get trapped in a loop. The first few times I heard the story, it was just one of his many funny retellings. But by the time I asked him why, I could see something else in the story: myself. Sometimes, you just want to relive something again and again. Sometimes, you just want to escape. Sometimes, you just want to watch a good movie.
At its surface, Inception is a heady heist movie, satisfying the most expected tropes of the genre—an action romp full of shootouts and car chases and hand-to-hand combat. But there’s a sci-fi twist to its setup: In Inception , it’s possible to enter other people’s dreams. The heist doesn’t involve breaking into a physical vault but rather into a person’s subconscious. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), who makes his living breaking into the dreams of corporate execs and stealing their secrets, assembles a team for One Last Job, the one that will be his ticket back to his home and kids. He brings in Ariadne (Elliot Page), a bright young architect, to design a dream, a dream within a dream, and a dream within a dream within a dream to try to pull off what other characters keep telling him isn’t possible: inception, the planting of an idea in another’s mind. Christopher Nolan supposedly spent a decade ruminating on Inception before finishing the script. As Dom says in the movie: “Once an idea has taken hold of the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate.”
For a script that so often features characters explaining and then reexplaining what’s going on, Inception is impressively propulsive. The movie twists like a maze. Like a dream, it makes up the rules as it goes along and then shifts them. Marion Cotillard plays Dom’s wife, Mal, not a femme fatale exactly, but a dream version of one. The real Mal is dead—a reveal that comes early in the movie—and Dom’s guilt manifests as this projected Mal. Dom needs Ariadne to architect the dreams, because he can’t know all the twists and turns beforehand. If he does, Mal will show up and sabotage the operation. His subconscious punishes him brutally.
Inception manages to turn the action-blockbuster formula into something memorable. The film is about perception, about grief and guilt and memory. A level deeper, it’s about love and betrayal and aging. Even its action sequences evoke an unexpected sense of intimacy. The zero-gravity fight sequences are like a kaleidoscope of carefully choreographed combat. Like Ariadne building dreams, Nolan architects a detailed world that surprises in the right doses. The cinematography and soundscape allure the viewer without tipping into gimmick. In one of the movie’s most memorable spectacles, Ariadne constructs a dreamscape where Paris bends back into itself. The music relies heavily on repetition, with Édith Piaf’s 1960 French ballad “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” playing multiple times and also informing Hans Zimmer’s score .
The film made $828 million worldwide and received heaps of accolades, a rare summer blockbuster that wasn’t a sequel or a remake or part of any franchise or cinematic universe. To this day, people speculate on the ending, develop fan theories, pick apart the plot holes. I had little interest in actively participating in that part of the Inception hype back in the day. My obsession with the movie happened on the character level, on the aesthetic level. Its characters are broad, but the genuinely good performances lend the roles some specificity. The broadness of the characters also made the narrative ripe for fandom. Tumblr was awash with Inception fan fiction, an especially popular pairing being Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur and Tom Hardy’s Eames, who do have a distinctly flirtatious dynamic in the movie but whose queerness is never textually established. There’s little touching in the movie, but it’s erotic in bursts. Mal circles Ariadne and recites a riddle in a haunting, hot dream scene. I was deeply closeted when I watched Inception over and over, but this is one of those movie scenes I come back to often as having stirred something in me before I could really name it.
The first time I saw the movie, I felt like I’d washed up on a beach, like Dom in the opening sequence. I wanted to stay in its world, adrift and ocean-lapped, instead of picking myself up and reentering reality. And so I kept going back. Like my grandpa Bill, I didn’t want to pierce the veil between the dreamlike experience of losing one’s self in a movie and reality. Inception rewarded rewatches, not because there were necessarily easter eggs or hidden clues, but because the story is steeped in discovery and imagination: Ariadne embodies this element in particular, acting as an audience surrogate, learning of all the wonders and horrors of manipulating dreams. The boundaries of what is real and what is not shift throughout the movie. There’s room for so many different readings despite the loads of expository dialogue. I wouldn’t say I discovered something new with every viewing, but I did disappear into its world each and every time, pulled in like a tide.
If I dig deeper, what really drew me to Inception is quite simple: the fantasy of sharing dreamspace. Inception makes this possible, allowing people to move within and experience one other’s dreams. That concept alone thrills me to this day.
Supposedly, nobody likes the friend who insists upon sharing every single detail of every single dream they have (I have often been that friend). A college friend once told me he thinks people fake interest in other people’s dreams, that anyone is only ever interested in their own and that to believe otherwise is a kind of myopia. I disagree. I love to hear about the dreams of others as much as I love to share my own. And what if we could push that further? What if we could experience each other’s dreams? What if we could invite other people into ours?
Dream time, Dom tells Ariadne, works differently than real time. We know this from experience, of course. A dream can last minutes and feel like hours. In Inception , a few minutes can become months, years, decades, an entire life. It’s not unlike the movie theater itself, a timeless vacuum where a couple hours can feel, paradoxically, like a blink and a lifetime. Young Billy decided to lose an entire day at the theater. Again and again, I’ve lost myself to movie time. I’ve lost myself to dream time too.
For years before Inception came out, I regularly had lucid dreams. Those dreams where you become aware that you’re dreaming and can then manipulate your world, like an architect. But dreams still have rules, and it’s hard to know if your self in a dream is your actual self. Like Dom, my dream life and reality were separated by lines more gaseous than solid. It’s not as exciting or romantic or tragic as Inception makes it seem, this loosening of reality. It’s mostly just weird.
Some people try to fly when they lucid dream. They try to tap into impossible powers. They treat their dreams like open-play video games. My first instinct whenever I found myself dreaming was always the same: I tried to convince the people around me we were all in a dream. They never believed me. Look around you , I’d say. We can do whatever we want.
Whatever they may have represented, my lucid dreams always became this tedious cycle. Dream-me begged the people in my dreams to see what was really happening. And the people in my dreams—usually people I knew in my waking life—told me I was wrong, that I was losing it. Really, I was arguing with myself. I was trying to tell myself something. In Inception , Dom explains to Ariadne that the dreamer populates the dream with projections, familiar and unfamiliar people sketched out by the subconscious like characters in a story. When I dreamed, I possessed the self-awareness to know what I was experiencing was not real, but the logic stopped there. Dream-me could never remember that the people around me weren’t real. I thought we were dreaming together . Even in the split second after waking up, my first thought was to ask a person I’d seen in my dream what they’d thought about it. I’d remember, with an odd pang of grief, it wasn’t really them and it wasn’t really me.
Dream-me could never remember that the people around me weren’t real. I thought we were dreaming together.
It’s easy to see this as a possible metaphor for trying to reveal my own queerness to myself. But it’s just as possible this instinct represented the opposite: I was convincing myself to be straight, less gay, more like the perceptions and prescriptions others forced upon me. After all, in my real life, I worked hard to convince myself and others I was straight—so hard I pretty much believed it. In my dreams, I had doubts. The idea wouldn’t take. I wouldn’t have been able to unpack any of this at the time—that was too many levels deep in my subconscious. But now, I do wonder about the frequency with which I lucid dreamed back then. I’ve barely lucid dreamed since coming out.
In high school, I read about lucid dreaming and learned there are people who confuse their dreaming and waking lives so much they need to remind themselves they’re awake. In Inception , the characters use “totems” for this purpose, relying on a personal artifact whose intimate details only they know so that they cannot be perfectly replicated by an architect. But this was before Inception , and according to the internet in 2008, writing you are awake on your hand every morning can train the brain to differentiate between dreams and reality.
In Inception , dreamers can get lost in the dreamworld and slip into limbo, described by Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur as “raw, infinite subconscious.” In limbo, anything is possible. But it’s also a trap. In limbo, it becomes impossible to discern one’s dream life from reality. I wanted to write you are awake on my hand not to reattach to reality but to become better at lucid dreaming. To stop wasting all that open dream space on futile attempts to convince the people around me. There were things I wanted to do in my waking life that felt impossible. Maybe in my dreams, I could be and do whatever I wanted.
The first night after I wrote you are awake on my hand, checking it throughout the day like the (surely scientifically sound) internet article told me to do, I dreamed of a tornado, one of my worst fears. As it neared, dream-me had the nagging feeling I was meant to do something. Dream-me looked at my hand. It should have been blank. But in the dream, it was there. You are awake . I woke with a jolt. It hadn’t worked. My mind didn’t want me to know I was dreaming. Was I protecting myself or sabotaging myself?
Like anyone else, I’m the only architect of my own dreams. What I see and do there—it’s all me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve liked to pretend and imagine . My dreams should have been the place where I could do this exponentially, without the limitations of real life. Why then, even when I knew I was dreaming, could I never act on my strongest urges and desires? Why did my queerness remain concealed, locked up in a vault like the ones Dom and his team use in Inception as a place for targets to subconsciously store their secrets?
My dreams rarely felt like an escape. They rarely felt like fantasy—even when I could do cool shit like sling webs Spider-Man-style (a bizarrely recurring dream-ability of mine to this day). I felt like I was trapped in another person’s dream, aware of my environment but unable to bend it to my will.
Dreams were not an escape, but the cool, dark cave of a movie theater was. And by the time I saw Inception , I implicitly understood the appeal of watching the same movie unfold five times in a row, unbothered by the outside world, comforted by repetition. I often feel like a movie came into my life at the exact right time, and Inception was exactly that, a movie all about dreams in a time when my dreams perplexed like nonsense riddles.
My grandfather says he stayed because it was simply a good movie, and maybe that’s really all it was for him. But five consecutive watches is a lot. I have to imagine he did feel some stronger, deeper connection, and I’ll likely never know what it was, because it’s his, not mine, not something that can be easily shared.
Long after Inception , I’m still a rewatcher. If I like a movie, I’ll rewatch it to death. The second I finished the eight-episode HBO miniseries Sharp Objects , I looped back to episode one and began again. I possess a toddler’s persistence and passion for the concept of again . I want to experience and reexperience and reexperience. I want to notice new things, shift my focus to a different detail. But it’s not always about discovery. Sometimes I just like the repetition, the control of knowing what’s coming. I never mind it when someone tells me a story they’ve told me before. If it’s a good story, why shouldn’t I want to hear it again?
Within families, repetition happens all the time. The same stories are told over and over. Sometimes they shift in small ways, but the big pictures stay the same, the punchlines consistent. I come from two lines of storytellers. My grandpa Bill, my mother’s father, is one of the greatest storytellers I’ve ever encountered, and it seems fatalistically cruel of the universe that he’s lost language in recent years. He has good days, ones where he can still tell a tale as clearly as he did that last time he recounted the Fighter Squadron story to me. But it’ll never be quite the same as it was before. We have to tell his stories now.
I joke that my sister and I are twins who were born two and a half years apart. We’re very different in almost every way, but there exists between us a sort of sister telepathy, a mind-meld unlike any connection I have with anyone else. For starters, sometimes we have the same dreams. It has happened sporadically through the years, sometimes when we’ve lived thousands of miles apart. These dreams aren’t exact copies, but they’re close, odd details and plot points overlapping, our subconsciouses clearly synced.
We also memory-mix all the time. Confusing memories, and even inventing entirely false ones, are common occurrences between family members. In a way, inception is possible: People can develop false memories, planted or shaped by others. My sister and I remember some things differently, but we also tend to confuse whose childhood memories are whose. Even memories of our dreams. There’s a violent recurring nightmare one of us used to have that we both still remember in too much detail. She thinks it was hers; I think it was mine. She maintains I’ve only reconstructed it from her telling it to me. She might be right.
When my sister and I memory-mix, when my grandfather tells the same story over and over, there’s a dream logic that creeps into reality, repetition and variation interplaying to create a narrative that can bend back in on itself. I wrote the story that begins this essay using a voice recording of my grandfather telling it and my own memories of his tellings. My own touches are inevitable. My word choice, my focus on certain images, the exclusion of others. It’s my grandfather’s story, but really it’s my story of his story. It’s like Dom in Inception as he attempts to relive and replay memories but ultimately can only recreate facsimiles. Even rewatching a movie doesn’t feel exactly the same every time. If you listen to the same story enough, it becomes simultaneously more familiar and stranger.
I rewatched Inception for the last time in 2011. A decade later, I now return to the film’s dreamscape.
It’s fall, but I live in South Florida now, where the seasons shift only between rainy and less rainy . My mother offers to fly my sister and me home for a long weekend to celebrate my grandpa Bill’s eighty-fifth birthday with him and my grandmother. I can come, but I might have to work when I’m there , I tell my parents. They’re used to my freelancer lifestyle. They’re also finally used to the fact that sometimes work means watching a movie.
I ask my parents and sister if they’ll watch Inception with me, explaining I’m writing about it. One by one, they all decline my invitation. We’ve already seen that movie , my mother says. We know how it ends , adds my father. My sister insists she didn’t even like it that much back in 2010. For them, the appeal of a mystery movie is not knowing what’s going to happen, a first-time feeling that’s impossible to recreate. They’re not rewatchers, though my father once reluctantly was when my sister and I were kids and made him watch the entire Mary-Kate and Ashley oeuvre on endless repeat.
So, the day after my grandfather’s eighty-fifth birthday, I rewatch Inception in my parents’ home, alone. I think about my grandfather’s Fighter Squadron marathon, play through the scenes of his story like a movie or like a memory of my own. I wonder if he would think Fighter Squadron holds up today. Or if it was never about the movie at all for him and merely the experience of the day, a nearly ten-hour escape where real life didn’t matter. I wonder if Inception will hold up for me, what holding up even really means. Do I want the movie to be good? To be the way I remembered? To make me feel the way it used to make me feel? Do I want something new entirely? Before hitting play, I laugh to myself with the knowledge that my grandfather would’ve hated Inception at any stage of his life. He likes his movies straightforward, uncomplicated, and mostly about war—but not Saving Private Ryan , which, he repeatedly declares, without further explanation, is one of the worst movies he has ever seen.
Watching Inception this time does feel different. So many of the big action moments are indelibly seared in my memories, but now I find myself focusing on the smallest of details, able to anticipate the zoomed-in specifics of each actor’s physicality. The way someone’s hand moves, the upturn of a lip, the puffing out of a cheek, a blink, smirk, twitch, open mouth. I find myself responding to these movements more so than even reexperiencing the story, the flashy action. I know exactly what each body is going to do before it does it. Familiar and strange. It’s like watching myself in a dream.