Six years ago our minds were exposed to one of the most memorable time bending and time dilating films in the past decade. Christopher Nolan’s film Inception uses brilliant visual representations to explore new ideas of time, space and dreams. Immediately after starting my alternative viewing of Inception, I realized that Nolan had anticipated the exact manipulation that I performed on his film. For my alt-criticism, I chose to explore the concepts of time in Nolan’s film Inception after twisting the film’s time myself. I decided to reverse the film and watch it completely backwards. This made for a bizarre, yet entertaining viewing experience. Through the viewing of this film I became more aware of the importance of time in filmmaking, how it can be an essential storytelling tool and how the manipulation of time can affect the visuals we see on screen.

Nolan does a fantastic job showing the dilation of time in dreams through effective slow-motion visuals and mind-blowing practical effects. But after watching the film backwards, I realized that Nolan plays with time in Inception more than I originally thought. He also anticipates my manipulation by creating a film that can be watched in reverse. Nolan directs a film with an opening that also works as an ending and an ending that can work as the film’s opening. Interestingly enough, there is no title sequence at the start of this film if viewed normally. However, by watching the film in reverse, the title we see at the end now opens the film. Thus, it feels like a standard film opening, even though I’m viewing the film from the final moment to the first. This is an interesting play on linear time and I think Nolan does this intentionally. By viewing Inception backwards, I gained a new perspective on the opening and ending of the film, while also realizing that Nolan may have expected someone to manipulate Inception exactly how I did.inception-movie-title-small

In “The Emergence of Cinematic Time”, Mary Ann Doane explains how cinema has emerged as a means of capturing and controlling time. She explores cinema’s essential paradox and how the instability of an image can shape not only the time we see on screen, but also our modern ideas of continuity, discontinuity, contingency, temporal irreversibility, etc. Inception is a strong example of this. Nolan creates a film in which time plays an essential role in the narrative. His exploration of time in a dream relative to reality is a constant theme throughout the film, and the slowed down, time dilating visuals are the best example of this. But does Nolan have a deeper message about time and dream vs. reality than we think? Time will tell.

Nolan invites us to escape the time that controls and strangles our reality by getting lost in his dream. Inception is a strong example of how film as a medium has the power to transport us as the audience into an alternate reality. Film can alter time on screen, but it also has the power to transport us away from our reality, as well as alter the time that we abide by in our everyday lives. This is exactly what I think Nolan hopes to achieve with this film. He wants us to get lost in his dream, while also preaching to us the power film has to transport us out of our reality. He does so by exploring concepts of time while also showing us what he feels filmmaking is all about.


Through my own manipulation of time I realized that one simple tweak can change the meaning of a visual entirely. For example, there is a scene where Arthur is preparing to give the group of dreamers the kick they need to get out of their particular layer of the dream. To perform the kick he detonates explosions that launch an elevator upwards at a fast enough rate to jolt all of the dreamers awake. But because I viewed the film in reverse, this scene showed the elevator in a dangerous freefall, followed by Arthur holding onto the railing as if he is bracing for impact. The time reversal flips the visual to show something believable, yet completely different from what was originally intended. I have created a counter-factual narrative with my reversal of this film. I used Nolan’s creativity with non-linear storytelling to make Inception less linear than it already was. I tried to tap into the mind of the director when diving into the manipulation of this film, and it was a delight to discover that Nolan was prepared for my alteration of the narrative.

The adjustment of the narrative seemed to diminish the tone and the emotional punch of the story. One reason being that no one actually dies when watching the film backwards. The emotional impact of seeing a character die disappears as each person now comes back to life. Arguably the most poignant scene in this film goes from heartbreaking to being rather meaningless and ridiculous from simply reversing the time and order. Instead of Cobb’s wife committing suicide right in front of his eyes, the reverse shows Cobb screaming and crying for a reason we do not understand, followed by Mal (his wife) floating back up onto the window ledge. Along with these plot changes come dreams that no longer collapse and an important symbol that no longer has any significance (the top).   This proves the importance of time in film. It shows the power editors and filmmakers have to change the visuals and the story, simply by playing with time.

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Nolan’s ability to capture and control time in films like Inception, Interstellar and Memento, is what makes him one of the most talented and respected directors of our time. But I would argue the most effective of these three is Inception. I believe that behind the appealing visuals, Nolan hides a more profound, time related connotation. Time dilation occurs in Inception when someone becomes lost in the alternate reality of a dream. This same experience is essentially what takes place when we as viewers watch a well-crafted film. We can get lost in the alternate reality of a motion picture and time becomes malleable. Two hours can feel like one or forty. Nolan illustrates on screen what he hopes we experience as viewers of his film. There is one scene in particular where I think Nolan intentionally summarizes what film is, through a line spoken by Cobb to Ariadne: “You create the world of the dream. We bring the subject into that dream and they fill it with their subconscious.” Could this line be a reflection of Nolan’s thoughts on filmmaking? Perhaps Nolan is the creator of the dream, transporting us as the audience into his dream to subliminally fill it with our subconscious.

-Curtis Smeding

Works Cited

Inception (2011) Warner Brothers Entertainment, Director: Christopher Nolan. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Michael Cain, Ellen Paige

Doane, Mary Ann. The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2002. Print.