Well, hello, SPOILERS! (Major spoilers for both Inception and 2001 follow; read no further if you haven’t seen the films.)

At first glance, Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception is a clever variation on The Matrix. Both films explore the question of how to distinguish “real” reality from one that is constructed (and shared by multiple protagonists); both feature fantastic fight scenes occurring in their constructed realities; and both Inception and the Matrix trilogy end on triumphant yet distinctly ambiguous notes (Inception suggests that its hero’s escape to reality is in fact still a dream; the third Matrix movie suggests that Neo’s victory against the machines is merely one in a continuing series of iterations).

After two viewings of Inception, however, I propose that the other film with which it is in explicit conversation is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The evidence:

  • Use of mythology. In 2001, Dave Bowman is the modern Odysseus who returns home after a fantastic voyage, albeit having been dramatically transformed. In Inception, Dom Cobb’s primary reason for taking Saito’s offer is to return home to his children. In this case, his voyage is through multiple dream levels. But Nolan adds a second mythological layer to Kubrick’s Odyssean one: that of the labyrinth and the story of Theseus and the minotaur. Cobb recruits an architect named Ariadne whose role is to construct dream labyrinths; in the ancient myth, she provides Theseus with the means to escape the labyrinth through the use of a thread. Inception, then, posits Cobb’s wife Mal both as a modern Penelope, longing for his return, but also as the minotaur, stalking Cobb through the various dream levels.
  • Dialogue. In 2001, the scientist Heywood Floyd makes a phone call home from the space station, from which he is about to depart to the moon. The call is to his daughter, who wants to know when he’ll be home. In Inception, Cobb makes a phone call to his children after the botched attempt to extract information from Saito. Without having reviewed the dialogue in 2001, the two scenes struck me as being remarkably similar, at least in their tenor if not in exact wording. Floyd promises to bring his daughter a gift for her birthday; Cobb later delivers a gift to Michael Caine’s character to deliver to his children.
  • Visuals. Various scenes take place in gravity-free places in both movies, of course, but particular images are also similar. In 2001, Bowman’s trip through the “stargate” ends in an oddly sterile room; presumably, the alien force that brought Bowman there has attempted to recreate a familiar environment from his memories. Kubrick depicts him growing older through a brilliant series of shifts in perspective, one of which features Bowman accidentally knocking his glass to the floor, until finally Bowman lies in bed, an old man on the verge of death. In Inception, Cobb recreates the hotel room in which he and Mal used to spend their anniversaries. When Ariadne visits this room, Mal breaks a glass as she threatens her; at another point, Cobb steps on a glass as he walks through the room. And, of course, the crucial scene in the climax of Inception features an old man lying in bed in a sterile “hospital” room.
  • The journey through old age and return to youth. As noted, in 2001 Dave Bowman ages from a thirty-something man to someone extremely old before reaching out for the monolith one last time. In the final moments of the movie, he returns to earth—as what, we’re not entirely certain. But the image Kubrick gives us is that of an infant still in, but presumably about to break free of, a cosmic womb. In Inception, Cobb and Mal spend 50+ years in limbo, aging together as they build the world around them. Cobb’s realization that they need to return to reality, and Mal’s inability to handle reality when they do so, is the key to the story.

What to make of all this? I haven’t spent much time looking for reviews that compare Inception and 2001, but Greg Yolen wrote this:

Now, it’s a losing game, calling out 2001 in any movie not as good as 2001, (i.e., just about every movie,) and here it serves as a comparison only favorable to Nolan in that Kubrick himself wasn’t known for the warmth that exuded from his films, either. But Nolan’s use of this allusive room turns out to be a handy gauge for what separates the two filmmakers. In 2001, the room Dave Bowman enters is a place uncharted, the final destination of the odyssey into his own mind: ultimate truth. In INCEPTION, Nolan’s room is the equivalent of The Big Store in a long con game. It’s a false construction, built to fool the subject: a sham version of the 2001 space it emulates. Like the room that acts as its final treasure chest, INCEPTION is outstanding modern trickery – but compared to the 2001, it feels like OCEAN’S 2001. Just a game.

Yolen’s right that calling out Kubrick and 2001 is usually not a good idea. But how often does that really happen? How often does someone actually take up the gauntlet that Kubrick threw down and attempt to make a movie of the same scope and epic scale as 2001?* I’m no film historian, but I can’t think of that many films since 1968 that have done so (at least in the sci-fi category), much less announced their intentions of doing so.

* By which I mean, among other things, addressing a contemporary concern (in Kubrick’s case, Cold War-era fear of atomic/nuclear annihilation) while at the same time asking questions about humanity’s place in the universe and attempting to capture the otherness of an alien life force, all wrapped up in a cinematic form that sets out to do nothing less than recreate the conditions of being in deep space for the audience (2001‘s poster declared: “Space Station One: your first stop on an Odyssey that will take you to the Moon, the planets, and the distant stars”).

What I’m talking about is the nature of being inspired by a great work of art and how one responds to it. And here I’ll come to the point. I would not be at all surprised to learn that Christopher Nolan is a great admirer of 2001. I suspect that he’s asked himself the same question that I’ve asked about the movie: How do you top that? The answer that he ultimately came up with was to tell a story that went in, not out. Rather than go into the outer-space territory covered by 2001, he posited an interior dream landscape that could be just as expansive and crafted a story around it. As an artist he was not content to drop in a bit of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” or the odd image from 2001 as a throwaway shout-out, as most cinematic borrowings from that film have been. Rather, he grounded Inception in some of the very same thematic and structural motifs.

Now, whether you think that resulted in a more or less entertaining film is for you to decide. And like Greg Yolen, you may think Inception‘s borrowing elements from 2001 resulted in a cheap knock-off. But the nature of artistic creation has ever been thus. Virgil’s Aeneid is a clear reworking of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Kubrick’s 2001 announced its dependence on the latter work in its title. The Matrix is a mashup of kung-fu movies, Japanese anime, and who knows what else. Inception picks up the ball with its blend of mythology, classic heist movies, and questions about the nature of reality.

That Inception means to provoke these sorts of musings is proved by the final shot and the dialogoue we hear in the background. The first time I saw the movie, like the rest of the audience I focused on the spinning top, waiting to see if it would fall. On second viewing, I looked at what was behind the top on the table: glasses of water filled with paintbrushes and, I believe, a child’s toy or two, suggesting that Cobb’s children had been watercoloring or something similar shortly before he arrived home. Meanwhile, Cobb has joined his children. His young son exclaims, “Look what I’ve been building, Daddy!” Cobb: “What have you been building?” But then the son’s reply is muffled, although I thought I heard the word house.

So: the top spins in front of a set of artist’s brushes and we are left with the question “What have you been building?” I suggest that the top is not only a totem for all the dreamscape/reality questions the movie raises but also for questions of inspiration and artistic creation. Cobb’s son’s declaration is Nolan’s declaration to the audience: “Look what I’ve built.” And Cobb’s reply is the audience’s: “What is it?” Nolan is dealing here with the anxiety of influence by addressing it head-on. He means for us to recognize his usage of 2001 and The Matrix (and possibly other films) and is asking us, rather directly, “What do you think? Did I do it? Were you as entertained/inspired by Inception as I was by these other films?” And the last image of the film is the top spinning and spinning (and wobbling?), waiting for my answer and yours.