Once upon a time, so my head canon goes, a drunk philosophy fresher told Christopher Nolan that time is a construct and Nolan has never looked back. The majority of his films are characterised by their focus on temporality, drawing on themes of trauma and subjectivity in order to deconstruct linear notions of time. From his second feature Memento, which unravels over two different sequences, one travelling forward in time and one backward, to his space dystopia Interstellar, which plays with black holes and wormholes to warp hours into years, Nolan continually displays a boundless curiosity about the ways in which preconceived expectations of time can be subverted. 

Inception, released 10 years ago this month, is Nolan’s most disturbing exploration of our relationship with time. It takes place in an alternate present or near future, where experimental dream technology has been developed to allow extractors to enter a target’s subconscious and extract information. In this world, even dream time, in theory the most private time of all, is drawn into a capitalist system. 

Although Inception has become entrenched in film history for its mesmerising and jaw-dropping visuals, such as the city of Paris folding in on itself, its philosophical implications are what make it one of the most striking and continually relevant films of the 21st century, depicting an experience of time that is inextricable from the demands of late-stage capitalism, where every moment is exploited, manipulated, and distorted for profit and power.


Courtesy of: Warner Bros.

At the centre of Inception’s story is Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a skilled extractor who lives in exile after being falsely accused of his wife’s murder (Marion Cotillard, at her most femme fatale). Towards the start of the film, Cobb is approached by Saito (Ken Watanabe), the head of a large energy conglomerate, who wants Cobb to perform an act of inception – that is, to plant an idea into someone else’s subconscious – in order to persuade a competitor to dissolve his business empire. With the promise of being able to return home, Cobb assembles a team to perform the most delicate of subconscious heists, designing a plan of Matryoshka-style dreams within dreams. As time passes differently in the dream world, each dream moves exponentially slower than the last, expanding into days, weeks, and even years. 

Although Nolan does not fully unpack dream technology’s history, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – Dom’s fellow extractor – briefly explains that it was developed by the military for “soldiers to shoot and stab and strangle each other, and then wake up”, implying that it was intended as a kind of ultra-immersive training ground for troops – something that was in fact based on real military research. By the time of Inception, the technology has filtered down from armed training into corporate espionage, indicative of the ways in which capitalist interests and military violence coincide.

By unequivocally connecting dream technology with broader capitalist struggles for power, Nolan demonstrates how even subjective and private experiences of time can become subject to capitalist control. The very concept of dream sharing being used to obtain business secrets reveals how the time of the dream, hitherto a private and non-productive period, is being accessed and exploited for corporate benefit. Much as capitalism has brought all real-world time under its domain, setting up a system that demands that people without income-producing capital sell their waking hours in order to generate wealth, dream technology works to similarly extract value from non-waking hours that until now only held personal rather than economic value.


Courtesy of Warner Bros.

This capitalisation of dream time occurs on two levels: extractors like Dom and Arthur expand the amount of time that they are willing to sell to include their sleeping hours, thus eroding the boundaries between work and not-work. While they at least willingly renounce any semblance of work-life balance, the targets of their heists suffer even more insidiously from the system: their subconscious and dream time is exploited for profit without their knowledge or consent.

The capitalist underpinnings of dream technology not only extract value from sleeping as well as waking hours, they also manipulate the participant’s very experience of time. Thanks to the different speeds at which dream time functions, the heist Cobb and his team undergo in their target Fischer’s (Cillian Murphy) subconscious creates several new time frames: one week at the first level, six months at the second level, and ten years at the third level. This generates huge swathes of new time that can be turned into profit, while at the same time multiplying the cost to both the worker and their victim: crimes such as theft that would normally be counted in minutes or hours now last days or months, inflicting a much greater toll, mentally if not physically.

Nolan depicts how Fischer’s lived experience of time is expanded, creating new time frames that are then filled with various types of emotional trauma and violence. At the first level, he believes himself to be kidnapped and on the brink of torture by Cobb’s team, on the second level, doubts about his relationship with his godfather Peter Browning and Browning’s business advice are planted in his mind, and on the third level he is shot and temporarily killed by Mal when trying to reach his father. The natural, inherently worthless, time of the dream has been erased, replaced by artificial, extended timelines that leverage violence against the subject for profit.

The extent to which dream technology enmeshes capitalism and personal time is emphasised through the character of Cobb and his experience of grief. Cobb’s struggle to process the loss of his wife Mal forms the emotional core of the narrative, yet her death and its aftermath are inextricable from the dream technology. Mal kills herself after spending too long in the dream world and losing her grip on reality; overcome by grief, Cobb increasingly brings his projection of her into the dream worlds he visits.


Courtesy of Warner Bros.

His concerned team frame this as Cobb’s trauma encroaching into his work, yet the opposite could also be said, that the encroachment of Cobb’s work into his personal, dream time means that his labour time and grief time have no choice but to overlap. Nolan highlights the cyclical, non-linear nature of grief: visions of Mal punctuate the film – at times happy memories, at other times violent projections that articulate the guilt and trauma he feels – yet they are constantly mediated by and subject to the dream technology and its pervasive demands on his time.

Although Nolan’s dream technology allows Cobb to confront his trauma more actively than he would be able to in the real world – he can talk to Mal, reconstruct events, and examine the extent of his culpability in her death – it remains inseparable from its capitalist ends, so that the radical therapeutic potential of dream technology is entirely ignored in favour of its ability to acquire and monopolise wealth at whatever cost.

We see this in the way the narrative of Cobb’s grief bleeds into the heist narrative, placing both himself and his team members at risk. Cobb reveals to Ariadne (Ellen Page), the team’s dream architect, the details of Mal’s suicide midway through an action sequence, where the team is surrounded by armed soldiers and Saito has been shot; he finally confronts his grief with Mal towards the end of the mission, when she is holding Fischer hostage.

With every minute of his time subject to generating value, Cobb’s emotional processing can only happen in a dream time that has been created for corporate benefit: in the world of Inception, there is no other kind of time available, leading to a complete collapse of any boundary between the individual and the corporate. By constructing a dystopia in which corporations and their technological tools can exploit personal and subjective experiences of time, Nolan paints a bleak yet recognisable portrait of capitalism. Just like the city of Paris folding in on itself, it is an unforgettable image.