Since his earliest feature films, Christopher Nolan has cultivated a reputation as a director known for metaphysical themes, suspenseful set-pieces, and nonlinear storytelling devices. For example, Nolan's breakout neo-noir tale Memento (2002) structures a plot about a man suffering from anterograde amnesia in reverse, so that the audience (like the protagonist) approaches the story with no knowledge of prior events. Over the course of his career, Nolan has not only developed his credibility as a noted auteur with a singular style, but has also become a veteran director of big-budget action franchises like the phenomenally successful The Dark Knight (2005-2012) trilogy, which has grossed billions of dollars at the box office worldwide.
Nolan's experiences both as an independent visionary and a big-budget genre director informed the development of Inception. Nolan first conceived of the idea as a horror film about "dream-sharing" technology, not so unlike Wes Craven's The Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). After Warner Bros. passed on the initial script, encouraging Nolan to acquire more experience helming big-budget productions, Nolan reworked the idea into a heist film. Finally, Nolan realized that the story needed an emotional anchor to keep the audience invested in the fates of the characters, leading him to develop the backstory of Dom Cobb further. In total, Nolan worked on the script for Inception over a period of nine to ten years.
A passion project for the director, Nolan successfully pitched Inception to Warner Bros. after the box office success of Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008). Many of Nolan's stylistic flourishes are on display in Inception, such as his penchant for nonlinear storytelling, his liberal use of crosscutting and parallel editing, and his rigorous attention to realistic detail. For instance, like Memento, Inception is not chronologically linear. In the opening sequence, Nolan flashes forward to show the audience a glimpse of Cobb's confrontation with Saito in "limbo." Throughout the film, there are also numerous flashbacks that provide context for Cobb's relationship with Mal. Nolan experiments with cinematic time in order to show the viewer how dreams become an arena where the unresolved past continues to manifest in the present.
Also like Memento, Inception poses philosophical questions about the relationship between external reality and the internal mind. In Mombasa, Yusuf shows Cobb sleepers in his basement who prefer to reside permanently in the world of dream-sharing technology, rather than return to reality. Cobb's wife Mal begins to trust dreams over reality, leading to her tragic suicide. The ending of the film, by concluding with a shot of Cobb's "totem," poses a provocative and open-ended question to the viewer about whether the entire film has been in fact taking place inside of Cobb's mind.
Nolan's work on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight also helped him gain experience staging ambitious, action-packed set-pieces containing multiple, simultaneous lines of action. One of the many visual challenges that Inception presents is how to render multiple, concurrently unfolding layers of a dream in a way that is comprehensible to the viewer. Moreover, each layer of the dream is occurring at a different speed. Nolan uses extreme slow-motion in scenes like Cobb plunging into the bathtub and Yusuf crashing his van over the bridge to simulate how slowly these events are transpiring in relation to the deeper dream-layers that the team must infiltrate. Nolan also uses practical effects whenever possible to model the "impossible" shapes and forces of dreams, like the Penrose staircase, and the zero-gravity setting of Arthur's battle in Robert Fischer's dream.