Inception is not only one of Christopher Nolan’s best works, but a sci-fi masterpiece for the ages. To say that it was an era-defining film would not be an overstatement. Inception’s amazing cinematography, great performances, and most of all, its complex narrative maze, make it one of the finest films of the 2010 decade. it displayed an originality of thought and execution that has become increasingly rare since. There are several layers to the journey within the subconscious that gets deeper and deeper, and the line between dreams and reality begins to blur seamlessly.
The greatest quality of Nolan’s mind-bending masterpiece is that it remains wholly entertaining, yet introduces profound philosophical ideas that rarely find their place in Hollywood cinema. The film also makes us wonder about Nolan’s writing skills. It’s difficult for an average viewer to fit together all the pieces of a puzzle in one go. But Nolan packs all this complex content and manages a cohesive narrative flow.
Inception explores lucid dreams, shared dreams, and how subliminal spaces can feel more real than conscious living. It evokes a dream-like state in the viewer with its metaphysical ruminations. There are plenty of other great movies which also have this effect, each in their own way. They present their own mind-bending narratives that question the nature of reality and fiction, and in the process, help us discover the world we inhabit ourselves. So, here are some movies like Inception, that’ll blow you away:
1. The Matrix (1999)
The Matrix walked so Inception could run. It really is as simple as that. When it comes to mediums in pop culture that pose the question of reality vs dream, The Matrix is the first that comes to mind. The film reveals its great twist quite early on and does not use a convoluted set up for the sake of it. The story begins in a seemingly normal world, but everything familiar and comfortable is turned upside-down (sometimes literally) soon enough. At the center of this world is Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), a gifted hacker who is destined for greater things.
The Matrix brilliantly explores the concept of simulation, showing how performative “reality” really is. Relying on a story structure that smoothly integrates a nuanced story with flawless execution, it introduced a new kind of dystopia in cinema. Come for the high sci-fi concept, stay for the iconic physics-defying visuals and action sequences.
2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Eternal Sunshine is a tender exploration of love, memories, and dream manipulation through a labyrinthine narrative. Set in a vaguely futuristic world, the story uses technology to erase memories and entire relationships, allowing people a clean start. Joel (Jim Carrey) finds out that his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has had her memories of their relationship erased. So, he decides to undergo the same procedure and forget her right back.
The film utilizes a minimalist, stark aesthetic and cinematography to enhance the plot. As memories cross over into one another, the mindscapes keep getting blurrier by the minute. The unwanted by-products of the procedure are also brought out with subtle masterstrokes. Carrey and Winslet’s performance is the piece de resistance, they convey the shattering loneliness of a separation brilliantly. Coupled with an innovative set-up, the film provides a complex take on identity, and the notion that we are who we are because of what we have gone through.
3. Shutter Island (2010)
Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, based on Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name, explores the fine line between sanity and insanity. As the movie twists and turns in a mind-boggling fashion, the emphasis on an unreliable point of view takes centre stage. Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule(Mark Ruffalo) are US marshals sent to the remote Shutter Island. An asylum for the criminally insane is located here and one of the patients is missing.
But in this movie, nothing is as it seems and dark secrets lurk at every corner. The story evokes a noir-esque, almost gothic aura and the film has a dark and ominous atmosphere. Like in Inception, the dream sequences are key to unraveling why the protagonist is haunted by the memories of his late wife. DiCaprio turns in a fine performance of a man teetering along the line between reason and madness. With stunning visuals and a strong emotional center, this is a film that will keep you guessing.
4. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Doug Liman’s sci-fi action thriller presents a surprisingly fresh take on the sci-fi tropes it utilises. Instead of playing with time through dreams, in this movie we have time-loops to provide the same. Edge of Tomorrow is set in a dystopian near future, where most of Europe has been taken over by a hostile alien race. Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) has been sent to fight in the war against them. However, unlike Cruise’s usual characters, Cage is no action hero, which in itself is a refreshing update to the macho figures of action cinema.
When he finds himself stuck in a time-loop, he must find a way to defeat the aliens with Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) help. The movie evades its formulaic trappings and utilises some very smart twists. The visuals and action sequences are fantastic. But it is the offbeat humor that gives the film a unique element. It is a smart film with tricky ideas and the concept of time’s flow is handled remarkably well.
5. The Truman Show (1998)
Peter Weir’s brilliant comedy-drama may have seemed absurd when it was released, but it feels rather prophetic now. It is centered on a concept where reality is turned into a consumable product. In this film, the world is not only a stage, but also almost entirely staged. Truman (Jim Carrey) is an ordinary guy who is the star of a reality show and his entire life is a scripted lie. Unbeknownst to him, everyone around him is an actor and everything around him is manipulated by the show-runner.
Truman eventually notices that something is off and starts questioning his reality. The Truman Show is an excellent film which explores simulated reality, surveillance, privacy, metaphilosophy, predestination, and free will. The idea of an ever present gaze watching every second of our lives feels unnervingly prescient in the age of social media. The relevance of this film has only grown with time and it is elevated by great direction, editing, and performances.
6. Mr. Nobody (2009)
Jaco Van Dormael’s visually and technically stunning Mr. Nobody captivates viewers from the opening shot to the final one. At its core, it is based on a simple idea. But it unfolds in such a beautifully mind-boggling way that the whole movie feels like a mental exercise. Timelines and settings are multiple. In 2092, the 118-year-old Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto) is the last remaining mortal. The rest of the human race has achieved immortality by then.
When Nemo starts recounting his memories for documentation, he tells contradictory stories. These “recollections” play out across seemingly alternate universes. Every choice leads to radically different consequences and every ‘what if?’ is explored. Throughout the film we keep questioning which story is the real one. The style, tone, and narrative of the film are in constant flux. The dream-like, surrealistic sequences add to the intrigue and artistry greatly. The direction, cinematography, editing, performances, and soundtrack are all truly brilliant and add up to a beautiful experience of cinematic perfection.
7. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Mamoru Oshii’s iconic and immensely influential anime film involves mind-hacking and identity manipulation, like in Inception. Ghost in the Shell is a neo-noir cyberpunk thriller set in 2029 Japan, when cyborgs populate the world just as much as humans do. A cyborg federal agent, Motoko Kusanagi(originally voiced by Atsuko Tanaka), tries to track down “The Puppet Master”(Iemasa Kayumi) who illegally hacks into the minds of cyborgs and alters their identity.
While on this mission, she begins to question her own identity and the case takes an unexpected turn. The philosophical theme of understanding self-identity in the age of advanced technology is dealt with brilliantly. The film is renowned for its narrative, art style, and score. The setting has a run-down and yet futuristic look which feels convincingly realistic. The characters are memorable and well-written, a rarity in the sci-fi genre. Ghost in the Shell has been re-appraised time and again, and is widely considered as one of the best anime and sci-fi films of all time.
8. Paprika (2006)
Santoshi Kon’s Paprika could be seen as a thematic predecessor to Inception. It deals with dream manipulation and the blurring of the conscious and the unconscious. Set in the near future, a device has been created through which people’s dreams can be viewed. But this device gets stolen and Chiba, taking the form of her dream alter-ego, Paprika, tries to stop this disaster with the help of her friends. But they have to fight against their own psyche first as dreams and reality collapse into each other.
The subject of dreams and its sensitive, fragile nature is explored with great insight. The animation and visuals are psychedelically spectacular and the ideas were incredibly ahead of their time. The one thing that stood out the most was the animation style; I remember being completely blown away by the clarity of vision and mind blowing detail for each frame. It’s a gripping thriller with twists and turns and a great deal of cinematic experimentation that set the tone for later ventures.
9. Dark City (1998)
Dark City is a deeply atmospheric, immersive film from Alex Proyas that pulls the viewers into the ominous depths of its sunless city. There is a dream-like, or rather, nightmarish quality to the film. Dark City presents a dystopia where memories can be controlled, and thus, identity can be manipulated and even wiped out.
John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up with no memory and finds that he is wanted for murder. He attempts to uncover the truth and discovers that he is in a false world controlled by mysterious forces. The movie is visually stunning and the art direction is second to none. It has truly great cinematography with amazing set design reminiscent of classic noir styles and special effects that heighten the ambience instead of disrupting it. The narrative offers emotional resonance, a touching love story, and some thrilling action. Dark City is a highly imaginative film which explores the essence of human nature with great depth.
10. Open Your Eyes (1997)
Alejandro Amenábar’s Open Your Eyes holds up the importance of memory as the intrinsic building-block of identity. The film may come across as difficult to categorize as it subsumes a variety of genres to create a veritable chimera. César (Eduardo Noriega) has everything he wants in life – good looks, a wonderful partner and a great job. But a horrible car crash leaves his face disfigured and changes his life.
Without the qualities he used to define himself by, he is plunged into torment. Along with César, the viewers also feel that a huge scheme is being unraveled. The use of sci-fi tropes like simulated reality, cryogenics and alternate realities are in service of the story, and not mere shackles of the genre. The surrealistic visuals increase the intrigue in the plot. With a complex narrative, it critiques modern consumption and capitalist rhetoric with impeccable direction and performances. The film was remade by Camero Crowe as Vanilla Sky (2001).
11. Source Code (2011)
Source Code is a story within a story that plays with time and also with the viewers’ minds. The movie drops us in the middle of high-stakes and highly confusing action right from its opening. Army pilot Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a train and finds himself in another man’s body. As he attempts to piece together what happened, an explosion brings about some revelations.
There are twists and turns involving time travel and attempts to change the past. Although the speculative science behind the plot is less than convincing, that is not the point. The central focus of the film is to present a classic detective story in the guise of a slick action thriller. Great visuals, fast-paced action, and Gyllenhaal’s performance as an archetypal action hero complement the murder mystery-like set up of the plot. The blend of thriller and sci-fi genre creates some well-thought out twists and gets the viewer invested in the final outcome.
12. Waking Life (2001)
Richard Linklater’s unique, experimental animated film takes place entirely through dream-like sequences. It doesn’t have a story in the traditional sense. Rather it presents an unveiled exploration of a variety of philosophical ideas regarding reality, dreams and lucid dreams, existentialism, and the meaning of life. A man moves around through a succession of dream-like realities and meets various interesting people who discuss important philosophical issues.
The entire film is centered on surreal experiences, an existential crisis, and debating the most vital questions about life. But the film is not subdued by any means — it is actually exciting, cheerful, and vibrating with urgency. The characters express their opinions passionately. The animation is remarkable. The movie was filmed with live actors and then rotoscoped through digital techniques. This captures a lot of subtle movements and expressions and makes everything look surprisingly lifelike. Waking Life is a brilliant film about the act of questioning everything you think you know.
13. Primer (2004)
Similar to Nolan’s Inception, Shane Carruth’s low-key sci-fi rewards us in repeat viewings. Though Shane made it with scant resources and a shoe-string budget, Primer is the kind of puzzle cinema that’s full of believable science and emotions. The narrative revolves around two mechanical engineers, Aaron and Abe. After work hours, they involve themselves with a science project in Aaron’s garage to make some extra money. But the device they invent comes with a side effect. It allows them to travel through time in limited capacity. At first they use it for personal gain. However, gradually their ambitions lead to dangerous complications.
Like Nolan, Shane Carruth throws at us scientific jargon which isn’t easy to grasp. But deep down both the films explore human nature and deal with themes such as friendship, trust, and power. The film was also unbelievably clever withholding several layers of mystery and ambiguity. Primer was chiefly influenced by Darren Aronofsky’s low-budget mind-bender Pi (1998).
14. eXistenZ (1999)
Apart from Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, Nolan’s Inception shares lots of parallels with David Cronenberg’s cult sci-fi, eXistenZ. The film features flesh-like consoles known as Game Pods. These devices will take you into the world of virtual reality games, which is so realistic that it would be hard to differentiate between game world and ordinary world. The intoxicating nature of games naturally leads to the rise of luddites, who are part of the ‘Realist’ Movement. A young assassin from the movement tries to kill the celebrity game designer Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh). A security guard named Ted (Jude Law) saves her and both make a journey to find a safe place.
The purpose of the devices in Inception and eXistenZ might be different. However, both explore the idea of subconscious thoughts playing pivotal roles in a virtual world. The films also marvel at the complexity of the created world and how it can be both more exciting and dangerous than reality itself.
15. The Cell (2000)
Tarsem Singh’s directorial debut film, like Inception, shares the concept of going into someone’s mind and examining the world within. But in The Cell, the scientific experiment looks relatively primitive and used in a limited manner for trauma victims. Jennifer Lopez plays psychotherapist Catherine, who conducts brain-to-brain form of therapy for comatose patients. The idea is to wake them up from their vegetative state. Hence, she is recruited by the FBI to delve into the mind of a now comatose serial-killer in order to find out where his latest victim is hidden. This leads to nightmare-like vignettes, many of which were influenced by great paintings.
The Cell is a visually stunning work and extremely creative too. Though the CGI effects look dated now, the ideas behind it are deeply fascinating. It is definitely flawed, particularly the way it uses familiar Hollywood tropes and pop psychology. Nevertheless, in terms of surrealist visuals and mind-bending imagination, The Cell scores big.
Inception took the world by storm when it was released and has achieved an enduring popularity. One of Nolan’s best films, Inception was an ingenious, classic sci-fi. The great appeal of mind-bending movies like these is not that they befuddle, but that they expand your mind and make you question things you may have taken for granted. These are great movies to watch when you’d like to scratch that existential-crisis-shaped itch in your head. If you’re done watching these films, you might also like Predestination (2014), Perfect Blue(1997), Mulholland Drive (2001), The Machinist (2004) and The Fountain (2006). Let us know which of these films you are looking forward to!
(Additional writing by Arun Kumar)