Review of Inception (Constellations: Studies in Science Fiction Film and TV)
Bruce A. Beatie
David Carter. Inception. New York: Auteur (Columbia UP), 2019. Constellations: Studies in Science Fiction Film and TV. Paperback. 120 pg. $15.00. ISBN 9781911325055. E-book $14.99. ISBN 9781911325062.
This small (3.5” x 7.5”) and short (120 pages) monograph is part of a brief series published since 2016; the first volume on Blade Runner by Sean Redmond had appeared first in 2008 as “Studying Blade Runner.” Jon Towlson’s Close Encounters appeared in 2016, and all of the subsequent half dozen in the series appeared in 2019. I was interested in reviewing this volume because, shortly after Christopher Nolan’s film appeared in 2010, I reviewed a 2011 volume of semi-scholarly articles on Inception (Extrapolation 54, Winter 2013, pp. 316ff.), and I wanted to see how critical views might have changed over those years. What strikes the reader immediately, however, is that within the book’s ten numbered chapters plus “Notes” and “General Bibliography” are 57 titled sections and subsections—an average of some two pages per section; the “Contents” page alone lists seven of the subtitles. Clearly, the brevity of these sections would not do justice to a discussion of changing critical views. In a very brief “Introductory Remarks” that includes a “Synopsis” of Nolan’s films (7-8), Carter introduces us to “Christopher Nolan: The Director and His Work” (9-29) with summaries of his films from Memento (2000) to Dunkirk (2017) and stills from all the films but the second and third Batman films. After a very brief chapter 3 (“The Industrial Context of Inception from Production to Premiere” 31-32), chapter 4 (“The Question of Genre” 33-49) discusses “The Notion of Genre,” “The Heist Film Genre,” and “The Sci-Fi Film Genre,” concluding with a brief “Note on Tech-Noir.” In chapter 5 (“Dreams in the Cinema 51-78), Carter finally focuses on the title film Inception; after shorter subsections, he turns to “How Inception Uses Dream Theory” (54-78), illustrated with eleven images from the film.
In chapter 6 (“Cobb’s Emotional Journey: From Guilt to Redemption” 51-78), the only chapter with no subtitles, Carter provides a close analysis of the film itself. The only image is taken from the end of the film: the image of “The spinning top, now still” (88). The chapter concludes: “The final ambiguous image in the film of the spinning top and Cobb’s reunion with the children can therefore be interpreted as implying that maybe it does not matter whether the scene is real or not” (93).
The concluding chapters are very brief: Chapter 7 (“Inception and the Arts,” 95-97) includes images by M. C. Escher and Francis Bacon. Chapter 8 (“The Ending: Dreams, Reality and Ambiguity” 99-100) provides a narrative of the final minutes of the film, in which Cobb and the team apparently return to current reality; it includes an unidentified photo (100), titled “Dream or reality?” which looks like a desktop covered with obscure objects, perhaps toys. The penultimate chapter 9 (“Critical Reception” 101-103) briefly describes a few reviews, negative and positive. In the final chapter (“10. Further Lines of Inquiry” 105-108), the most interesting line provides a partial text, in both French and English, of the Edith Piaf song, a few lines of which one hears frequently in the film. The “Notes” section (109-113) contains the sources of texts referred to in the text, and the “General Bibliography” (115-116) lists “works recommended for further reading on specific topics.”
Since my university library does not own any of the monographs in this series, I cannot compare Carter’s study of Inception with the other publications in this series. The substance of the book is in chapter 4-6, but only chapter 6 deals exclusively with the film. What I found most interesting was the discussion in chapter 4 of Inception as a heist film, a concept new to me. Carter’s only direct reference for the film is to Daryl Lee’s 2014 The Heist Film: Stealing with Style; a check of its contents shows that Lee does not deal with Carter’s Inception. Carter fails to mention sources available on the internet, including an online article of 2018 (“The Best 25 Heist Films of All Time”) that mentions Inception as the 5th best heist film. Wikipedia has a very detailed 30-page anonymous entry on Inception with 178 references; only some 30 of the references were published later than 2012. Carter’s “Notes” fail to mention the 2011 collection of studies I mentioned in the first paragraph; in that book, the essay by Sylvia Wenmacker is the most instructive writing on Nolan’s film than I have come across. In short, this little book is, for me a least, more frustrating than informative.