From the moment the end credits rolled, I knew then (sitting in a darkened theater back in July 2010) that Inception was going to a film that would get audiences talking — and not just because of its ending. It’s a thought-provoking and awe-inspiring film. I didn’t really need to tell you that, I am positive you all agree with me. In fact, I’ve seen (and participated in) the many varied discussions and debates held in our discussion forums attesting to it. These discussions have been taking place in internet forums, living rooms, coffee shops, and emptied out theaters for the past year and a half. Naturally, Inception was a perfect candidate for the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series of books; a collection of publications that dissect and philosophize various popular works of media, from Harry Potter to South Park.
So, what exactly is the book about? Inception And Philosophy: Because It’s Never Just A Dream is a collection of essays that explore the film’s philosophical questions and themes. The book is mostly well-written, and very cleverly edited, using the idea of the ‘Editor’s Totem’ to keep track of ‘the real world’ through the many different viewpoints of the writers. “Did the top fall?” and more importantly, “does it matter if the top fell?” are some of the main questions the book raises. The answers, naturally, aren’t exactly answers. But what the book does provide is an exposure to many classic philosophical arguments and theories that will help you find your own answers.
Our buddy, and fellow film-blogger Mike Eisenberg tweeted earlier this month that he read Inception And Philosophy in a single sitting. Though I too found the book insightful and complex, I found it much easier to take the ideas presented in it in chunks. Based by philosophical themes, the book is divided into six sections. Each section has a number of essays, usually running about a dozen pages in length. I found it much easier to go through an essay or two per sitting, and about one section per day. This helped me keep a clear and level head while reading through the theories and arguments, some of which I didn’t agree with.
The first section begins to list the four main interpretations of the movie, from ‘Most Real’ to ‘Full Dream’ and with two degrees in between. Each is well explained and defended throughout the book. It encourages the reader to explore the possibilities, and it gives the arguments a sense of perspective and balance. These interpretations, understanding them, and understanding what the filmmaker (Christopher Nolan) intended, dominate the beginning of the book. The essays sometimes take long detours into classic (and modern) philosophical theories and debates, which those of you who took philosophy courses in college (or high school) might find redundant. Perhaps philosophers and those interested in the subject will enjoy the discussion for its depth and care. Philosophy newbs will certainly find it interesting and compelling.
Myself, as a film enthusiast and filmmaker, I found some of the tangents unnecessary. Some of the arguments dive too deep into the philosophical side of things, and forget what effect such a statement would mean for the narrative of the film, and the emotional state of the viewer. Smartly, a lot of the essays take these concerns into account. If you feel that the emotional significance of Cobb reuniting with his children is lessened by the ending really being a dream, the book asks about the significance of the event to Cobb – reality or not. This significance is something noted by Christopher Nolan, and something he asks the viewers to ponder. However, Katherine Tullman in her essay The Parable of the Spinning Top brings up a very good point in relation to Descartes’ Second Mediation; if Cobb’s children are really just projections of his subconscious, it doesn’t matter if they’re are happy or sad, or even if they die.
These sort of philosophical conclusions become very tricky when dealing with a very ambiguous movie like Inception. After all, from a filmmaker’s point of view, it seems very necessary to give the audience a reference to reality at some point in the movie. If there is no reference to reality, and the movie indeed does take place entirely in a dream, as some of the book argues, how does one place value on the characters or story? How do we invest into the world of the film, and what does it mean if that investment meant nothing?
Where the books shines is in its later essays and sections. The focus turns away from the dream world of Inception, and instead hones in on the ethics of heist films like Inception. The essay on the Ethics of Idea-Giving is a thought-provoking read, as is the essay that follows it — pictured above. Much like the rest of the book, these thoughts and discussions about ethics and philosophy stray from world of the film, and stay connected in a way that a textbook might. Where it gets interesting and more married to the narrative of the film is when it relates to Mal, and Cobb’s inception on her. A lot of fans have already developed attitudes and opinions on the morality of the act, but why does that differ from the inception Cobb does to Fisher?
These questions about the story are just as fascinating, or perhaps more fascinating than the world of dreams. After all, the dreams in Inception, while offering a unique bouquet of discussions of their own, are still just the structure and device upon which the narrative develops. Inception and Philosophy has a near overwhelming amount of insights into Nolan’s film. Towards the end of the book are some great nuggets for thought. An essay on Inception and how it relates to Asian and Eastern philosophies is oddly very poignant. The concluding section brings up the topic of guilt, regret, and the hidden lessons of Inception. I found it a fitting and fairly satisfying end to the book.
No doubt there is some material in the book that seems to be neglecting or misunderstanding what made the film so great in lieu of making a philosophical point. There also seems to be some clear misinterpretations of events in the film — specifically regarding Mal’s suicide. It’s unclear whether these oversights are merely made for the sake of argument or not. That being said, I found many essays fascinating and worthwhile. They made it easier to overlook the ones that read like textbook material, or ones that were a bit too chewy to make it through without having to take a break from the page.
Overall, Inception and Philosophy is a compelling read. Fans of Inception will certainly get a kick out of many of the arguments, and find the amazing amount of depth and detail that can be drawn from the film fascinating. 3.5/5
There are possible coupons available for Inception, either the book or DVD.