Why the film Inception attains Tolkien’s criteria for Fantasy as art.
My mind has been fizzing with ideas since I completed my dissection of Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’. The ideas within that paper and it’s implications in relation to my own work and the media I’ve been consuming have been lighting up my brain.
Shortly after completing my own essay I felt unwell (not related to the effort of writing!) and relaxed by trying to rewatch one of the most complex films to be released in the last decade. It had been a long time since I watched Inception. It thrilled me when it was released and always fascinated me upon subsequent viewings. Life changes over the years and my available time and interest in films has become quite limited. My usual rule is to try and see something new over rewatching a film. On this occasion something lured me back in.
My brain was in a different state this time. I noticed new details, picked up on nuance and suggestion I had missed previously. New questions presented themselves, new ideas needed attention. I had to stop the movie and watch it over a few nights, just to make notes on the things my brain wouldn’t let go of.
You could argue this is fundamental proof that the movie doesn’t reach Tolkien’s high bar of ‘Enchantment’. I might argue the opposite. According to Tolkien there are two feats that should be achieved for a work of fantasy fiction to be considered as art.
First: ‘Fantasy’, the realisation of a convincing ‘Secondary World’. Making a fictional place that manages to work to it’s own internal logic so that the audience don’t pick at the loose threads and threaten to unravel it’s weave.
Second: ‘Enchantment’, instilling that ‘Secondary World’ with ‘Primary belief’. Meaning that the fantasy world you’ve created can feel as though it overlaps into the real world of the audience without it feeling like a trick, by feeling like a previously unseen extension of everything they already know.
Third: ‘Eucatastrophe’, a sudden change of fortune for good. A twist of fate that turns the tide in favour of our heroes.
These definitions are how I’ve interpreted Tolkien’s original essay.
I guess the first point to tackle is categorising ‘Inception’. Is it really a work of fantasy? I believe it is, but it’s very easy on the surface of appearances to say that it isn’t. To all intents and purposes the settings are primarily rooted in the real world. There are no dragons, elves or trolls to be found. But genre defining creatures alone don’t make a fantasy story. The influence of ‘Faerie’ is what makes a fantasy story. An otherness, a glimpse of the hidden and perilous realm. Inception certainly ticks that box.
On my most recent viewing I began to reach the conclusion that the entire film plays out in a dreamscape. I don’t believe there is a single frame of the movie that is supposed to represent the corporeal world we live in day-to-day. I’ve come to this conclusion after noticing many details in the movie that it’s easy to skip over or rationalise. A few examples: The beginning of the film is a scene that is actually towards the end of the structured narrative, this lines up with a comment Cobb (the main character) makes explaining the nature of dreams. ‘You never really remember the beginning of a dream, do you? You always wind up right in the middle of what’s going on.’ Totems; they are an essential part of the ‘mythology’ in the narrative’s context. They are the item that helps each dreamer define reality. We never actually discover what Cobb’s totem is, the viewer is directed towards the spinning top constantly as the item that helps us decide what is real and what isn’t, but this totem actually belonged to Cobb’s wife. It isn’t his, so as a signifier for him, it is useless. There are also a lot of details in the end scenes, the ‘eucatastrophe’ (yes, this film actually has a few eucatastrophic moments) that I believe points to it’s ‘un-reality’.
Ultimately, I don’t actually believe the question, that is seemingly, posed at the end of the movie is important. Most viewers are left asking: ‘Is he still in a dream or not?’ I used to be of the opinion that he wasn’t because the spinning top wobbled just before the scene cuts to black. But I’ve already explained why that is quite irrelevant. In fact the whole question is irrelevant. My take on it all is now about Cobb’s emotional journey. I think everything that happens is the dreamscape of a man processing grief, learning to let go of the past and accept a changed and uncertain future. In this case by allowing himself to let go of his wife and all the baggage attached to their relationship and be emotionally available to his children and concentrate on their future with him as a part of their lives. Labelling any of that emotional context or activity as ‘reality’ or ‘dream’ changes nothing about it.
The fact I have written and explored the narrative to this point, is a strong argument that the film’s internal logic is quite flawless. It can be interpreted in many ways, none of them easily disprovable. Debates still rage about this film nearly a decade after it’s initial release. There have been books published on the philosophies the film plays upon, even the possible sciences it suggests. There is strong primary belief weaved right through the story, yet the idea of travelling within dreams is pure fantasy. All dreams have a touch of Faerie about them. Our unconscious mind weaving stories as a way to process outside stimulus, or possibly showing us glimpses of things we don’t get to perceive when we are awake?
The last point is the film’s eucatastrophe. In many respects it is a metaphysical heist movie. Towards the end lots of things go wrong, in fact the mission is declared a failure at multiple points along the way but the characters persist and keep finding new ways to push it all a bit further. The final eucatastrophic moment is when Cobb washes up an the beach of limbo, a place his employer Saito has been trapped and living for hundreds of years. At this point the actual mission is, seemingly, a success; the remainder of the team have escaped and are conscious again. The question lingers over Cobb and Saito returning from limbo to enjoy their success. It all comes to a head when Saito picks up a gun, implying that if they were to kill themselves or each other, they would return to ‘reality’
We never see the shots being fired.
What we do see is Cobb and Saito waking up surrounded by the team who are already conscious. We see Saito make a phone call as promised that ‘magically’ lifts the warrants on Cobb so he can enter the USA and be reunited with his children. This is proven by Cobb going through customs and being welcomed back. Cobb never speaks to any of the team after he wakes up. He goes home, he sees his kids again. It’s a happy ending with many details that suggest (to me) that Cobb and Saito never leave limbo and this happy reunion is an ideal construct Cobb made for himself in limbo. Or in fact they never started the whole enterprise in reality at all and this return is simply a change of state rather than being. Again, there is an edge of irrelevance to all this reasoning. The vital point is the presence of a narrative eucatastrophe. On a purely emotional front there is a stronger moment before all this happens, when Cobb decides to put his wife in the past and focus on his future and battles to be able to see his kids once again. That is a sudden change for good, that can be seen as eucatastrophic.
For me Inception hits all three criteria set out by Tolkien in his essay for a Fairy-Story to be considered art. I can’t imagine Tolkien would agree, he didn’t believe a narrative form other than literature was capable of reaching his high-bars. But story-telling has come a long way in the 80 or so years since the essay was penned. A lot of it built upon the foundations cast by writers like Tolkien that saw the power and relevance of fantastical narratives reflecting and magnifying the world in which we live.