‘Inception’ and genre



This week, we’re looking at the Science Fiction genre. We’ll also spend a little time thinking about Horror and Fantasy. The film the class watched was Inception; whether it is an example of science fiction is something we can debate.

First, let’s consider the three genres mentioned. They’re closely related and many films combine elements from all three. It should be noted that each genre has subgenres, such as slasher flicks, ghost stories, and monster movies under the larger umbrella of horror.

Science Fiction‑generally has imaginative, but somewhat plausible premises. As the name implies, the genre is concerned with technology and science. Classic sci-fi movies were often set in the future or outer space or focused on the consequences of scientific discovery (robots, clones, etc.) This tends to be a genre of ideas and filmmakers use it to explore philosophical ideas, such as ethics, social structure, and identity‑especially what it means to be human. Some examples of science fiction movies are: The Day the Earth Stood Still, Godzilla, Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, Aliens, Bladerunner, Frankenweenie, and The Fifth Element.

Fantasy‑usually contains supernatural or highly fanciful elements such as magic, supernatural creatures, and magical or enchanted places. Often the theme is one of good vs. evil. Some examples of fantasy films are The Harry Potter series; The Lord of the Rings Trilogy; The Dark Crystal; Ghost Busters, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; The Wizard of Oz; The Corpse Bride, Coraline, and the Black Cauldron.

Horror‑contains unnatural or supernatural themes and elements and is designed to unsettle or frighten the viewer. The genre has roots in folklore and traditions that tried to explain death, the afterlife, and the nature of good and evil. Even modern horror tales and movies often focus on societal fears surrounding these themes. Some examples of horror movies are: Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman, An American Werewolf in London, The Shining, The Grudge, The Exorcist, Stigmata, Night of the Living Dead, and Psycho.

While these genres are often looked at as mindless entertainment, they often address deep issues about identity, ethics, or society. The surface may look escapist, but the images and ideas may leave the viewer mulling over the implications of what he or she has just seen. For example, we might think about mind control and personal privacy after watching Inception. If it were possible to control someone else’s dreams, should we? What ideas are truly our own? Which of our thoughts come from external suggestions?

Why are genres even necessary?

The genre system helps with marketing and distribution. It also helps in development. A screenwriter will have better luck pitching a script that fits into an understandable category like Romantic Comedy, Horror, Thriller, etc. He or she can spend less time describing “what kind of story” it is and get into a more specific pitch—how this film is different from all the other slasher flicks or which ones it is similar to so that the marketing department is likely to know which audience is likely to see it.

On the marketing and distributing end, it is easy for viewers to scroll through specific genres on a streaming site like Netflix or iTunes. Most of us know what types of movies we like and these services use broad genres and fine-tune suggestions based on what we watch, rent, or purchase. My Netflix suggestions direct me to “dark humor,” “British drama,” and “psychological thrillers,” because I’ve watched movies like Shaun of the Dead, the BBC’s Sherlock, and North by Northwest recently.

Even if you go to a brick and mortar movie theater or video store, genres are used. If you go see Bullet to the Head or Skyfall, you’ll also see previews of the action movies coming out in the next few months. If you go to a video store, you’ll find the films arranged by category, and if you’re a regular, the staff will probably make recommendations based on what you seem to like.

With the rise of independent filmmakers, the genre lines are getting more blurry, but are still used as a part of the cultural shorthand. A film like Chasing Amy might get categorized as both a romantic comedy and a gay/lesbian film because of the lesbian character.

How should we classify Inception?

Some might argue that Inception is not a science fiction film.  Inception contains “dream sequences,” but many of these seem like the typical fare found in action movies even if the special effects used to indicate the dream sequences sometimes seem like the stuff of fantasy; these effects and the fantastic element are not consistently used. But, the biggest problem with labeling the film a science fiction movie is that it doesn’t seem to address any of the anxiety over technology and ethics that the typical sci-fi movie does.

Because we can’t get a real handle on the reality of the world in the film or of Cobb’s character, we aren’t given insight into what is truly at stake for him or society as a result of dream manipulation.

Others might argue that the film is a science fiction movie because of the theme of using mind control and the ethics of how that can be applied. Is there ever a time when it would be acceptable to enter someone else’s mind and place ideas there? The very thought is chilling to most people, and playing on modern anxieties about who might be monitoring us at any given time, does put the film in the realm of classic science fiction like 1984.

If you have not watched the film or are getting ready to watch it again, consider whether it has a stable structure. At first, Inception seems like a series of random events, which like a dream, change constantly without reason. But, some threads do continue to appear throughout Inception, possibly giving the film an underlying structure. At the very least, the attempt to replicate the dreamstate gives the film a series of disruptions that finally become a pattern.

Another element to think about is Cobb. Are we in his story or is he the prominent figure in the dreams of another? Do we have a reliable narrator?

Film terminology

CGI: computer-generated imagery is the use of computer graphics to create or contribute to an image used on screen. Some of the first well-known uses of CGI were in films like Jurassic Park and Toy Story. As the software becomes more affordable, more independent and smaller artists are producing film and video games using CGI.

Extreme close-up: when the camera shows an actor’s face in detail or a single object is the focus of the frame, with little or no surrounding background for context. The spinning top in Inception is an example.

(Un)Reliable narrator: the degree of truth in a narrator (or point-of-view character)’s story gives the viewer a sense of whether he or she is trustworthy. The Usual Suspects makes great use of an unreliable narrator.


13 comments on “‘Inception’ and genre

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    I would disagree — despite the nomen, Science Fiction genre is not necessarily concerned with technology and science — at all. Of course, Hard Science Fiction is, but you’d be hard pressed to convince me that Philip K Dick, Kornbluth, a chunk Aldiss, Silverberg etc are that interested in potential technology as far as the sociological potentials it creates… “Potential future” is the operating form — of course, the future could be so far in the future that the predictive aspects of science — let’s say Singularity themed sci-fi — is just as mysterious an ungrounded in our current knowledge of the world that is almost magical…. utterly invented.

    But then again, I’m personally more in the genre is useless camp… but it’s fun to argue 😉

    • Joachim Boaz says:

      *a chunk of Aldiss’ work — sorry, written in haste.

    • thefilmprof says:

      Debate is always good. That’s what I want–the honest exchange of ideas and opinions.

      For the purposes of this class, I’m presenting the most basic descriptions of the genres as they apply to movies, hence the description of Science Fiction films often dealing with science or technology. The various sub-genres make the whole umbrella more complex than I can do justice to in a blog post.

      The genre system is pretty frustrating; a lot of the films, books, and music I like don’t fit into one specific genre; or, the marketing department labels it as one thing when it doesn’t really fit that genre. Kurt Vonnegut’s work often gets labeled science fiction and to me, his writing goes beyond genre–he writes about the human condition in funny, poignant, observant ways. It’s just good writing that doesn’t need more of a label than that.

    • thefilmprof says:

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, by the way.

  2. Joachim Boaz says:

    In regards to the genre question, yes, I find it incredibly useful to teach undergrads — I’m a PhD student myself… But unfortunately, the genres are — obviously — rather liquid.

  3. rich says:

    the reason “inception” is science fiction is not because of the dream sequences but because of how those dreams are reached, the science and chemistry that allowed them to reach such a dream state.

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