The summer's big question mark is finally unveiled, and an intriguing picture gets clearer
Does “Inception” live up to expectations?
Could any movie hit a bar this high?
Christopher Nolan’s cerebral thriller has long been the most eagerly-awaited film of the summer, a new outing from the director who created a classic mind-puzzle in “Memento” and made a superhero film into a critical and commercial sensation with “The Dark Knight.”
In a summer of disappointing sequels and stinkers ravaged by the critics, his film – largely kept under wraps during production, with only teasing glimpses offered into its world of industrial spies operating inside people’s dreams – was going to be something different.
Fans hoped that Nolan would come through with another smart blockbuster. That it’d be an awards film brightening a dismal landscape of dumb action flicks. That “Inception” would be an original movie at the height of an unoriginal season.
Those are awfully high expectations to put on any movie. But now that Warner Bros. has now quietly started to screen “Inception,” and lifted the embargo on reviews a week-and-a-half before its July 16 release, we can try to answer a few of the burning questions surrounding the summer’s biggest question mark.
Is it the first great movie of the summer?
No. “Toy Story 3” is. But “Inception” is probably the second great movie of the summer.
Understand, a single viewing is hardly enough to come to terms with the film, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page and Tom Hardy as a crack team that invades Cillian Murphy’s dreams and find unimaginable perils in the subconscious.
But that first viewing is enough to realize that “Inception” is a dense, stylish, thorny, dazzling film that delivers as a thrill ride but gives viewers lots to chew on and puzzle through.
It is not a typical summer movie, but it’s bold and imaginative in the vein of the best summer movies; it’s way too big and spectacular to be an art film, but it can leave you scratching your head in a good way.
It's not perfect – thinking about it afterwards, you may find yourself suddenly stumbling on inconsistencies that didn't bother you in the heat of the moment – but it's damn good: challenging and stimulating and, in the end, surprisingly emotional.
And a couple of sequences – particularly a lengthy tour-de-force that shifts between four different dream states, each with its own rules and its own sense of time – are as dazzling as anything since “Avatar,” without the one-dimensional script that undercut that film’s visual pleasures in my book.
Is it comprehensible?
Wellll … Yes. But the bigger point might be that it’s enjoyable even if you don’t comprehend the whole thing.
The film is certainly dense, and complicated, and it’s not always easy to keep track of the rules of the dream world through which Leo and crew navigate.
Death, limbo, gravity, time … They’re all subject to change, and viewers can be forgiven for occasionally wondering, Whose dream is this, anyway?
But the fact is, “Inception” is a pretty terrific roller coaster even if you don’t have it all figured out. And make no mistake: as the ending makes clear, Nolan doesn’t want you to figure it all out.
Is it an awards contender?
Yes. It will no doubt have some naysayers; it won’t follow “toy Story 3” in flirting with a 100 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating. (Of the handful of people I know who've seen it, most loved it, but one really, really hated it.)
And it might be too much of a sci-fi, special-effects genre picture to win over the more conservative elements of the Academy come Oscar time.
But remember: if the Academy's move to 10 Best-Picture nominations can be laid at the feet of any one film, that film was Nolan’s last one, “The Dark Knight.” It’s hard to imagine that voters won’t find this one thrilling enough to put it in the 10, and in quite a few other categories as well.
Is it going to save the summer at the boxoffice?
Does the summer need saving, after “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” and “Toy Story” and a few other hits? If so, it’s probably unrealiastic to expect “Inception” to be enough of a hit to alter the entire box-office picture.
Which is not to say that it won’t be a hit, because I’m confident it will. Among a sizeable group of youngish moviegoers, it’s clearly the Big One this summer, and a good many viewers will likely leave the theater and immediately begin planning their next viewing.
But after a recent trade screening, I was told by one exhibitor present that theater owners and bookers were divided on the movie: some think it’s a big hit, while others see it playing strong in the cities but not so well in small towns.
The film is also nearly two-and-a-half hours long, though most viewers think it plays much shorter and faster than that.
“I think they’ve got $150 million domestic in the bag, and the potential to do a lot better than that,” said the exhibitor. “But some people are really questioning how well it’ll play in Middle America.”
Still, this particular exhibitor is not too worried: “I didn’t understand everything in the first ‘Matrix,’ either, and that didn’t stop a lot of people from going to see it.”
Could it be as big as “The Dark Knight?”
Let’s get serious. The Christopher Nolan name, as a reliable indicator of quality filmmaking, exerts a strong pull to moviegoers – but nothing like Nolan plus Batman plus Heath Ledger as the Joker.
So that movie, with its $500 million-plus domestic haul, is a completely unrealistic benchmark by which to measure “Inception.”
Better to take “Inception” not for something it cannot be, but for what it is: a big, wonderful, dramatic, emotionally engaging puzzle of a movie.