Christopher Nolan is on top of the world this week.
In Hollywood, that's not always the best place to be.
“Inception” opens Thursday at midnight, riding a wave of attention and early rave reviews that make it one of the summer’s must-see films — particularly considering that Nolan's last, "The Dark Knight," won critical acclaim and eight Oscar nominations on its way to box-office figures topping $500 million in the U.S. alone.
But is Nolan, who doesn't turn 40 until the end of this month, ready to assume a position as one of the greatest modern directors? Or is it too much, too soon?
And can any movie — particularly a dense, thorny thrill-ride through dream worlds that require close attention, if not multiple viewings — live up to the standards set by "The Dark Knight"?
Make no mistake, Nolan is clearly the "it" director going into the weekend, and for good reason.
(See accompanying slideshow: "On the 'Inception' Black & Red Carpet.")
In March, for instance, Entertainment Weekly ran a list titled “25 Greatest Working Directors” – and Nolan, who finished fourth last year, jumped up to the No. 1 spot, ahead of Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow, Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino.
That's without even having a film released in the period between the two polls.
“While some directors resemble painters, Nolan is more of an architect,” wrote EW’s Jeff Labrecque. “He builds films, analyzing every word and labyrinthine twist. Forward, backward, inside and out. His blueprints are flawless, and whether it's a death-defying magic trick or a Gotham skyscraper, his creations are built to last.”
Others agree. Devin Farachi at CHUD calls Nolan "the year's leading cinematic dream architect," while Jonathan Baldwin at ezine articles went so far as to slot him into 10th place on his “best directors of all time" list — which puts putting him above the likes of Orson Welles, D.W. Griffith, Jean-Luc Godard and John Ford.
It's all a bit too reminiscent of the last time a young director was greeted with such hosannas: In 2002, on the heels of "The Sixth Sense," Newsweek put director M. Night Shyamalan on its cover under the headline, "The Next Spielberg."
Eight years later, after "The Village" and "The Lady in the Water" and "The Happening," Newsweek's grand claim seems less like prophecy than parody. Virtually the only good news in years for Shyamalan is that his current movie, "The Last Airbender," made a lot of money — while drawing the year's most negative reviews.
And Shyamalan is only the latest, most dramatic example of a young director who couldn't live up to his hype.
Michel Gondry was acclaimed for the visionary "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" in 2004, a consensus choice as one of the decade's best films. Since then he's done some music videos and TV episodes, directed two features ("The Science of Sleep" and the Jack Black comedy "Be Kind Rewind") that got nothing near the acclaim of "Eternal Sunshine," and worked outside the U.S.
(Gondry is now doing the Green Hornet movie with Seth Rogen.)
On the other hand, other directors have followed early acclaim by building substantial careers (the names Spielberg and Scorsese come to mind). And Nolan's ace in the hole may be that "The Dark Knight" wasn't his first or second or even third movie — rather, it was the culmination of an impressive body of work that has built quietly over a decade.
Nolan's track record:
“Following” (1998): A tiny-budgeted crime drama filled with unrecognizable names that grossed all of $43,000 in extremely limited release.
“Memento” (2000): A critical breakthrough, putting Nolan on the map as an artistic force, even if it grossed less than $25 million domestically. A thorny story told backwards, it stayed in theaters for more than six months.
“Insomnia” (2002): The remake of a Norwegian thriller starring Robin Williams and Al Pacino, and the Nolan film that garnered the weakest critical reaction. Still, it grossed about $67 million.
“Batman Begins” (2005): Took Nolan into the commercial-blockbuster arena, rebooting a moribund franchise with style and intelligence and grossing more than $200 million.
“The Prestige” (2006): A period drama that returned Nolan to a smaller, trickier story — with mixed reviews and a modest box office return for a film starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, it topped out at a little more than $50 million. Still, it sent a message that Nolan was interested in more than blockbusters.
"The Dark Knight" (2008): The big one, with its indelible performance from Heath Ledger as the Joker, its eight Oscar nominations (and two wins) and its spot in the Internet Movie Database’s top 20 movies of all time.
Its failure to be nominated for Best Picture that year is considered to be the reason the Academy upped nominees in the category from five to 10 last year.
It's a track record that suggests Nolan is unlikely to stumble badly or fade away.
Indeed, "Inception" might well be big, but it's not Batman — and the filmmaker is clearly not aiming for "Dark Knight" business.
What he's achieved so far is to start a passionate argument in which the heavy majority comes down on the side of the filmmaker, and the film.
The first "Inception" reviews, which began with Peter Travers in Rolling Stone ("the mind-blowing movie event of the summer"), were virtually all raves. Variety called it "a heist thriller for surrealists," the Hollywood Reporter said it put Nolan "at the top of the heap of sci-fi all-stars," Empire Magazine dubbed it "another true original."
And among movie bloggers, the verbiage got even more heated. Anne Thompson: "Kubrickian masterpiece with heart." Sasha Stone: "a film … that has broken new ground and very nearly reinvented the form." Kris Tapley: "the film to solidify the director's place among the modern masters." Pete Hammond: "the movie of the summer, the movie of the year and the movie of our dreams."
The risk of all this praise, though, is that it gives later reviewers something to be skeptical about, and to react against.
And react they have. In David Edelstein’s recent pan of "Inception" in New York magazine, the first high-profile negative review of the movie, the writer kept returning to the subject of previous critics who loved the film: “I truly have no idea what so many people are raving about.”
And Rex Reed, who claimed not to understand what the movie was about most of the time, dismissed the director succinctly: “Nolan is an elegant Hollywood hack from London whose movies are a colossal waste of time, money and I.Q. points.”
Noted contrarian Armond White called Nolan "a born con artist" and used his review to trash "Inception" and say nice things about the flops "What Dreams May Come" and "Gamer."
On the eve of the film's release, it sits at 89 percent positive at Rotten Tomatoes; for every naysayer like Todd McCarthy (who apparently left the film very confused), there are a couple of Richard Roepers to call it "one of the most intoxicating, challenging and beautiful movies of the 21st century."
Among the critics, at least, Nolan's reputation will clearly survive "Inception" intact or even burnished; among moviegoers, the verdict won't be in until this weekend, or even beyond.
And as for those claims that Nolan has become our greatest living director, they're probably irrelevant.
Irrelevant, that is, unless you fiddle with the question of what exactly constitutes the greatest. A full two years ago, Esquire magazine wondered if Nolan was in fact the best – and the way to figure that out, suggested Mike D’Angelo, was to ask this: “Whose next film is most likely to be a flat-out, make-my-head-hurt masterpiece?”
Even Nolan’s detractors, who’ve been eagerly reminding us that “Inception” makes their heads hurt, might agree that he fits that criterion.