Posted on Friday, July 16th, 2010 by David Chen
Today is the day that Christopher Nolan’s Inception is out in theaters. Over the past year or two, we’ve waited patiently for Nolan’s next work and written dozens and dozens of articles about it. Having seen it, I can’t help but feel that films like Inception are the reason why I love watching movies and covering them.
I don’t think the film is perfect, nor a masterpiece. It’s a hugely ambitious film about the nature of ideas and dreaming, that happens to be a crowd-pleasing action blockbuster, but it’s also flawed in many significant respects (see Adam’s review for an explanation of some of them). Yet rarely does a studio give a director $100+ million to create a spared-no-expense, pulls-no-punches, extravagant action film based on an original story (notable previous examples: The Matrix and more recently, Avatar). The result, this time around, is something unique and visually arresting, a true standout among a sea of 2010′s cinematic crap.
The success of films such as Transformers and those from the Marvel franchises has catalyzed a feeding frenzy for movies based on existing properties. The focus for greenlighting films these days is so tied into the ability to market them that it occasionally feels as though true artistry no longer has a place in Hollywood anymore (how else to explain the existence of films based on Battleship and the Magic 8-Ball, or Disney’s refusal to sequelize one of the most profitable films of 2009 because they couldn’t make a ride based on it?). Brave, original filmmaking is still going on in America, but it feels as though less and less of it makes its way into our cineplexes, or even to our DVD players, these days. I mean, if your film idea can’t sell novelty glasses, what’s the point of even trying?
Thus, we’ve seen a flurry of sequels, reboots, and remakes. But for Hollywood, it seems that the strategy hasn’t been bearing as much financial fruit as they’d hoped. The summer movie season typically accounts for 40% of annual box office receipts, but this summer, many movies have underperformed to the horror of studio executives (more importantly, the calculus that brought about my summer movie game rankings has been completely shot to hell!). And while I salute the efforts of those who work on films, in editing bays and on sets, laboring to bring films to their conclusion, I also can’t help but feel a little bit of schadenfreude at the failure of studio executives’ cynical efforts, and some mild form of gratification at the refusal of the Americans to buy into it this time around.
It turns out that people weren’t as crazy to see a new Shrek film as they were the last time around, nor re-live the sexual adventures of Carrie in middle age. The underperformance of films such as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (and the expected underperformance of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) demonstrates that it might not be a great idea to spend $200 million on a film based on an obscure property or concept, even if it does have a built-in fan base. And the failure of A-Team to establish itself as the beginning of a long, profitable franchise has shown that maybe audiences aren’t as keen to re-live the 1980s as movie studios think they are (although of course, exceptions exist).
There have certainly been several success stories this summer. Iron Man 2 and Eclipse continued their respective franchises’ domination at the box office this year, despite the fact that neither film was particularly ambitious. The runaway success of Toy Story 3, though, was extremely heartening and proved that if you make a good film that appeals to all audiences, people will still show up (same goes for Despicable Me). But as we cover the nonstop flood of remake news on the /Filmcast each week, these successes feel like small comfort in a sea of suckitude.
All this is what makes Inception such a rarity and such a pleasure to behold. When you give a skilled director complete creative freedom, final cut, and the ability to buy and use whatever toys he wants, he just might be able to deliver a satisfying action film that also makes you think, and maybe even feel something. People can go for the raw spectacle and stay for the high-minded ideas, all while the studios make some cash. It’s a win-win.
Here’s the question that executives may be asking themselves at the end of this weekend: If Inception can’t sell tickets, then what can? Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, for fear that even more outlandish, ridiculous experimentation will result (although can you really get more ridiculous than a Wolfgang-Peterson-directed Rock’Em Sock’Em Robots film?)
Buying a ticket for Inception is buying a ticket in support of high-quality, original filmmaking at big movie studios. It’s buying a ticket in support of the idea that a movie doesn’t have to be dumb to be popular, that it doesn’t have to cater to the lowest common denominator to make money. I hope all of you will see the film this weekend, come back to /Film, and talk about its themes and ideas. Because if people don’t turn out in theaters, it might be a very, very long time before we see something like this again. That means worse, less interesting movies for all of us, and more movies based on properties like Pick Up Sticks, Sorry!, Perfect Strangers, and Cagney and Lacey.
And that, dear readers, is not a cinematic future I want my children to grow up in.