Sunday, July 18, 2010

In Theatres: Inception

In Theatres: Inception
Directed by Christopher Nolan
The Grade: A

I walked out of the theatre after Inception—2010’s most interesting movie thus far—with five big questions on my mind (none of which were “what the hell just happened?”):

1. Does Leonardo DiCaprio have a dead wife that he’s managed to hide from the paparazzi?

Over the last decade, one thing about Leonardo DiCaprio has become abundantly obvious: he’s not just in it for the money. DiCaprio has starred in exactly 10 movies in the last dozen calendar years, all of which have been prestige projects by Oscar-caliber directors. Despite a huge demand for his talents, DiCaprio doesn’t even make one movie a year, while most of his fellow A-listers more than double that output. So, it probably goes without saying that when the man agrees to make a movie, on at least some level, he must really love and identify with his character. With that thought in mind, consider this: In each of the last two movies DiCaprio has made, (Inception and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, which came out not even five months ago), he’s played a man so consumed with guilt over the death of his wife—for which he may or may not have been responsible—and so tortured over her continued appearances in his dreams, that he retreats into the farthest recesses of his own mind to cope with the memories. I suppose it could be coincidence, but that’s an extremely unique oeuvre for someone to make two consecutive movies in. It makes me want to ask the man “Umm, dude, is there something you’re not telling us?”

2. Does this movie have any antecedent?

The cliché in Hollywood has always been that everything is recycled in one way or another, but consensus seems to be that it’s been getting far worse of late. The past few summers, while still a dumping ground for a hefty amount of franchise trash, have at least given us some genuine classics like Wall-E, Inglorious Basterds, The Dark Knight, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Star Trek. But summer 2010 has not only been bereft of quality (Toy Story 3 has been the only good movie of the season thus far), it’s been downright putrid for originality. It’s one thing to reuse good ideas, but the movies flooding the multiplexes the last several Fridays have seemed to steal bad ideas (and deservedly, most of them have epically failed at the box office). The A-Team, compared to everything else, felt like a good movie simply because it reminded us of the 1980s. If that’s a strategy for quality, we’re in far worse shape than we thought.

And now comes Inception, Christopher Nolan’s latest spelunker of the mind. To say the movie is merely original doesn’t adequately get the point across, because calling something “original” these days might just mean it isn’t a threequel. There is undoubtedly a bit of influence from David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001), which was the first major movie to allow dream logic to permeate story structure, and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), which made a serious attempt to recreate the visual stylings of a person’s subconscious. Nolan does expound a bit on some of the “we’ll introduce the rules as we go along” narrative techniques he first used in Memento (2001), and I suppose it could also be said that the story has echoes of Phillip K. Dick, even though there aren’t any specific similarities. But really, that’s it. While Inception may have a distant uncle or two, it’s totally without parents. And really, how many movies can we say that about?

3. Does Inception have any hope of being considered a success with its alleged 160 million dollar budget?

I worry the simple answer here is “no.” Once you throw in marketing, Inception likely cost upwards of 180 million. On one hand, you could argue the budget is justified because it truly does show up on the screen. The special effects turn the dazzle up to eleven with stunning trickery and jarring visuals—wait until you see Paris turned over on itself—rather than mundane CGI details, and the locations hop from Tokyo to Morocco, then Paris to the Alps (most James Bond movies don’t even cover that much ground). But even though the budget translated directly to quality, I worry that spending that much money on a movie like Inception might have been a poor business decision.

Put simply, Inception has to make substantially over 200 million just to avoid being considered a failure, and it probably has to get within striking distance of 300 million to be deemed a total success. To put that in perspective, only three other movies from 2010 have hit the 300 million mark (Alice in Wonderland, Iron Man 2, and Toy Story 3—all stemming from major properties), while the alleged summer blockbusters Robin Hood, Prince of Persia, The A-Team, and Knight and Day haven’t even made 300 million combined—and those were all supposed to be crowd pleasers. It’s difficult to really call Inception a crowd pleaser because of how much mental heavy lifting it demands from the viewer. Combine that with the fact that Inception isn’t part of a franchise or related in any way to a previously existing property, and it’s difficult to understand how 300 million dollars worth of people will fill the seats. Inception’s marketing team is attempting to sell the movie based on four things: the director/screenwriter of the second most popular film of the last ten years, arguably the best lead actor under forty, a cool concept that has never really been seen before, and previews that give away virtually nothing of the story. Will that be enough? The success or failure of Inception will end up depending on two things—the compulsion many people will feel to see the movie twice, and great word of mouth. Repeat viewers shouldn’t be a problem, but great word of mouth depends on…

4. Will audiences be happy with Inception?

Again, I worry the simple answer is “no.” I have no doubt that sci-fi nerds and cinephiles (like me) will, by and large, love the movie. But what about the couples that go to a movie theatre once or twice a month? Will they like it enough to tell their friends? Or, in the worst possible scenario, will they tell their friends to stay away? Inception is a movie that demands a lot of attention, and doesn’t reward the viewer with easy-to-understand answers or unambiguous conclusions. The climactic half hour of the movie takes place simultaneously on five different planes of consciousness and requires the audience to keep track of the relationships between them. Most people will find the movie’s ending either brilliant or intolerably frustrating, with no in-between. Will viewers appreciate this?

Of course, maybe I’m just being overly cynical. After all, The Dark Knight was the smartest and most complex super-hero movie ever made, and it also made the most money. Sure, virtually every “tentpole” movie released this summer has bombed, but maybe that’s because they mostly sucked. Perhaps a brainy, trippy, well-crafted, innovative movie with astonishing visuals is exactly what audiences have been waiting for. We can only hope, because if Inception doesn’t make its money back, it’s the last 160 million dollar risk on an original concept we’ll be seeing for a looooong time. Savor it.

5. Is Christopher Nolan the best director working right now?

Discounting anyone whose made fewer than five movies (sorry Jason Reitman and Sophia Coppola, your body of work is too small to be in this discussion), and only going on the last 10-15 years of output, Nolan has six main competitors: The Coen Brothers, Clint Eastwood, David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, and Quentin Tarantino. Soderbergh, for all of his virtues and risk-taking, has the worst quality batting average of the bunch, so he’s out. The Coens might be the best when they’re on their A-game, but they also released two shockingly bad movies in the past decade (The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty), so it’s difficult to place them at the top. Eastwood and Scorsese have remained unusually vital and prolific well into retirement age, releasing some truly great movies over the last seven or eight years, but Eastwood has also made a few too many average films (Invictus, Changeling, and Flags of Our Fathers), while Scorsese’s résumé is a bit too hampered by our knowledge that his prime was three decades ago. I think Fincher is great, but I remain in a small minority of people who completely loved The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, while barely anybody even saw Zodiac (and for shame—it was fantastic). I’m also keenly aware that I enjoy Quentin Tarantino’s eccentricities and stylistic arrogance—the same qualities that turn many people off his work—perhaps a little too much.

Christopher Nolan, though, doesn’t really have any red flags; he’s made seven movies in twelve years, three of which are masterpieces (Memento, The Dark Knight, and, yes, Inception), and none that rate worse than a “B.” His first movie, 1998’s Following, remains an undiscovered gem; Memento has been cited as one of the most influential of the 2000s; Batman Begins started the current fad of franchise reboots; and The Dark Knight might be the greatest ever of its genre (the super-hero flick). Nolan’s movies have achieved the rare Spielbergian quality of entertaining the masses without sacrificing substance and brains. Nolan would also make one hell of an auteur theory subject, as all of his films have, at their core, been about obsessions that run so deeply they threaten sanity and rationality. Christopher Nolan, until further notice, and with no real power vested in me, I hereby anoint you unofficial Alpha-Dog of the directing community—now please just don’t screw up Batman 3.