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MindFood: Is 'Inception' Too Smart for Audiences?

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Jul 13, 2010 | 4:22am EDT

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InceptionWhen the early reviews of Inception began flowing onto the Internet out of LA over a week ago, there seemed to be a growing consensus that Christopher Nolan’s film, which is about a team of criminals whose specialty is accessing the information people store inside their subconscious via their dreams, was too smart for audiences and that its marketing team was having a hard time selling it to middle America. At first I actually wanted this to be true. I wanted Warner Bros. to have spent over $160 million on a science fiction film that wasn’t a remake, a sequel or based on a line of toys from the ‘80s. I wanted to believe that they had somehow been tricked into funding the type of movie that Hollywood so rarely takes a risk on.

Then I saw the movie and was instantly dissuaded of the notion. Sure, it’s a highly intelligent movie and one of the best science fiction films a studio like Warner Bros. has ever been involved with, but too smart? Too hard for people to understand? Are they going to flee from it in theaters like movie goers did in the olden days the first time they saw a moving train on the big screen and thought it was actually going to burst through the screen and kill them? No, I doubt it.

There will obviously be people who don’t understand the movie fully, but that’s true of almost any movie. The fact that some people are as dumb as fence post is not evidence that Inception is rocket science that’s too fancy-pants for folks in the midwest. If anything, I think it’s a testament to Nolan’s storytelling abilities that a film this dense in ideas that are often seen and not explained is as relatable, emotional and communicative as it is. That said, the WB may still be having a harder time marketing the film than I realized.

I’ve always been a film geek. I’m the kind of person whose internal calendar is anchored by film release dates. So for someone like me, Inception has loomed large on my horizon ever since it was announced that Nolan would be making it before returning to the Batman franchise. I know that most people aren’t that obsessive about movies, though. If you check your average Joe Schmoes’ Facebook profile, I guarantee one of the hobbies will be movies, but if you asked them when Tron Legacy was coming out, they’d have no clue. But chances are pretty good they are at least aware of the movie, that it’s coming out at some point in the near future.

InceptionAfter seeing Inception, though, I had a conversation that blew my mind more than the movie did. A friend from my old hometown was asking what I was up to. I told him I had just gotten back from a screening of Inception. His response? “What’s Inception?” It boggled my mind that he didn’t know. I wanted to shove his face in the trailer like he had done something wrong, like he was a pet who had gone to the bathroom on the living room rug.

Eventually once I talked him through it, once I explained that it was the new movie from the guy who made The Dark Knight and that it starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon Levitt, he recalled vaguely knowing what it was, but he had no clue what it was about. The last part didn’t stand out to me - before seeing it myself I vaguely knew what it was about, but that’s because I had avoided everything since the first theatrical trailer for the film - but I was kind of stunned that someone like him, a geek who is definitely more into movies that Joe Facebook, didn’t instantly register that Inception was the new movie from The Dark Knight guy starring DiCaprio.

At the very least I would assume that’s what the WB’s marketing team could sell the movie as, but I guess it’s a harder sell than I imagined. However, regardless of how hard it is to build advanced hype outside of the normal movie buff circles, I still don’t think Inception is too smart for audiences. I do think they’ll get it. I do think they’ll realize that there is something special about this movie, something daring and unique and extremely different from all the other mediocre crap they’ve seen this summer (and it truly has been a mediocre summer, Inception being the first major exception). And I do think that there are enough people like me, who know exactly why they should see the movie, to turn out opening weekend and then tell all their friends to go see it.

I refuse to believe otherwise. I refuse to accept the idea that it is too smart for people, that they’ll walk out of theater oblivious to how beautiful and rare the movie-going experience they just had is. I refuse to believe that Inception is bound to be another Blade Runner; another sci-fi classic destined to only be appreciated later in its lifespan because it was either too long or too dark or too whateverwhatever to fit people’s mood at the time. I refuse to believe those things because I flat out do not want to accept a future where Hollywood learns the exact opposite of the lesson they should learn from Inception; that risking big money on big, original ideas can pay off in huge ways.

Oh, and let’s not forget the lesson that not every movie under the sun needs to be in 3D. Hell, that may actually be the most important lesson of all.

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