It used to be that audiences' interest in a film was an unequivocal boon for it -- mostly since that interest came after the movie began playing and could actually spur people to buy tickets.
But over the last few years, when development and production began getting scrutinized like a paramecium in a microbiology lab -- and since blogger reviews and fan sites started stoking/killing interest months before a single frame was ever shown -- expectations became a more complicated organism. You can, it turns out, have too much early buzz. That's probably what happened with "Snakes on a Plane," and almost certainly happened with "Kick-Ass" and "Watchmen."
Sure, a studio can convert pent-up energy into ticket sales as it did with "Cloverfield," "The Blair Witch
Project" and plenty of others. But pre-release hype can lead the people distributing a film to believe they have a bigger hit than they do, and lead the moviegoing public to believe they're going to see a better movie than they are.
All this comes to mind given the two-headed situation in which Warner Bros. increasingly finds itself with "Inception." Chris Nolan's new movie comes with insanely high expectations -- namely, the hope that it will save the summer and, perhaps, big-studio cinema as we know it.
If you hang out with film-fan friends, you've probably been hearing/talking about the movie -- in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays a dream-stalking character named the Extractor who tries the bold move of implanting an idea in someone's subconscious -- for months. The services that track the pre-release mood show strong anticipation among a host of demographic groups, including a few you wouldn't necessarily associate with this movie. (There are nearly as many older women harboring definite interest, for instance, as there are teenage boys.)
So great is the anticipation that the "Inception" legend has grown even when there hasn't been a shred of new information about it. With every new limp summer effort that comes out, Nolan's movie gets more drool. "Yes, [interchangeable summer movie] made me depressed, but at least we'll have 'Inception," goes the refrain.
The panting got even heavier over the weekend, as trade reviewers, consumer reviewers and awards bloggers began to weigh in. The idea might have been to let some of that buzz get more grounded, but it may have soared even higher; if the frenzy had reached fever pitch before, it is, at 10 days before release, at dog-only levels now.
Rolling Stone's Pete Travers called the film "the mind-blowing movie event of the summer." Indiewire's Anne Thompson described it as a "Kubrickian masterpiece" and said it will "wow moviegoers all over the world." The Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt suggested that he believes "Inception" is better than arguably the best big-budget movie in years. ("Following up on such ingenious and intriguing films as 'The Dark Knight' and 'Memento,' Nolan has outdone himself," Honeycutt writes.) In Variety, Justin Chang, in a line sure to play well in movie posters aimed at teenagers, called "Inception" "a heist thriller for surrealists, a Jungian's 'Rififi." God bless Movieline, which conducted its own is-it-real-or-is-it-Memorex test for the hype.
There's reason, to be sure, to think that "Inception" will rise to the hyperbole. The premise shows promise, the trailer is intriguing, and if anyone has earned this kind of pre-release love, it's Nolan, who's never made a bad film and has made several legitimately great ones.
But there's also a chance -- let's face it, a not insignificant one -- that those expecting an effects-era second-coming of "Citizen Kane" and "The Godfather" won't get all they had hoped for, especially if some of the expository scenes get a little windy, as some who've seen the film say they have. That's when all the hype will come back to bite, as those of us who would have been inclined to like a movie if we came in expectation-free will spend too much of our time trying to decide if it measures up.
Any film fan likes sitting down to a movie with a certain amount of hope, especially in a summer so conspicuously lacking in it. But guarded optimism can be the preferable way to go. It certainly was with "Avatar," which actually played better because it washed away our doubts instead of struggling to live up to our expectations.
Sure, we suppose "Inception" could turn out to be the best movie to hit the multiplex in years. But it's in the studio's interest -- and in ours -- not to think of it that way.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Inception poster. Credit: Warner Bros.
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