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The expectations keep ratcheting up for 'Inception.' Can they go too high?

July 6, 2010 |  3:09 pm

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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Comments () | Archives (14)

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'Avatar' washed away our doubts? I could have placed a few succulents around my television and watched Dances with Wolves - horribly cliche film, your 'low expectations' philosophy notwithstanding.

The movie looks just freaking amazing TBH

100% agree.

Nolan has never disappointed me and I don't expect him to this time.

It worked for him with the Dark Knight, that movie had hype second to none.

"Avatar" had cliches, but so did "Star Wars", and "Raiders of the Lost Ark". Its just a matter of how the filmmaker handles those cliches. Cameron handled them well, and while watching the film, I didn't think that what I was watching was a cliche. The film still holds up after multiple viewings, even at home. Not to mention that films like "Avatar" and "Titanic" were was Hollywood was built off of.

Looking forward to it, the hell with the reviewers. My hunch is that Inception will be worth it's price of admission (so few really are). I also like the casting - aside from the usually dependable DeCaprio, it will be good to see Joseph Gordon-Leavitt and Ellen Page get to do their stuff in a blockbuster. They are two very talented young actors with very promising careers. I am a fan of Marion Cotillard so hopefully she will do good work for Nolan.

Christopher Nolan has yet to make a bad picture. Memento and Dark Knight are his two best, while the Prestige and Insomnia were watchable as well. I have huge expectations for this film and hope it's as good as the hype. I expect an exciting, mentally stimulating and visually stunning film.

This blog wasn't about Avatar, which was a dreadful movie, it's about Inception.

Nolan knows how to make cool movies. This movie will no doubt be cool, the question is whether the coolness will be weighed down by pseudo-intellectual babble.

I'm betting on Nolan, but we'll have to find out for ourselves.

He's got my money.

So you are actually stating that it is better to walk in with a carefree "curiosity" and walk away excited than to show up on the first showing available, stay in line, share a communal experience of sharing a popular culture experience among like-minded individuals, sit in the room filled with a silent excitement of the anticipating crowd, feeding off the energy moment by moment until the final credits roll.

An unfair way to summarize this would be to say that it's better not to anticipate a kiss...

I think the general problem with "Citizen Kane" namedropping is the fact that it ignores the post-modern discourse that has ensured that very few, if any, contemporary works should strive for the status of a dominant masterpiece. I firmly believe that as a culture, we've moved on from needing such works in the first place. I won't bother attempting to argue this point in the comments section of a wonderfully thoughtful post, but I will say that Inception is expected to deliver an original experience. It's place among "Citizen Kanes" and "The Godfathers" (or perhaps amongs Bergman's The Silence? - I kid, I kid...) is the last thing on moviegoers' minds.

I have little interest in seeing this film. I will wait for it on Netflix. I thought Memento was highly overrated as well as The Dark Knight and Batman Begins. I liked Insomnia and The Prestige better.

Give me Avatar anyday over Transformers 3, Shrek 5, Spiderman 4 or any of the other numerous sequels, spin-offs, reboots, etc.

Avatar may use other stories to form it's backbone, but it's a hell of a lot better than seeing the same old same old. That's why it's the number one movie of all time. It's the closest thing we have to a new sci-fi saga on par with Star Wars (which in itself is a very cliche film that borrowed heavily from other sci-fi stories, the only film I truly enjoyed was Empire Strikes Back but that's another story)

I have no doubt that Inception will be a much better film though.

Avatar was a mediocre movie, and its earning status is a testament to the 3D craze and the moviegoers' (nearly default) attraction to big event film spectacles, regardless of their quality.

Avatar's (rabid) defenders often point out that other landmark films also relied on "cliches" and borrowed concepts. But those films did something new and compelling with recylced materials and ideas. Star Wars introduced us to some of the most iconic characters and science fiction concepts the movie world has ever known. A baby born this minute will be familiar with Darth Vader is a few years. I don't even remember who was in Avatar outside of the big three.


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