Even before Hollywood’s current all-blockbusters-all-the-time tactic, summer has traditionally been the season when a real sense of fun enveloped the local megaplex—Jaws, Star Wars, Alien, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Men in Black, Iron Man, even the tempered “fun” of The Dark Knight, were all launched during the warm months, rewarding those looking for a little escapism with sights and stories they hadn’t necessarily seen before.
It’s different this summer. Moviegoers have dutifully paid for the usual numerically subtitled blockbusters (Iron Man 2, Sex and the City 2, Shrek Forever After), reboots of familiar titles (The Karate Kid, The A-Team), attempts at taking supporting actors to star status (Get Him to the Greek), and insta-flop would-be tent poles (Robin Hood, Prince of Persia). Feeling adventurous, you may even have strayed into a theater showing what purported to be brave new takes on the horror genre (Splice, The Human Centipede) … and most likely had plenty of seats to choose from.
And you’ve probably left the theater after each of these with varying feelings of emptiness. Most of the sequels are even more haven’t-we-seen-this-before than usual, and this week’s pending dose of Pixar magic, Toy Story 3, doesn’t have many pulses racing. And while The Twilight Saga: It Never Ends will doubtless be a hit, unless you’re physically or mentally 16, you’re likely not all aflutter by the prospect of seeing it.
The remainder of the summer doesn’t look promising. Nicolas Cage in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice? Tom Cruise playing “funny” in Knight and Day? The relentless marketing for the Adam Sandler/Kevin James/the-gang’s-all-here Grown Ups is desperate, while the utter absence of same for Jonah Hex, already the subject of several “troubled production” news stories, emits a foul odor. And the less said about Predators the better.
Audiences have noticeably tuned out, with Memorial Day weekend attendance the lowest since 1993 and showing few signs of sustained turnaround since. Then again, who—outside of studio executives and journalists—cares about where the summer box office is? What people want is what they’ve always wanted: An engaging story that shows them something they’ve never seen.
Which brings me back to The Dark Knight—or, to be more precise, its director and co-writer Chris Nolan. Trailers for his new film, Inception, which opens on July 16, reveals it as a labyrinthine story about a “dream thief” (Leonardo DiCaprio) who’s asked to instead implant a dream into a chosen subject in a bit of corporate espionage—his last big job.
Inception is playing with many of the same questions of identity and memory that fueled Nolan’s Memento and The Prestige, a pair of pictures that appear gimmicky on the surface but actually hold up to repeated viewings surprisingly well. Prestige especially utilizes a studio-approved big budget to get across not just impressive special effects and a twist-filled plot, but also takes care to focus on very real emotions.
That Nolan’s working here without his writer brother Jonathan, with whom he co-wrote Memento, Prestige, and Knight, may or may not be cause for concern; it’s never been clear exactly what each brings to the scripting process. But the cast, which includes Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, and Cillian Murphy, bodes well, as does the fact that DiCaprio’s (at least temporarily) out from under Scorsese’s thumb and isn’t reviving his risible Boston accent.
At first blush, Inception looks like it’s cherry-picking ideas from fare as diverse as Minority Report, Dark City, and even Southland Tales, throwing them into a blender and coming up with something all its own. Whether the final product is closer to those giddy delights (and yes, I liked Southland Tales) or the last big-budget attempt at a mind-bender, the misbegotten The Box, isn’t yet clear.