This past weekend was an interesting study in box-office expectations and Hollywood conventional wisdom. A fantasy called The Sorcerer's Apprentice—an empty, brain-shutting-down, CGI-heavy spectacle based on an existing title, more or less aimed at kids but sort of advertised to attract older viewers as well (and ultimately appealing to neither)—bombed loudly and badly at the box office, earning only around $24 million since opening last Wednesday.
By contrast, director Christopher Nolan's Inception—a daring, challenging, cerebral science fiction thriller with an original premise, ties to no previously existing brands and a solidly adult approach—earned just over $60 million over the weekend, hitting the high end of nearly every industry estimate for the film.
To be sure, Inception had the star power of Leonardo DiCaprio to help it, as well as Nolan's credibility as the man behind the monster hit The Dark Knight. It also had a brilliant marketing campaign that featured a lot of the film's striking imagery but did not give away much of the plot.
But something more interesting could be happening here. The summer box office has been off already, and there were a lot of reasons to believe that Inception could underperform as well. But the fact that it didn't gives us hope that audiences—tired of generic action films, TV show reboots and overstuffed sequels (we're looking at you, Iron Man 2)—are craving movies with more freshness, originality and intelligence to them. And if that's the case, then that's a very good sign for science fiction films especially.
Now, of course not every film critic liked Inception, including Blastr's own reviewer (with whom this writer disagrees), and we're pretty sure that a certain number of paying customers will walk out of the movie disappointed or going, "WTF?" But if the box office and anectodal hearsay on the web about audiences' reactions to the film are to be believed, people are freakin' digging this thing. The question is, would they want more like it?
We think so. After all, this actually started last year with a little movie called District 9. That flick went from zero to $100 million at the box office without a single star in sight, a no-name director and only the indirect involvement of producer Peter Jackson. A canny marketing plan and an absolutely terrific central idea—alien refugees landing in South Africa—compelled audiences to see a riveting, exciting film that pulsated with action and blood yet presented intelligent, provocative and poignant ideas along the way.
Another 2009 movie, the acclaimed Moon, was not a box-office hit but was noted for its more intelligent, almost literary approach to sci-fi. Even J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot, while having the advantage of a beloved franchise name, at least attempted to match the thoughtfulness and character interaction of the original show. Each of these movies, in its way, primed audiences for the massive jolt of mind-bending spectacle that Christopher Nolan delivered last weekend (by the way, we'll grudgingly give some respect to Avatar, too, despite the story being a reheating of Dances With Wolves in blue skin).
This is not to say that dumb sci-fi and fantasy movies are going away anytime soon. After all, we fully expect Transformers 3 to be a giant hit, completing perhaps the stupidest film trilogy of all time. Even something as bad as The Last Airbender has sailed past the $100 million mark in just a couple of weeks. No, mindless "thrill rides" dressed up in the trappings of science fiction and fantasy are likely to be around for a while. They're making a tentpole movie out of the Battleship board game, for Pete's sake, and let's not forget that upcoming Stretch Armstrong movie starring Taylor Lautner.
But Inception might just make it easier for long-in-development adaptations of books like Isaac Asimov's classic Foundation and Dan Simmons' brilliant Hyperion to get to the screen. And it also bodes well for brainy-sounding projects already in production, like Moon director Duncan Jones' Source Code and Children of Men filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity. Some of the sci-fi ideas floating around out there at the studios are still high-concept and probably low-IQ for sure, but if Inception makes it easier for even a few smarter pictures to get through—well, then we have even more to thank Chris Nolan for.