Inception is widely regarded as a modern science fiction classic. Critically acclaimed with an 86% score on Rottentomatoes and commercially successful with a $800 million gross, Inception is a rare movie that thrilled both critics and audiences alike. It also established Nolan as a true blockbuster filmmaker.
That’s why it’s interesting to look back and see how Hollywood saw Inception before its release: as a colossal flop in the making. Here are seven commonly held views on Inception and why they proved wrong.
1. Inception is a Gift
Hollywood insiders saw Inception the way Philadelphia Weekly described it: “a weirdo pet project”, a gift to Nolan from Warner Bros Studios for a job well done. They imagined the studio saying, “Thanks for making Batman a hit. Go make your little art film and we’ll see you when you get back.” Certainly it couldn’t be a movie that would ever be made otherwise. Nolan proved Inception stood on its own as a great movie, not just a vanity project.
2. Inception is an Art Film
Though Inception had a lot of action sequences, most insiders saw it as an overpriced art film. It had themes of imagination, guilt, fantasy, and surrealism that is rarely seen in big-budget blockbusters. One rival studio exec called it “the most expensive version of Memento [Nolan’s earlier art film] you could ever make.” No one thought you could tackle such themes in a mainstream blockbuster movie. To them, it was just a little movie that got out of control. But Nolan proved you can do a story with deeper ideas and creative visuals while still providing the thrills of a standard action movie.
3. Nolan Can’t Make It on His Own
There’s no denying an element of schadenfreude in the anticipation towards the failure of the movie. Nolan was coming off huge success with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. “Sure,” whispered insiders, “he does well with an established property, but how would he do with his own project?” Many reviewers questioned whether he could have the same success with an original story. With Inception, Nolan proved his success was based on his skills as a storyteller, not on the Batmobile.
4. Inception Cost Too Much
When many Hollywood insiders saw the budget for Inception, there was a lot of snickering in the halls of the studios. “He spent how much on location shoots? He shot in six countries? He built a rotating hotel hallway? It might be a nice movie, but it should have been made for cheaper.” Surely the movie could never be popular enough to make that money back. Nolan proved he spent the money he needed to do the movie right, and earned it back.
5. Inception Is Too Confusing
Inception is a complex movie. Many reviewers found the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream format confusing. Audiences, they said, would be lost. In truth, audiences may not have followed everything in the story, but Nolan crafted the movie in a way that didn’t matter. Viewers connected with Cobb’s goal of reaching his children, and the dream world they journeyed through. You could go through and analyze the different plot threads (and many have with flowcharts to follow the different dreams), but you could also just sit back and enjoy the ride.
6. Inception is the New Blade Runner
Even when Inception got early rave reviews, Hollywood expected it to be the next Blade Runner. Blade Runner is a finely crafted, well-written movie that did poorly on its initial release. It only built an audience later on home video. Many thought the same would happen to Inception. What they didn’t count on is that (unlike Blade Runner) Nolan had the full backing of his studio who promoted Inception with gusto, and ensured a blockbuster release. Once audiences saw it, they flocked for more.
7. It’s Too Smart
Probably the most condescending and insulting reason is that Inception was “too smart for audiences.” No fewer than three articles I found used that exact phrase in the title (Film.com, Starpulse, and Hollywood.com) before the movie’s release. That’s a nice way of saying audiences are too dumb.
Having to follow discussions of reality and consciousness would be too much for the average moviegoer, they said. Well, audiences proved to be smarter than Hollywood gave them credit for. Nolan didn’t talk down his audience, and they responded.
Hopefully, movie studios will see the success of Inception as proof that movies don’t have to be stupid to be successful.
Did Hollywood get it wrong? Why do you think INCEPTION did so well? Is there a lesson for Hollywood?