Ambitious, imaginative, bewildering – just some of the words used to describe the breathless critical adulation that has greeted Christopher Nolan’s Inception.
Consistently described as a collision of high concept heist movie, tragedy and mystery, surprisingly little has been made of Inception‘s sci-fi genre trappings. Its techno babble may be comparatively limited, and the specifics of exactly how the story’s dream-infiltration hardware works are never explained, but Inception nevertheless has its roots firmly in the sci-fi genre.
As we mentioned in our review, Inception has echoes of Philip K. Dick’s writing, with its shifting realities and philosophical undercurrents bearing more than a passing resemblance to the author’s 1969 novel Ubik, in which artificially constructed realities are freakishly distorted by its puckish antagonist.
It could be argued, in fact, that Inception is far more of a science fiction movie than last year’s Avatar, a film which contained plenty of spaceships and giant mecha knife fights, but whose story was more akin to the pulp wish fulfilment fantasy of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
That Warner Bros hasn’t pushed Inception as a complex sci-fi movie, choosing instead to focus on the film’s action and remarkable visuals in its marketing campaigns, is perhaps understandable in the current industry climate. Avatar may be the biggest grossing movie of all time, but its success was almost entirely down to its 3D effects rather than its comparatively simplistic concept.
Even a cursory glance over the history of sci-fi cinema will reveal that intelligent, big-budget sci-fi movies seldom make much return on their investment. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner took years to make a profit. Alex Proyas’ excellent Dark City barely recouped its $27 million investment. Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 Solaris adaptation failed to make more than two thirds of its $47 million budget, and neither did 1997’s hugely underrated Gattaca.
It’s unsurprising, therefore, that so many studios have turned to the horror genre in recent years. Look at Eli Roth’s Hostel, for example, which was made for a relative pittance at $4.8 million, but went on to gross around $80 million in box office receipts. Saw was made for a little over $1 million, yet grossed more than $100 million. Taken as a whole, the gross for the entire Saw franchise stands at a staggering $738 million.
From a business angle, profits such as these are simply too good to ignore, and it’s unsurprising that Hollywood has continued to churn out dozens of similarly gory movies over the past decade, some good, most awful.
With the arrival of Inception, however, there’s at least the possibility that other studios may put their cash against sci-fi scripts they may not have invested in before. And while it’s unlikely that any would-be sci-fi auteur will receive the vast resources that Christopher Nolan enjoyed (his success with The Dark Knight effectively allowed him to make what he liked), there’s an outside chance that fewer intelligently wrought concepts will be thrown in the bin.
At the very least, a solid box office performance for Inception may loosen studios’ purse strings a little, and encourage producers to assign slightly larger budgets to upcoming sci-fi projects.
Vincenzo Natali’s Cypher, for example, had a solid dystopian premise, and Jeremy Northam turned in a convincing performance as a downtrodden pawn in a futuristic game of corporate espionage, but the production was compromised by a woefully small budget, and the resulting film sank almost without trace.
Inception is an ambitious, sprawling, flawed, yet wonderfully wrought film that deserves to be seen by anyone sick of sequels, bad 3D, bad horror and 80s remakes.
But for fans of science fiction, there’s another reason to rush to the cinema to watch it: if Inception does the requisite business, other, equally intelligent genre movies could follow in its wake, including – fingers crossed – an adaptation of Philip K Dick’s own dream-world thriller, Ubik.