For decades now, the summer movie season has been dominated by sequels, remakes, reboots, movies that are based on TV shows, novels, comic books, video games, and carnival rides. A screenplay written directly for the screen is a rare thing during the summer. That's partly what all the hype around last year's Inception was all about: An honest-to-goodness original idea? What can that possibly mean? How on earth can anyone sell something like that?
The reality of Inception was that it combined some terrific science fiction ideas about dream-traveling with some awesome visual effects and a lot of slam-bang chase and fight scenes. In short, it wasn't really all that radical, but it was enough to at least seem "original" and "intelligent." Sometimes packaging is all you need. It was both a critical and a fan favorite. It even placed on several critics' ten-best lists, received eight Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture) and won four Oscars.
So what would it mean for a movie to be "this year's Inception"? To start, it would have to be something written directly for the screen, something that is more imagination than marketing. Right off the bat, that eliminates most of this summer's most anticipated movies. Here's what we're up against: Captain America, Cars 2, Conan the Barbarian, Cowboys & Aliens, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, Final Destination 5, Fright Night, Green Lantern, The Hangover Part II, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Priest, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Smurfs, Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and X-Men: First Class. And those are only the sequels, remakes, and comic books. A few other summer movies, like Mr. Popper's Penguins, are actually based on novels (remember them?), but we don't need to go there.
But the truth is that even if any of these could catch on in a big way, they probably don't quite have that special something that Inception had. Aside from being an original screenplay, Inception had a little heart, and a little worldly sadness; audiences actually cared a little about whether or not Dom Cobb got to see his family again. That's the kind of thing that brings both men and women to the theater, wins awards, and leaves people with the sense that they've really experienced something.
But take heart. I have found two movies with some definite Inception
The first is Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. Of course, Malick is one of the most elusive and mysterious of filmmakers, and the full story for his film is being kept under wraps (much like that of Inception last year). The brief description has something to do with coming of age and being lost in the modern world. It is listed as a "drama/fantasy," with claims elsewhere that it has surreal and sci-fi elements. It features a couple of big stars, Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. All of these things, if pitched correctly, have the potential to capture the attention of a large audience, especially if that audience is hungry for something of substance in the middle of a junk food summer.
Additionally, history has shown that a single, high-profile art movie released during the summer months rarely results in box office gold, but generally lingers in the imagination, including things like Eyes Wide Shut, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Rescue Dawn, and The Hurt Locker.
That leaves us with our other choice, J.J. Abrams' Super 8, which is being advertised with producer Steven Spielberg's name in huge type. I'm not a big Abrams fan so far. In his films, the emotional flow is generally too high-pitched; characters are always at the height of anguish or hysteria, and his action sequences have proven to be more of the shaky, choppy variety than the clear, exciting variety. That said, when I saw the trailer for Super 8, it coaxed an awed "wow" from my lips. If you were a child of the 1980s, it's hard to see this and not remember all those terrific "kids' adventure movies" like Space Camp, Explorers, and The Goonies that made such perfect escapes in a long, hot, dull summer.
This kind of nostalgia could bring in grown-up audiences as well as kids, and it seems geared for both boys and girls, rather than just boys. Moreover, it has a film-within-a-film aspect to it, and so, even though it's set in 1979, it could appeal to a new generation of kids who are used to recording everything, and it could actually contain some clever commentary about who we are in 2011. The trailer manages to keep a few things secret so that the movie has a mysterious appeal; audiences will want to find out what's causing all the ruckus.
In all honesty, it doesn't seem likely that either of these movies will cause an Inception-sized stir; I would expect that Super 8 will make more money but that The Tree of Life is more likely to nab an Oscar nomination, and that neither will cause fanboys to continue arguing on into the fall. But I'm excited to see both films, and maybe that's good enough.