Monday, July 19, 2010

Why Inception is more important than Avatar

I liked Avatar. It was a fun movie that brought you to another world. It had vision and gave the audiences exactly what they wanted. It was groundbreaking and deserves all the recognition and money it made.

However, it’s not the most important blockbuster in recent memory.

Maybe I’m biased because I just saw it. Maybe it’s because I love Christopher Nolan as a director. Maybe I’m just too much of a snob. Nonetheless, Inception has been the movie I’ve been the most excited about in a long time.

Inception and Avatar both take us to another world. It shows us things that cannot be done anywhere else but celluloid. It paints for us a world where we can’t help but be engrossed. Inception did more than that, it blows your mind.

Ever since I was little I considered myself a movie fan. I was a precocious child, if by precocious you mean annoying. I watched a lot of movies growing up but the one real movie defining experience was Donnie Darko. That was the game changer. I know now that Donnie Darko isn’t that good of a movie (it doesn’t even come close to my top 25 now) and I know now that whatever genius the movie had was almost an accident (I’ll get to why Richard Kelly sucks in another article). Nevertheless, it showed me that a movie isn’t just about the journey but it can blow your mind as well. It can force you to think differently about the world and create discussion. The best thing a movie can do is create a conversation after the credits roll. It makes people debate and allows them to converse about what they just saw.

Avatar didn’t do that.

Avatar didn’t create much dialogue afterward. It was a nice self contained story with a message gift wrapped for the audience. It didn’t challenge. It didn’t stimulate. A few days later you weren’t pondering what you just witnessed.

When you boil it down, Avatar was just special effect masturbation by James Cameron. They were amazing special effects but in the end you weren’t better off. You didn’t grow much as a person after seeing it.

I don’t expect a religious experience after seeing every movie out there but nothing can top that feeling you get as you walk out of the theater with the credits music blaring and your stride in sync with the soundtrack. And as you walk out what do you realize? You realize that you are smiling and you don’t know why exactly. You have just seen a magic trick on celluloid and it will take that out of the theater with you into your car. And on the way home you will talk to your friends about how you felt about the movie and debate and argue. Film then becomes a social experience.

Avatar was shallow. The movie industry milks the 3-D craze that was popularized recently by Avatar but it does not respect the film. The 82nd Academy Awards is a perfect example of how the industry feels about Avatar. The fact that Avatar did not win for Best Picture was not a slap in the face so much as an admonishment. The Academy instead picked The Hurt Locker as their best picture of the year. It was an act that shows what is important in movies. The Hurt Locker, an indie with a relatively simple story set in a place drenched in reality.


Now back to Inception. Inception is not altogether original. I’m not saying that it is a rip off of anything because it isn’t. I’m saying that Inception has its roots in the mind bending movies from the turn of the last millennium. I am of course talking about Dark City, The Matrix, Being John Malkovich (I admit I had to look up Malkovich's spelling) and even Nolan’s own Memento. It is not unfamiliar territory. What Inception is though is a blockbuster. It is a blockbuster with an independent film's sensibility. Avatar may change the technical rules but it is Inception that may rewrite the rules on what you can challenge an audience with. I doubt many people have seen Dark City and The Matrix has been too diluted by sequels and its own self importance to really do any good. With Inception the blockbuster can mean something for once. It can give the audience something more than images on a screen. It can stay with them afterward and a week later still they will be chewing it over.

Maybe I’m just too optimistic but Nolan is in an important position. He is a bankable director who is talented and doesn’t treat his audiences like children. Audiences may finally have films that can allow them to piece together themselves and debate over. Create dialogue and allow people to rally around the movie. I hope that people are still going to be debating this movie in the future and trying to figure out what the ending means exactly. Just don’t go looking for Christopher Nolan for answers.

The man is either a genius or a prick that likes messing with us. I vote for the former.

Nolan’s big breakthrough was the thriller Memento. It was about a man with memory loss that is trying to find his wife’s killer. The film has no mercy for its audience, challenging them to figure out for themselves what the message is and how the plot all fits together. Memento came out in 2000 and the debate still goes on about the movie. Nolan even recorded different commentary tracks for the commentary on the limited edition DVD of Memento to fool the watcher into thinking about the movie one way or another. With a history of coyly winking at the audience and daring them to figure out his films, Nolan won’t allow an audience to sit idly and watch his films.

We should be so lucky.

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