When the remake of Friday the 13th came out, I began to hear weird complaints. Complaints that didn’t make any sense. Complaints from people who I thought were pretty smart, savvy moviegoers. They were complaining that it was dumb to have the rebooted Jason Voorhees growing pot.
There were people who saw the film who thought that Jason Voorhees growing pot was a plot point. If you’ve seen the remake (and you should if you’re a fan of horror films, as it’s much better than the instanegative hoi polloi would lead you to believe), you know that while there is a patch of pot that serves as a plot point, it wasn’t planted by the hockey masked psycho. In fact it’s rather spelled out for you that someone is using the abandoned Camp Crystal Lake to grow their weed because it’s an abandoned camp.
I don’t think the new Friday the 13th is a particularly smart movie, but this aspect of it really baffled some folks. Like I said, some smart folks.
Which leads up to Inception, a movie that is a particularly smart one. There was a lot of pre-release buzz that Inception was too smart for audiences; having seen it very early, even before the buzz really began, I scoffed at that. Inception is actually fairly straightforward, and one of the legitimate critiques that have been raised against it is that the film spends a lot of time on exposition and set-up, so that viewers are fully briefed (while I see that critique I don’t agree with it, as I believe writer/director Christopher Nolan has found intriguing and engrossing ways to deliver that exposition. It’s rarely a case of two people just having a conversation). To me anyone paying attention to the film would have no problem following it.
But that Friday the 13th thing… if the latest slasher film leaves people puzzled, what hope does a truly mindfucking film like Inception have? Is it possible that people just don’t know how to pay attention to movies? We’ve all been in the theater when some dopey person will turn to their friend and say ‘Why is that guy shooting at the other guy?’ when the motivations are plain to anyone who has been watching. But have more and more moviegoers become that dopey person? The cranky old man in me thinks that this is probably the case, and that it’s aided by the ADD culture of the 21st century – the fact that people are used to watching things at home, where they can surf the web*, that they’re used to checking their phone every ten seconds. Inception is an old fashioned movie not in its style or its subject matter but in that it wants you to engage with it; Nolan isn’t just filling the screen with spectacle but rather cramming in ideas at every opportunity. He doesn’t want to dazzle your eyes, he wants to dazzle your brain.
Do people want their brains dazzled anymore? I think so. And I think that there’s something about Inception - maybe it’s the way it’s been sold by WB, maybe it’s just something about the film itself – that will let people understand they need to face front and pay attention. This isn’t like Friday the 13th where people check out in between kills. Nolan’s no dummy; while he’s not looking to just crank out another summer explodey blockbuster he has filled Inception with enough eye candy to keep audiences riveted. He’s using the visuals and the action to keep the viewer engaged, to keep them moving forward. Which is, when you think about, what the architect does when creating the maze of the dream, giving the dreamer an impetus to keep moving forward, to remain in a state of suspension of disbelief.
I don’t know that all audiences will walk out of Inception filled with heady ideas and deep psychological musings, but I think most people will walk out of it feeling smart. That could be the best special effect that Nolan has at his disposal – the ability to make a huge blockbuster film feel it’s engaging you on a higher level. Not only is it not talking down to you, it’s kind of talking up to you.
Watching the video reactions that came from the CHUD screening of Inception I got a touch disheartened. A lot of people were saying the movie was confusing. I tried to tell myself that these people were just goofy or that the free screening crowd wasn’t ready for the jelly. Then something else occurred to me. These people weren’t saying the movie was confusing as a bad thing. They weren’t complaining. I think they just didn’t know how to really express what they felt – that the movie was complex, that the movie had a lot going on, that the movie made them think a whole lot more than they’re used to thinking in movie theaters in July. Confusing was just the word that kind of came out.
So I sit here watching the initial midnight returns on Inception and looking at the tracking and the Twitter buzz and everything, and I’m hoping that the early doomsayers who called the film too smart were wrong. Not just because I want to see an original, ambitious and intellectual movie get rewarded, but because I want to believe that the filmgoing audience, while all too happy to settle for the dumbest drek imaginable, can actually step up to the plate when something that is equally populist and smart comes their way. I want to believe in people, and a good opening weekend for Inception will help me believe in people.
* if you are a film critic and I see you Tweeting about a movie you’re watching that you’re going to be reviewing later, I immediately discount your opinion.