The rise and reassessment of ‘Inception’

It was one of the greatest movies of all time, until it wasn’t.

Several weeks before it appeared in theaters, Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” picked up some of the most flowery hosannas bestowed on a film in many months. A select mix of critics, film awards columnists and online movie bloggers who’d seen early advance screenings rained down unanimous compliments.

“Inception”: An article in Monday’s Calendar about the film “Inception” identified the maximum number of stars given by Chicago Tribune film critics as five. It is four. —

But as the film neared its public debut Friday, that unanimity crumbled. Several influential mainstream critics declared themselves less than enthralled.

Ambitious films — and as a wholly original concept sprung from the fertile mind of writer-director Nolan, “Inception” is indisputably ambitious — frequently divide critics. But the swing here was sharper than usual and was enough to perplex the average filmgoer.

“There seems to be a tidal phenomenon going on — the wave went one way, and then it went another,” says Salon critic Andrew O’Hehir, who with a lukewarm review was part of the second wave. “I almost want a social scientist to come in and analyze it, because those of us in the middle of it would like to understand it.”

Anticipation for “Inception” had been building for months. It is Nolan’s first feature since the hugely popular and critically lauded Batman film “The Dark Knight” in 2008, and in an era in which studio movies increasingly stick to familiar subject matter, here was a storyline — a tortured hero named Dom Cobb ( Leonardo DiCaprio) leads a team of dream invaders on a risky mission — that defied convention.

In that first wave of reviews, Kirk Honeycutt at the trade paper Hollywood Reporter said “Inception” puts Nolan “at the top of the heap of sci-fi all-stars.” Online columnists were even more frothy, canonizing the film with the likes of the Alfred Hitchcock classic “Vertigo” and Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

“A film like nothing you have ever seen before.... This could be the film to solidify the director’s place among the modern masters,” proclaimed pundit Kris Tapley on the film-awards site In Contention. A “Kubrickian masterpiece with heart,” declared Anne Thompson at Indiewire.

But as critics from large consumer outlets began weighing in last week, the current shifted. Reviewers from the Wall Street Journal, Salon, New York Magazine, Slate and the New York Times all registered deep reservations about the film, criticizing, among other things, its triumph of the technical and conceptual over the narrative and the emotional. “For the most part, ‘Inception’ is a handsome, clever and grindingly self-serious boy-movie, shorn of imagination, libido, spirituality or emotional depth,” wrote O’Hehir in Salon. "[T]hough there is a lot to see in ‘Inception,’ there is nothing that counts as genuine vision,” tweaked A.O. Scott in the New York Times. “The emperor’s new bed-clothes,” declared the Wall Street Journal’s John Anderson.

There were also a number of mainstream critics who exalted the film. The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan and the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert were among those who were warmly enthusiastic, with Turan calling it “a tremendously exciting science-fiction thriller that’s as disturbing as it sounds.” (Audiences also embraced “Inception”; the movie grossed a studio-estimated $60.4 million over its opening weekend.)

But overall, the film lost a good fraction of its cachet. A 100% “fresh” rating on the review-aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes early last week had, by the weekend, fallen to 83%. It’s telling, too that the site’s “Top Critics,” which tend to represent the most influential reviewers, were a number of points off that mean — they approved only at a rate of 76%. Those are enviable figures for most films but a notch below the best-reviewed movies of the summer, such as “Toy Story 3" and “The Kids Are All Right.”

The polarity between the first and second group of reviews, experts say, may in part reflect the differences between Web and print culture. “There’s a tendency in the blogosphere and maybe in American culture at large to take anything new and either detest or adore it,” says Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips, who gave the movie a qualified endorsement of three stars stars out of five. “What I think some of the critics are trying to do is bring an element of nuance.”

“We live in an era when there’s a tendency to overvalue anything that’s even slightly good. In another era I don’t know if we’d see gushing enthusiasm,” says David Ansen, the longtime Newsweek critic and current artistic director of the Los Angeles Film Festival.

The schedule of the pre-release rollout may have also played a part in the shift. The constituencies for which a studio advance screens a movie, and at what intervals, are as calibrated a part of a movie’s release strategy as on which television program to buy advertising time.

In a series of tiered screenings, the studio showed it first to many of the online columnists who rightly or not are often characterized as not bringing the same level of scrutiny to a film as more veteran critics, judging it instead by the standard of whether it’s smarter than many of its summer-movie counterparts. (One of the few print critics of note to see the film in this first tier was Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, known for being one of the more generous of print reviewers. He went on to proclaim “Inception” “the mind-blowing movie event of the summer,” a quote Warner Bros. promptly used in its television spots.)

But such a strategy also poses risks. Too much early buzz can stir contrarian feelings in those who see it later — even perhaps rigorously independent critics. “Any individual critic is going to say they’re evaluating the movie on its own terms,” O’Hehir says. “But I think in the aggregate this larger phenomenon does come into play, especially with a Chris Nolan or Jim Cameron [writer-director of “Avatar” and “Titanic”] who can divide critics. I don’t know if it’s conscious or unconscious, but I think there is this thing where some of us go into a movie spoiling for a fight.”

Ansen put it this way: “I think many of the observations would have been the same, but the tone might have been different.”

Indeed, one of the unusual characteristics of the “Inception” debate has been critics evaluating the film in the context of other reviews. “I truly have no idea what so many people are raving about. It’s as if someone went into their heads while they were sleeping and planted the idea that ‘Inception’ is a visionary masterpiece,” wrote David Edelstein in his New York Magazine review, adding “Slap! Wake up, people! Shalalala! Slap!”

Among other factors, say pundits, many of those in the early wave might have also been using a weaker frame of reference.

Ansen says the people who see it first “maybe feel like they want to help make a movie, and then critics come in later and grade that down.”

Many students of film criticism point out that this cycle isn’t new — it’s just faster.

“Dwight Macdonald noticed this phenomenon years ago: The daily critics say the obvious thing. The weekly critics feel inspired to correct them. The monthly critics set themselves up as adjudicators,” Ebert said in an e-mail, citing the 20th century editor, critic and essayist. “Of course, with the Internet, this process takes only a weekend.”