Christopher Nolan's "Inception," starring Leonardo DiCaprio and opening Friday, is a truly atypical Hollywood summer blockbuster. In the early buzz surrounding the film, critics seem to agree that "Inception" works both as entertainment and an intelligent work of art -- it's a film with as many ideas as thrills. It appears to be proof that not all big-budget summer movies have to be mind-numbing, crass and/or the cinematic equivalent of fireworks.
Why are most big-budget summer movies so dumb? Well, these movies are ridiculously expensive, and the studios want a substantial return on their investment, so they try to cater to the broadest audience possible -- usually resulting in the movie's IQ taking a nosedive to Stupidville.
In 2010, this practice actually seems to be hurting the box office. Yeah, "Iron Man 2" made truckloads of cash (in other shocking news, rain is wet), as did the fourth "Shrek" movie (no more, please) and the third entry in the "Twilight" series (long-term life goal: avoid these movies at all costs). But "Sex and the City 2," "Robin Hood," "Marmaduke," "Prince of Persia," "The A-Team," "Knight and Day" and "The Last Airbender" have all underperformed, not to mention the tepid reviews most of them received. Maybe we're finally getting sick of just being marketed to rather than being told a thought-provoking story. The sole bright spot thus far this summer has been the wonderful "Toy Story 3," but Pixar is the most trusted studio in the game right now, the exception that proves the rule.
A movie like "Inception" comes about rarely: It's an original story, not based off a preexisting property, and has been a brewing passion project for its filmmaker, with a reported $200 million budget. All moviegoers should be excited about it, especially if they're sick of the mindless entertainment usually reserved for this most humid and AC-addled time of year.
How in the wide world of sports does a smart summer blockbuster ever get made? The answer is complex, but besides pure luck and circumstances, mostly it happens for similar reasons to how "Inception" came to fruition.
"The Dark Knight," Nolan's previous film, is the third-highest domestic grossing film of all time at $533 million, behind James Cameron's juggernauts "Titanic" and "Avatar." That sequel to Nolan's "Batman Begins" was so popular that Warner Bros. essentially gave him an open checkbook to make the film he always wanted. Nolan chose to make a movie exploring science-fiction elements of dreams (as in, the ability to enter someone else's) and the very notion of ideas (planting or stealing them from a person's subconscious).
Now "Inception" is upon us, and audiences will hopefully flock to the film to vote yes on smart summer movies. Dumb fun can be just that -- dumb fun. And that's fine. But it doesn't have to be the norm. Here are 12 other strong examples of smart summer blockbusters (not counting 1999's "The Matrix," which came out in March), beginning with the granddaddy of them all -- "Jaws," the film responsible for what we now know as the summer movie season.
Smart blockbusters like these are few and far between. Only a select few directors have been able to make these movies -- those who had the clout and passion to see their visions through while overcoming studio interference.
12 intelligent summer movies
Released: June 20, 1975.
Director: Steven Spielberg.
A frightening, impeccably made film on all counts: script, acting, pacing. But it was Spielberg's adaptive direction that made it all work.
Why it's smart: You don't see the shark for a long time, forcing viewers to use their imaginations (what a concept!), which is far more terrifying than anything Spielberg can conjure onscreen.
2. The Empire Strikes Back
Released: May 21, 1980.
Director: Irvin Kershner.
Best film of the "Star Wars" series, hands down. Best to forget those prequels ever happened.
Why it's smart: George Lucas did not write the script or direct.
3. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
Released: June 12, 1981.
"Raiders" gets the nod because it's freaking perfect.
Why it's smart: The scene in which Indy watches a foe wave a sword around menacingly, only to pull out his pistol and blow him away with no effort, is not only a hilarious gag, but shows the film is working on a level of logic not often found in a summer thrill ride.
4. BLADE RUNNER
Released: June 25, 1982.
Director: Ridley Scott.
Actually a box-office failure that went on to become a cult classic, this is hard sci-fi from a director who's made a lot of good-to-middling-to-poor movies in his long career. But nothing comes close (except perhaps "Alien") to the intelligence and skill displayed in this Philip K. Dick adaptation.
Why it's smart: Explores big themes like the nature of existence and what it means to be "alive," delivering it all in an exciting way that all audiences can understand.
5. DIE HARD
Released: July 15, 1988.
Director: John McTiernan.
One of the all-time best action movies; it set the template for many others. But none has matched its wit, pacing and pure action goodness.
Why it's smart: Some forget that John McClane wasn't an indestructible superhero in the first film. In fact, he's in pain throughout most of it -- a hero who bleeds, like when he steps on the glass.
6. TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY
Released: July 3, 1991.
Director: James Cameron.
Arnie isn't known for brains, but that doesn't mean this film doesn't fire on all cylinders. It does, save for some typical cheesy Cameron dialogue.
Why it's smart: It explores successfully in its plot machinations the theme of fate vs. free will.
7. THE SIXTH SENSE
Released: Aug. 2, 1999.
Director: M. Night Shyamalan.
Ghost story. Love story. Mystery. A great twist. All of it works.
Why it's smart: The twist fits perfectly when you rewatch the film; seeing it more than once enhances its sadness and beauty.
8. THE BOURNE SUPREMACY
Released: July 23, 2004.
Director: Paul Greengrass.
Greengrass ("United 93") took over for this second chapter and added his hyperkinetic camera work and boiling political undertones to the series.
Why it's smart: There are consequences to being a hit man, and it negatively affects the people close to those you kill. Who knew? Bourne's coming to terms with this is nothing short of brilliant.
Released: June 29, 2007.
Director: Brad Bird.
The sweet, inspiring tale about following your passion is the smartest of the Pixar bunch, and the final 20 minutes are pure cinema of the highest order.
Why it's smart: The humans can't understand the rats talking. Genius.
10. THE DARK KNIGHT
Released: July 18, 2008.
Director: Christopher Nolan.
Nolan's done it before with this comic-book movie masterwork that, while not quite able to keep pace with Heath Ledger's definitive Joker portrayal, is a thematically rich crime epic.
Why it's smart: Using Chicago as a stand-in for Gotham City renders the comic bookiness of the film as realistic as possible by placing it in an actual living, breathing major city.
11. DISTRICT 9
Released: Aug. 14, 2009.
Director: Neill Blomkamp.
It was made independently thanks to Peter Jackson's ("Lord of the Rings") involvement, but with a paltry $30 million budget, it competed with the big boys last summer. And won.
Why it's smart: It turns many clichés on their heads, mainly the one in "Avatar" and many other films in which a white man joins a native culture and leads it to salvation.
12. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS
Released: Aug. 21, 2009.
Director: Quentin Tarantino.
Tarantino's version of a summer blockbuster, complete with that singular love of movies that only he can deliver.
Why it's smart: More than half the film is subtitled! And it's a World War II movie with an ending that you actually can't guess.