Top 10 Film Industry Stories of 2010: #1

Inception Leaves Viewers Spellbound

By David Mumpower

January 28, 2011

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“Quality is not anathema to profit.”

The above is a quote from the largely forgotten Aaron Sorkin television series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. He also offered a similar quote in the final episode of one of my all time favorite shows, Sports Night. “Anybody who can’t make money off Sports Night should get out of the money-making business.”

While the above may seem like an introduction for Sorkin’s 2010 triumph, The Social Network, the topic is instead Inception, a project that exemplifies the thought process Sorkin has always exhibited toward content creation. Entertainment does not have to be separated from intelligence in order to satisfy consumers. There are innumerable potential customers waiting for that rare project that identifies itself as intellectually stimulating.

The number of action movies over the past decade or so that qualify under this umbrella is debatable. The Bourne series would be widely acknowledged as such. 1999’s The Matrix would also fit the bill although many of you would hurl expletives at me if I attempted to include The Matrix sequels as well. A few stray releases such as Mission: Impossible III and The Rundown are less heralded examples of cerebral entertainment given tentpole blockbuster expectations then unfairly judged accordingly. So, sometimes the wisdom of Aaron Sorkin is right and in other instances the “dumb it down and throw on a laugh track just in case” seems apt.

Christopher Nolan has spent the body of his career stubbornly refusing to dumb his stories down. The told-in-reverse complexity of Memento actively alienated a certain percentage of would-be consumers while being championed by others for its daring and bravado. Memento earned Nolan Insomnia and proving himself on set with actors of the caliber of Al Pacino and Hilary Swank afforded him the opportunity to reinvent Batman, doing so in Batman Begins. He then dove into the world of prestidigitation in The Prestige. And I’m quite sure you know all about his work with The Dark Knight. What do all of these movies have in common? They are all high quality as well as high concept features, even the two comic book adaptations. One of the traits of Nolan’s body of work is that he asks a lot of his viewers, then he attempts to reward them for their commitment.

In the wake of Nolan’s convincing victory with the Dark Knight, the second most popular domestic release of all time at that point, he could have made any movie he wanted. Rather than pick from any number of surefire commercial successes, Nolan once again chose the most difficult project possible. I would even argue that this production, Inception, is more complicated than Memento. I have even described it as the blockbuster version of Primer, the most convoluted movie of the 2000s. A movie like that should have absolutely no chance to excel at the box office.


Inception has earned worldwide box office in the amount of $823 million.

Just for comparison, the two Batman movies made by Nolan averaged $686 million. Yes, Batman Begins skews the picture, but even if we only compare Inception to The Dark Knight, the drop in worldwide box office is less than 18%. To wit, as I type this, Inception is currently ranked as the #8 best movie of all time at IMDb. No other movie in the top 10 even approaches Inception’s global box office take. The only other one in the top 15 that does is the current #12…The Dark Knight.

How did Nolan pull off such an amazing feat? I honestly do not know. In computer terminology, Inception is a series of If/Then statements that comprise a set of action scenes. Even as I type the words, this sounds crazy in my head, yet the movie’s use of iterations to ramp up the tension in lower settings of The Dream permeates throughout most if not all of the movie. And I have to add that “if not all” disclaimer due to the fact that there are many theories about the movie that argue just this.

The true meaning of Inception has become such a hotly debated topic that charts and graphs have popped up across the web. Nolan himself even participated in one such Q&A in Wired Magazine, critiquing their convoluted take on the film’s proceedings. If you have seen the movie, I am absolutely certain that you have had at least one such discussion with friends if not innumerable ones. The underlying architecture driving Inception as a story has become the greatest movie mystery since we collectively pondered, “What is the Matrix?” People’s passion for the subject matter has consumed them for six months now and there is no end in sight.

Due to the obsession with Inception, Nolan’s latest movie wound up as the fifth most popular domestic release of 2010. In terms of worldwide box office, it was the third most lucrative performer while earning a spot in the top 25 all time in this category. More impressively, it was the only new property in the top five for 2010. Everything else was either a sequel or based on a previous work. In a year where any number of sequels drove the box office, there was only one truly original 2010 release that combined glowing reviews/word-of-mouth with the upper echelons of global box office revenue. Ergo, Inception is a clear choice as the biggest Film Industry Story of 2010.

Score this round to the “Quality is not anathema to profit” crowd.



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