Can Leonardo DiCaprio and Christopher Nolan's mysterious new thriller save the summer movie season?

By Benjamin Svetkey
June 25, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT
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You can watch the trailer over and over again and still have no idea what the movie is about. Buildings folding into themselves? Guys crawling up walls? Aside from the teaser for Gore Verbinski’s Rango — you know, the one with the windup toy goldfish floating across a deserted road — it’s the most confounding 90-second coming attraction we’ve seen in a long time. And yet, many are convinced it’s going to be the one movie that’ll make a trip to the multiplex worthwhile for grown-ups this summer.

We’re talking about Inception, of course, the mysterious new film from Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan, due July 16, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Juno‘s Ellen Page. Audiences have been told the plot has something to do with dream thieves who insert themselves into the subconscious of others, but then again, you thought this summer’s Robin Hood was going to be about a guy in green tights running around Sherwood Forest (not even close). The film has been shown to a handful of outsiders, but Nolan and his studio, Warner Bros., have been so hush-hush about plot details that even the actors were treated as security risks: Scripts were hand-delivered to their homes, and someone stood guard outside as they read. ”We just want to keep something fresh,” Nolan explained to EW in April. ”Anything we can do to shield the process from outside scrutiny is valuable. When [the movie] is finished, it’s there for people to rip to pieces and judge.”

That cloak-and-dagger marketing strategy has clearly been working. ”Buzz is very ephemeral,” says an executive at a rival studio who’s been watching it build for Inception over the past couple of months. ”But the drumbeat with Inception has been consistent. Warner has run a very smart campaign.” Smart and different. At a time when most studios are releasing trailers that leave nothing to the imagination (Salt‘s seems to reveal the movie’s big twist), Warner Bros. is taking the opposite approach. ”The imagery in the trailer is unlike anything people have seen before,” adds the rival exec. ”That’s especially attractive in such a sequel-heavy summer.”

In a way, Inception got lucky: Virtually everything else on summer screens has been a disappointment if you’re not under the age of 12. (This month alone the kids have gotten The Karate Kid and Toy Story 3 — both box office blowouts and critically praised.) But while Iron Man 2 grossed $604 million worldwide, nobody liked it as much as Robert Downey Jr.‘s first flight in the rocket boots. And though Sex and the City 2 took in enough cash — $247 million — to keep Sarah Jessica Parker in Manolos for weeks, it’s not exactly on a fast track to any Oscar nominations.

All that leaves the field wide open for a blank slate of a movie with a promising cinematic pedigree. Nolan has a history of making edgy films that also happen to be commercial hits (Inception opens two years — to the weekend — after The Dark Knight). And he’s been up for an Oscar once before (for Memento). So there’s every reason to hope that Inception will buck the trend and brighten this summer. But no matter what, there’s still cause to celebrate: Nolan is already developing another Batman movie. (Additional reporting by Nicole Sperling)

Christopher Nolan’s Box Office Score
Though they can’t all be set in Gotham, the Inception director’s films have consistently fared well at the global multiplex.

The Dark Knight
$1 Billion

The Prestige
$110 Million

Batman Begins
$373 Million

$114 Million

$40 Million

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