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“Inception:” A Box Office Breaker and National IQ Barometer

What box office hits say about national intelligence

"Inception" is going to be the best movie of the summer, perhaps the year, perhaps even the decade. The reviews are too consistent and too positive. The hype is too genuine and too pervasive. As the critical and public audience readies for the release of "Inception" this weekend, a major question arises.

How much money will be made? Or, in this case, to what degree will the box office balloon? This question is actually very important. The implications are not merely limited to the fascination of movie buffs or inside-cinema factoids. The monetary aftershocks are likely to influence the business of Hollywood and, in turn, the national psyche. More on that in a minute.

First, a prediction. "Inception" will make between 50 and 60 million dollars in its opening weekend. It will exceed a quarter of a billion dollars with relative celerity and it will threaten the top 10 all-time box office totals before resting on a final domestic figure in the ballpark of 500 million dollars.

Where did these numbers come from? For some perspective on the financial underpinnings of film consider the following:

The recently-released "Twilight Saga: Eclipse" has performed with predictable success, earning roughly 250 million dollars during the meat of its run. As "Inception" is a higher quality film geared toward a wider audience, "Eclipse" should be eclipsed rather handily.

The absolute ceiling of financial success - the holy grail of cash figures - is owned by "Avatar," which currently sits atop the all-time list having raked in 750 million dollars. "Inception" writer/director Christopher Nolan should come closer to this figure than not. Like "Avatar" creator James Cameron, Nolan has proven himself to be a filmmaker brilliant at producing elegant and unique stories within a structure of mass appeal. Also like Cameron, Nolan has tastefully integrated CGI technology into his film, widening his financial potential with the more expensive I-Max tickets. The novel and challenging storyline material is a calculated risk that will likely limit the film's earning power, as children and idiots will be left out in the cold. I imagine Nolan's box-office dreams will be realized if "Inception" rivals his previous film, the boomingly successful "The Dark Knight." 533 million dollars and 3rd place on the all-time box office list are the figures to associate with that superhero flick.

"Inception" can threaten such overwhelming financial figures because of the strong reviews, expert marketing, blockbuster nature of the summer season (people have more time to go to the movies), dearth of competing releases (we're far from Oscar season), superstar cast (Leonardo Di Caprio is the second most bankable leading man in Hollywood (behind Robert Downey Jr.) and Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard and Michael Cain round out an exceptional ensemble). And, in addition to razor-sharp filmmaking and a comfortable genre (a heist thriller), "Inception" is pulling out all the stops, as a Thursday midnight release, a PG-13 rating and a plan to blanket 3,800 theaters all but ensure success.

Now, onto the significant ramifications. For better or worse, movies dominant the American entertainment scene. As a result, the movies play an influential role in determining what we learn and how we think. 21st century life seems to suggest a trend toward the movie screen and away from books. Consequently, cinematic characters will increasingly shape values and aspirations, and plots will foster cognitive complexity and strengths (or not) in a manner previously owned by literature, news and, of course, real-world figures. The more we ensconce ourselves in technological bubbles, the more film will fulfill this prophecy.

This may be problematic. Intelligence, essentially, is the ability to attend to, process, recall, comprehend, analyze and articulate verbal and non-verbal information. Our national intelligence is based upon how well we perform these cognitive processes and our performance directly flows from our tendency to reflect upon, practice and challenge ourselves.

Thus, the nature of American occupations (what we do during the week) and proclivities (what we do on weekends) likely shapes and reflects our mass IQ. Again, as movies constitute a significant slice of the proclivity pie, deductive reasoning suggests that our most successful movies also serve as an effective barometer for the state of our intellectual affairs.

The top 10 most successful movies of all time are (in ascending order): "Avatar," "Titanic," "The Dark Knight," "Star Wars," "the sequel to Shrek," "E.T.," "another Star Wars movie," "the first Pirates of the Caribbean," "the first Spider Man" and "the first Transformers." So, our intellect is being fed and defined by movies about fictional worlds designed for children, characterized by galactic shootouts and ruled by superheroes, pirates, monsters, aliens, and robots.

I don't know about you but these results leave me feeling fairly embarrassed and, in all likelihood, stupider.

"Inception" is a different movie. Motifs of morality and perception underlie characters that feel complex emotions and debate philosophical notions. Audiences are asked to focus and connect dots. In short, our minds are forced to whirl with the aforementioned features of cognitive life. This movie is smart and, by extension, will make us smarter. I hope for the sake of our national intelligence that "Inception" cracks the top 10 and boots movies like "Transformers" off the list.

More from Jeremy Clyman Psy.D.
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