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Why intriguing 'Inception' is the Hollywood exception

'Inception' has pulled in more than $150 million with its unique premise and striking visuals – so why aren't there more films like it? Hollywood is risk-averse.

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Evolutionary biology may suggest deeper reasons for our attraction to the familiar, says Lou Manza, a professor of psychology at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. Continued exposure to the same thing reduces a sense of danger, he says via e-mail. Once safety is established, he points out, we're comfortable with the idea, and humans, generally, prefer comfort over discomfort.

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“On the flip side, we tend to perceive a lack of familiarity as bad ... and, thus, we avoid those things. Hollywood simply takes advantage of this effect,” he says, trading the familiar for the more adventurous.

He suggest this is not necessarily a good thing. “If we don't try new things once in a while, life gets boring, and we might also be missing out on something good.”

Such simple polarities don’t always lead to good reasoning, says Peter Lehman, Director of the Center for Film, Media, and Popular Culture at Arizona State University.

There is nothing inherently wrong with reimagining earlier works, he says, adding that the history of film is chock full of genres with all sorts of expectations and “requirements.” The challenge, he says, as with the old westerns or musicals or mysteries, “is to balance convention with invention.” Even “Inception” director Nolan, he points out, took a turn with a franchise in both “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight.” The challenge, says Mr. Lehman, “is to take audiences through the familiar but use it to lead them to the new, the exciting, and fresh.”

The DVD phenomenon, with its alternate endings, director’s cuts, and endless commentaries about the filmmaking process is a healthy antidote to the market research culture, he adds. “This opens the door to an awareness of how we are being dulled by an industry that doesn’t want us to be too surprised or upset so they give us what they think we want instead of what might challenge or excite us.”