ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The science fiction movie "Inception," a tricky, multilayered tale of hijacked dreams, was one of last year's biggest hits. So not surprisingly, three new films - "Limitless," "The Adjustment Bureau" and "Source Code" - have tried to position themselves as this year's "Inception."
And that got Bob Mondello thinking.
BOB MONDELLO: Four times in eight months, I've been caught up in science-fiction worlds that seem remarkably like the world I actually live in - urban, brightly lit; not filled with aliens, zombies or futuristic gadgets - just a lot of people with control issues.
(Soundbite of movie, "Inception")
Mr. LEONARDO DICAPRIO (Actor): (as Cobb) I have it under control.
Unidentified Man: I'd hate to see you out of control.
MONDELLO: That's Leonardo DiCaprio and one of his dream-controlling buddies in "Inception." But I could have used Matt Damon, battling with handlers who want to control his life, in "The Adjustment Bureau."
(Soundbite of movie, "The Adjustment Bureau")
Mr. MATT DAMON (Actor): (as David Norris) Why do you want to keep us apart?
Unidentified Man #2: Because the plan said so.
Mr. DAMON: (as David Norris) Well, then you misread the plan.
MONDELLO: Or Bradley Cooper battling with the pills controlling his life, in "Limitless."
(Soundbite of movie, "Limitless")
Mr. BRADLEY COOPER (Actor): (as Eddie Morra) My brain is skipping time. I have no memory of the last four days.
MONDELLO: Or Jake Gyllenhaal, who's not quite sure who - or what - he's battling for control, in "Source Code."
(Soundbite of movie, "Source Code")
Mr. JAKE GYLLENHAAL (Actor): (as Colter Stevens) I'm what, what - what aren't you telling me here?
MONDELLO: What they aren't telling him, they kind of aren't telling the audience, either - in any of these stories. So unlike most movies where everything's painstakingly laid out for us, we have to battle for control, too -figuring out what the rules are, how the movie world works.
It would be hard to overstate how unusual this is. Directors sometimes withhold information to build up suspense, but they almost always go to great pains to make sure that everything is clear. These movies go to great pains to mess with your mind - creating dreamscapes, drug hazes, alternate and simulated realities to throw you off balance. And having four of them succeed with audiences at once is very unusual.
One a year is more like it - say, 2000's backward-spinning "Memento."
Mr. GUY PEARCE (Actor): (as Leonard Shelby) I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world is still here.
MONDELLO: Then a year later, the reality-splicing "Vanilla Sky."
(Soundbite of movie, "Vanilla Sky")
Mr. KURT RUSSELL (Actor): (as Dr. Curtis McCabe) Mortality as home entertainment? This cannot be the future.
MONDELLO: And three years after that, the memory scrubbing "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."
(Soundbite of movie, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind")
Mr. Jim Carrey (Actor) (as Joel Barish): Don't remember doing that.
MONDELLO: Mind you, except for "Vanilla Sky," which was a Tom Cruise action flick, none of these films went very far at the box office. So what accounts for the billion-dollar gross of the current crop of control-issue movies?
Could we be so battered these days by headline-making meltdowns - economic, atomic and despotic - that we're seeking refuge in complexity, glorying in watching folks solve even trickier problems than we face in less than two hours?
There's something gratifying in that, even if the heroes get a lot of screenwriting help. I mean, I could fix a lot of things if I had access to brainiac pills, or a hat that let me sidestep the law of physics - or if I could keep going back in time until I got things right. That's practically a superpower.
In fact, let me go back over the last three minutes and get this right.
(Soundbite of a reversing tape)
MONDELLO: The success of these films probably has less to do with the state of the world than with the state of the movies themselves. They're fun - brain teasers that are accessible for all the trickiness of their concepts.
As for how the filmmakers came up with those concepts - a little harder to explain. Unless, of course, they're all pill-popping dreamers, taking orders from on high, with urgent but constantly extended deadlines. Ya think?
I'm Bob Mondello.