In my earliest Smug Film piece, I reviewed a movie called ATM and introduced this idea of ‘Roomies’—movies where the characters are trapped in some kind of room and the whole point is figuring out why they’re there and how to get out. Exam, The Breakfast Club, and Cube are some popular examples. Now I’m going to introduce you to Twisties, which have become quite prevalent lately.
I saw the Tom Cruise movie Oblivion in the theater by myself. I like going to the movies by myself. It’s cool. There’s something about being by yourself in the grandeur of the theater that always reminds me how much I want to make movies.
I like Tom Cruise. I love how bombastic he is. Scientology is obviously stupid, but who cares what he does? I never understood what was so crazy about his thing on Oprah all those years ago. So he was jumping around all excited. Has anyone seen his movies? That’s what he does. He’s one of those leading men who elevates the material with a larger-than-life presence. He makes bad movies okay-ish and great movies transcendent, such as A Few Good Men and Jerry Maguire.
Oblivion was better than World War Z, and I do like Brad Pitt. They were both shallow nothings though. I don’t get why World War Z tricked some people into thinking it had any emotional resonance. Brad Pitt loved his family, I wonder why, I guess because they were his family. One tiny scene of them in their kitchen doesn’t show they actually care about each other, people.
But anyway, Alex went into more detail than I care to now about all the epic Summer sci-fi let downs, and he did a brief but expert job of explaining the vapid foibles of Oblivion. What I’d like to talk about instead is all the fucking twists.
I agree with Alex that some of the visuals were cool. I will always prefer the rustic, practical look of the movies I grew up on like Empire Strikes Back, Dune, and Blade Runner, but when it comes to futuristic cityscapes and general terrain, I think we are getting to a place where things can look pretty fucking awesome. Avatar looks awesome. It looked so awesome that hippies were getting depressed that they couldn’t live there. That’s a bit much, but I get it.
There’s been this thing happening lately where plot has become the spectacle. Movies have always thrived on spectacle; Gone With the Wind is still considered one of the best movies ever made just because it has a really huge shot of soldiers. Spectacle is not inherently bad or anything. In fact, movies should have spectacle; part of the point of movies, and all art, is to offer a window into the bigness of the human imagination. I want to see Avatar be big. I want Star Wars to be an entire universe. If you can pull it off and have a decent story, you can do amazing things with the giganticness of spectacle. But nowadays, when spectacle is expected because rising ticket prices are making movies bigger and longer, it seeps into everything and it’s made its way into the plot.
You can still have a big movie that is small. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a big movie even though the action set pieces are minuscule compared to the action sequences that would come just ten years later in movies like Terminator 2. But since Indiana Jones is a great character and since the movie wants to entertain rather than merely impress, it uses smallness to create bigness. I’m sure I’ve said it before, and I will keep saying it forever: the best action scene in movie history is when Indiana just shoots the swordsman. It’s a small joke that tells you a lot about the character and trumps the idea of a larger fight scene.
But, lest we forget, that joke is inside a huge chase scene. My point here is that action is great, and spectacle is fun, but spectacle and action is what you get as a result of the plot, it shouldn’t be what the plot is. Today’s plots are needlessly twisty to a fault. It’s because we’ve all seen the action before, and now we need to be ‘wowed’ by the plot itself.
The biggest culprit is of course Christopher Nolan’s plot-fest Inception. The hilarious compilation of all the questions asked by Ellen Page should be enough to make my point. I could also never indite Inception better than the South Park episode Insheeption. So let’s get back to Oblivion:
Oblivion opens with a useless narration that explains everything we would learn organically over the next 30 minutes or so. It would’ve been much more interesting to learn it that way too. Unfortunately, as the plot unfolds, it turns out that all the junk in the opening three minutes was actually telegraphing the big reveal that we’d have to suffer through later. The movie is going along just fine and then whoops, it turns out the aliens were Morgan Freeman. And then what’s that, another Tom Cruise!? Wow, it’s so trippy and cool!!!
Again, it’s not that twists are inherently bad, it’s just that in Oblivion, and movies like it, they’re used to make up for poor character development. I realize that that last sentence assumes that they even realize they need to make up for their lack of character development. I think what happens instead is they’re so impressed by their awesome twists that they disregard the sheer idea of writing good characters. There are no genuine moments in Oblivion. It’s just a bunch of stuff of happening.
The advantage movies have over other narrative art forms is their ability to be precisely iconic. Literary critics love to boast about the participation of the audience in the design of a great novel—’you create your own images of Pip in the graveyard’! That’s not a bad thing, but chew on this: in a movie, a directors vision is held up, quite literally, to millions of critics. Dickens only had to describe Pip; he didn’t have to cast him, tell him how to say his dialogue, and argue with the studio system. Our mental creation of Pip is the ultimate crutch of the author, whereas the filmmaker is naked, standing before his audience, delivering with pride his ultimate vision.
It’s why most movies suck. You can’t please everyone. And since so many movies are made by committee, there’s usually too many cooks in the kitchen anyway. But when it hits, when that perfect movie happens that etches itself into our culture and won’t go away, it’s the ultimate triumph and testament of a director’s singular vision.
When we first see the Ghostbusters in full uniform, ready to bust some ghosts on the streets of New York, that is Ivan Reitman’s vision, and it works because it’s earned. But earned moments have become passé, and have so to the detriment of all of us. Earned moments are the result of a sound, clear story that rely on their natural ebbs and flows to take you to certain moments. It takes time and care, craftsmanship and understanding. These moments don’t just happen because you want them to.
The reason The Dark Knight is so beloved is because it tricks audiences into thinking it has those moments. But it doesn’t, and will be forgotten, awash in a sea of all the other bland superhero movies like Iron Man 2 and The Avengers that have come out and just keep coming.
My wish is that filmmakers craft simple stories and work harder on the characters. We obviously have a lot of great visionary directors out there these days, they just need a crash course in 101 storytelling.
I would watch a remake of Oblivion. I think it would be neat if they were like, ‘Hey, that whole thing, that release and all that was just a big test screening; we’re gonna make it again, but without all the twists’. Kinda like what they did with Hulk and Spider-Man, but not that.