Review: Oblivion

Once you get past the atmospheric whiz-bang of Oblivion, which is 30 seconds after the movie starts, you search for emotional resonance and find none. Director Joseph Kosinkski (who created an as-yet-unpublished graphic novel that the movie is based on) fancies himself some sort of grand cinematic architect. But what he seems to miss is that movies only go so far when they're more concerned with the aesthetic than the spiritual.

In some cases, this is OK — like Tron: Legacy, Kosinski's last film, which takes place inside a computer world and at least made a furtive gesture toward a richer interior world ("Digital jazz, man!"). But there is nothing of the sort here. Oblivion is all style — everything is off-center and close-up and clean and sleek angular and glass and reflections — and no substance. But even that's giving it too much credit. Kosinski clearly has put a lot of effort into creating a fastidiously beautiful film, except it's vapidly fetishistic. There are so many shots of faces and ships and weapons and robots from oblique angles that you're left wondering if you're watching a movie or a big-budget ad for some weirdo luxury good.

Unfortunately, you spend more time dwelling on the film's aesthetics because the story is so creatively barren. The plot -- Tom Cruise is on a desolate, scorched Earth repairing drones and killing aliens until EVERYTHING TURNS OUT TO BE LIES! — would be worth investing in if it hadn't been told countless times over the past 20 years. Watching Oblivion is like playing cinematic seek-and-find — a game easy to be distracted by because of the lack of anything that resonate in the film. Everything from the direction to the score to the set design is hollow and derivative. And rather than worry about, well, anything we pass the time by asking how many pieces of other sci-fi movies we can spot masquerading as this "new" movie. For what it's worth, I picked out: Wall-E, Moon, ID4, Star Trek IV, Aliens, The Matrix (1-3), Prometheus, Planet of the Apes, Spaceballs (yes, Spaceballs), Solaris, and I Am Legend. And that's just off the top of my head.

Oblivion isn't a bad movie — there's some solid acting here from Cruise and Olga Kurylenko, and, hey, it's not in 3D! — but it is insulting. In 2013, moviegoers have better access to the cinematic past than ever before. To craft a sci-fi picture from a veritable greatest hits package of films from the past two decades and expect no one to notice is the height of arrogance. It would be excusable if the final product added something to the genre. Instead, Now That's What I Call Sci-Fi! — excuse me, Oblivion — is perhaps the emptiest movie Hollywood has released in years, which is saying a lot. But what else could anyone expect from a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy?

Photo: The Bubbleship rests on its launch pad at Skytower in Oblivion, an original and groundbreaking cinematic event from the visionary director of TRON: Legacy and producers of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. (Universal Pictures) 

In the dark

“Do you want to go to the movies by yourself or do you want to go to the movies with your friends? You want to go with your friends.” — Mark Zuckerberg as quoted in the New York Times A few days ago, I was out to dinner with some friends and one of them mentioned how he can't go to movies by himself. The reasons for this were personal and valid. But his stance took on a different feel when I found out later that this person not only can't see a movie in a theater alone, he also can't watch one at home if he's by himself.

I found this self-imposed requirement fascinating — and odd. I go to the movies alone a lot. I've been doing it since I was in high school (amazingly, no other 17-year-old wanted to see Eyes Wide Shut with me when it was released), and I like it. It's a more controlled moviegoing experience — I can't account for the gesticulating nerds or the texting teenagers, and I'm afforded a bit of an isolation bubble by going stag. But more than that, it gives me an opportunity to experience and reflect on what I'm seeing in a more substantive way than seeing a movie with a group of people. Seeing a movie with someone who really loves movies and can really watch them is fantastic, but seeing movies in a group can invite stress that distracts from what I'm watching. The more variables, the less controlled the environment, and the more chance there is to be taken out of the movie. (I'm someone who needs to be immersed in what I'm watching.) That's not to say I hate going out with a group of friends to see a movie. Watching The Muppets with a giant group of family members and Rise of the Planet of the Apes with a hardcore clan of Apes fans were fantastic moviegoing experiences. But so was watching Drive (the first time) and The American alone.

So it was with an strange feeling of synchronicity that I read Evgeny Morozov's excellent piece in the New York TimesThe Death of the Cyberflâneur, and was confronted with the Zuckerberg quote at the top. To my mind, it represents everything that's wrong with the "social web" and the value placed on "being social." Yes, I want to go to the movies with my friends. I also want to go to the movies alone. Same goes for living my life, be it in reality or online. Sometimes I like being with friends, sometimes I crave solitude. Sometimes I want to tweet or post to Facebook, sometimes I want to keep things to myself.

In other words, I want the freedom to choose my experiences. But the concept of the social web assumes a particular way of life is appropriate for everyone all the time, which leads to a kind of ruthless homogeneity. And in that assumption there is no place for solitude — whether it comes in the form of a darkened movie theater or a library or a ride down a lonely stretch of the information superhighway is irrelevant. Instead, the expectation is increasingly to live your life in public 24 hours a day. Go to a baseball game? Facebook it. At work? Better check in on Foursquare. In the hospital? Live tweet your tests.

People need to be encouraged to think on their own, to live on their own, and to be self-sufficient. I appreciate recommendations from friends and family and friends of friends and friends of family friends when they pop up on Facebook or Twitter. But to relinquish all choice, discernment, and, yes, the dreaded curation to frictionless sharing in the perverted name of sociability is to render myself an automaton. That might be good for Zuckerberg's IPO, but it's insanity in regards to everything else.

After all, what good is going to a movie with a group of friends if everyone is staring at their smartphones waiting anxiously to learn what the person sitting next to them thinks of the movie they're both "watching"?