Monday, April 22, 2013

Oblivion Has Fallen

Movies that can look rather inocuous can sometimes prove to be the very worst. The two biggest hits of the US box office this past month since I moved here have been Anton Fuqua's Olympus Has Fallen and Joseph Kosinki's Oblivion. The former appeared, at least from the outset, to be a retro throwback to the national wartime action films of the 1990s - right down to the comparatively dodgy effects (back when they were "special" not "visual") and thick-necked gun-toting lead. The latter is only Kosinski's second film after somehow stumbling upon the greenlight to film the long-awaited TRON: Legacy and had looked to be a pretty, if almost endearingly derivative, attempt at launching an original property. That last part is admirable, sure, but what the two films share in their DNA is a downright contempt for audiences. Albeit, a contempt that emerges in different ways that offended me for different reasons. Still, they rank as two examples of some of Hollywood's worst habits.

Fuqua does many things that blockbuster cinema has done countless times, and I guess by now we should all be all be used to it. As if it's some sort of agreement we make with the studios by purchasing a ticket; we should know and accept that Hollywood is repetitious and we should just learn to silently shrug our shoulders and carry on enjoying the violence and the action that they so excel at. Except in the case of Olympus Has Fallen director Fuqua and debut screenwriters Creighton Rothenberg and Katrin Benedikt have added the bad taste of re-appropriating 9/11 iconography in the form of jingoistic mass entertainment. It's all well and good to act appalled and to chuckle for a few minutes at people confusing Chechnya with Czechoslovakia, but is it really any surprise such people exist when films like this are produced that so directly equate the desire to end American civilisation with broad strokes of the ethnic pen?

Cinema has always fallen onto the crux of "the other" for their villains. Whether it's the Russians or the Chinese and the communists, this is hardly new territory. Even Australian cinema has gone there with the film adaptation of Tomorrow When the War Began (and visualised the oblique references made in the book). Still, it's rarely felt as down the line offensive as what Olympus does with North Korea. By directly associating that nation with the imagery of September 11th, they appear to be drawing a dangerous parallel. Furthermore, that imagery is important for a reason and it strikes of a distinct lack of class and skill to lift it wholesale just for chest-thumping thrills and spills (and kills - so many kills).

Still, despite the fact that Olympus Has Fallen was rush-produced to capitalise on the upcoming release of identical (on paper, at least) White House Down, and utilises a very obvious riff on Die Hard (although the poster mentions Under Siege) for its central plot, it has a long way to go before trumping Joseph Kosinski's Oblivious in the lack of originality stakes. A genuinely shocking use of other (better) films' hard work for the sake of an already rather rudimentary plot. With bits taken wholesale and piecemeal from these other films adding up to the effect of a patchwork quilt, somebody really needed to take a big red pen to the screenplay. Or better yet, start from scratch. How else to fix the litany of issues that arise in the writing of Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek, and Michael Arndt (!) based upon an unproduced comic by Kosinski and Arvid Nelson?

The list of steals (they would probably say "homages" or "influences", but let's not mince words: they stole them) range from childhood animation (Wall-E) to high-falutin science fiction (2001: A Space Odyssey) and everything in between (Alien: Resurrection, Independence Day, Silent Running, Hardware, hell, even TRON: Legacy!). And that's not even mentioning the fact that Morgan Freeman looks strikingly like Isaac Hayes in his very limited role (don't believe the advertising there) as a rebellion leader.

And then there's the more universal issues of the terrible dialogue such as that nauseating opening narration that is told organically some 20 minutes later, lethargic pacing, generic score (yes, even by M83), rather bland art direction, not to mention an internal illogic (you'd think Tom Cruise's super flying craft machine would have internal controls to shut down if the pilot goes rogue) that so frequently makes for head scratching moments of dunderheaded nonsense. It looks an impressive feat on the (fake) IMAX screen, but it's hollow. There isn't anything there, even visually, to lodge its way into the brain. It's empty, vacuous nothing without a single original thought in its tiny brain. And, honestly, if you're not five steps ahead of the filmmakers at all time then you probably haven't seen many movies (gee! I wonder who the mysterious lady is in those interminable black and white flashbacks?)

Maybe that's who it's for? People who just haven't seen many movies. Maybe they will watch it and they will have a good time - the box office figures certainly suggest plenty are going, although I wonder about word of mouth - and that's nice for them. One day maybe they will discover the films that Oblivion shamelessly rips off and by that stage will be able to re-evaluate. They can also ask why Zoe Bell was covered up until the final scene (yet again - Quentin?) Until then? Olympus Has Fallen: D; Oblivion: D-.

One thing that they share exactly? Melissa Leo with a bad accent. That woman needs to stop it!

Who, me?

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