Thursday, February 23, 2023

High Concept

 The Beloved Spouse™ and I recently watched Oblivion, a 2013 film starring Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman. It was an interesting idea: aliens from a dying planet invade Earth. They begin the assault by severely damaging the Moon, which releases havoc on Earth. Humans resort to nuclear weapons to win the war, which devastates the planet and forces an escape to Saturn’s moon, Titan. A small crew stays behind to prevent holdouts from the invading force from messing with the huge devices that are sucking up all the water on the planet for transport to Titan. (Yeah, I know, but it’s a science fiction movie, so an adequate quantity of disbelief suspension is required to commit to watching it in the first place.) As you may expect, there are several twists along the way, but I’m not here to provide plot spoilers, though I may spoil it for you in other ways.


Oblivion is not a waste of time. The production values are exceptional, and the special effects are believable. Tom Cruise does well, considering he doesn’t all that often have anyone to play off of, and Morgan Freeman is Morgan Freeman, which means he’s outstanding. There are things that don’t work as well, but that’s also not why we’re here.


Why we’re here is to go over how Oblivion stands in for so many movies made in recent years, science fiction or otherwise. The film was clearly sold as a high concept, which is fine, as far as it goes. Execution and vision matter even more. What appeared to happen here was that, once greenlighted, someone decided the plot needed “more.” Unfortunately, the “more” turned out to be a mash-up of other famous sci-fi pics. It got so obvious TBS and I started calling them out to each other as they arose.


“This is a little like The Martian, but on Earth.”

“Don’t those drones remind you of Star Wars?”

“That’s got a Predator vibe.”

“Remind you of Aliens?”

“Right out of 2001.”


There were more. Those are what I remember after a night of cleansing sleep.


It occurred to me while writing this that it’s possible the studio muckety-mucks who sent notes might not be aware of these older pictures. I am always mindful of Robert B. Parker telling a story about pitching a Western to some young female executive who listened to the whole spiel, said she liked it, but wanted to know “Who’s this Wyatt Earp guy?”


I worked several years on and off on a Western I finally set aside because I decided it wasn’t much more than a retelling of favorite scenes from some of my favorite Westerns. I may have to consider sending that one out after all. Apparently originality isn’t as big a deal as creating the impression of originality long enough to get a contract.


Puts me in mind of an old Jerry Seinfeld line about relationships: Once you learn to fake sincerity, the rest is a breeze.



While this post underwent editing, we watched Den of Thieves, with Gerard Butler and Pablo Schreiber. The same issues I had with Oblivion applied here. “Reminds me of the shootout in Heat.” “This is him doing the Chinese acrobat bit from Ocean’s Eleven.” “That’s right out of Inside Man.” “Lifted from The Usual Suspects pretty much verbatim.” It’s a thing now.)

1 comment:

Ef Deal said...

A movie has to be truly unique (like Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, or Secondhand Lions) or absolutely distracting and charming fluff for me to watch and enjoy. A lot of movies are just time-passers for when my body shuts down but my brain's awake. I'm sick of shoot-outs, car chases, explosions, and martial arts; they don't suspend disbelief-- they hang it from the neck until dead.

With all the wonderful literature out there to draw from, there's no excuse for regurgitation.