Oblivion

oblivion_tom_cruise_posterCome on, Oblivion wasn’t that bad, was it?  I saw it in an old theater with a green stripe running through the film for the last twenty minutes and mono-sound and I still enjoyed it.  Yet critics have condemned it to be a “mash-up” of The Matrix, Wall-E, and Star Wars.  Really?

Estimates of how many movies have ever been made range from 700,000 (the number of the IMDb catalog) to as much as five million.  Star Wars came out in 1977, and it’s arguable that every science fiction space movie since has had a bit of “Star Wars” in it.  And The Matrix?  That ground-breaking film set style tones for hundreds of films which followed, from Equilibrium to Underworld.  And Wall-E is an animated family film.  (I can see some parallels – Wall-E was left behind on Earth to clean up, and so was Tom Cruise’s “Tech-49” more or less, and each of them gave their girlfriend a green plant, with unromantic results, but, come on.)

If anything, Oblivion bears resemblances to Solaris, for its ponderous dream-sequences and languishing cinematography.  It also harkens Moon, the excellent 2009 flick with Sam Rockwell.  (Sam’s job was to take care of the Helium 3 generators, and Tech 49’s job is to keep the hydrogen-deuterium machines going.)  Maybe even, just a little bit, there are hints of 2001: A Space Odyssey, for the Spartan nature of the production design and the intellectual framework of a man traveling down the sci-fi rabbit hole.

Come to think of it now, Oblivion also reminds me of the Mad Max trilogy.  That barren, wasteland, the eradication of resources, those crazily dressed, apocalypse-dwellers.  And, well, 1984, too – Melissa Leo’s “Sally” as the face of Tet, the all-seeing eye in the sky was an incarnation of Big Brother.  And, you know, now that I’m on the subject, Oblivion also reminisces the future dystopia showcased in Cloud Atlas, and in The Book of Eli, all of the Planet of the Apes movies (“You’re human; you did it to yourself”).  In fact, when Tom Cruise puts on the ball cap and starts playing some fantasy football he kind of reminded me of…well, Tom Cruise in the remake of War of the Worlds.

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I think the point I’m trying to make here – if I may mercifully come to a point – is that I believe we’re past the time when we can expect something to stand on its own as truly original.  Even the earlier films we may point out as seminal works invariably have some source material they’ve borrowed from.  The thing is, it’s just getting harder to conceal it.

Oblivion worked.  As a film, it was entertaining, sexy, visually sumptuous, not entirely predictable, and fun.  There was excitement and spectacle.  It didn’t exactly zip along with the sleek speed of, say, The Matrix, and it didn’t necessarily offer anything too shiny and new to people, which is where the criticism comes from, I think.  All the same, the sound engineering on those drones made them totally riveting, and it was actually refreshing to watch a film which, while it had some violence, didn’t have buckets of blood slopping the camera every time someone took a bullet (I watched Django on DVD the night before attending Oblivion).

The comedian Nick Swarsdon says “People are so jaded now.  Like, if you showed that movie fifty years ago people would be like ‘aaaahhhh!  Ppplbbbt!’  Their brains would explode.  ‘Aaaaahhhh!’  Everybody would lose their minds.”

I admit I can be a bit jaded, too.  But where my criticism comes from is in estimating whether or not I consider the movie to have “worked.”  If a movie was a house, I’m not going to judge it because it’s Cape Cod, or it’s Victorian, and I feel it’s stolen from other houses of the same style, but whether or not it was built well.  Is it warm?  How is the water pressure?  Does it leak?

Oblivion wasn’t the best film I’ve seen this year, but it kept me warm and dry.

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BOOM: The Last Doom and Gloom Report

Explosions.  Chemical fertilizer plants, bombs in the streets.  Gas lines blowing up and water spigots spouting fire.  Mass shootings at movie theaters and schools.  Media-hyped madmen and un-avenged departed children.  Man-made earthquakes.  Giant cruise ships tugging along thousands of people infected with sickness.  People traveling helter-skelter, toting gastroenteritis in their guts, passing it on to all others.   Doctors performing late-term abortions with horrific consequences.  Millions on food stamps and disability and medical assistance programs and baby boomers closing in on social security.  Massive bank bailouts and endless scandals with thieving CEOs, corrupt politicians and sex-crazed leaders.  A corporate oligarchy behind the veil.  An increasingly polarized country with the left urging ever father left and the right to the right.

These phrases sound like the makings of a Hollywood apocalypse movie.  Instead, they portray daily realities.

Have these problems always been with us?  Are things worse?  Are we headed to some sort of catastrophic showdown?

Here’s what I think.  There are too many of us.  We have too many “things.”  Our lives are too busy and complicated.  We travel too much.  We have lost sight of what we ought to be doing in a race to grab what we feel we are entitled to — which has become virtually anything and everything.

We’re in love with our own progress.  We revel in self-satisfaction at what we can achieve and then immediately take it for granted and infuse it with our sense of personal rights.  The police have a saying:  “Driving (an automobile) is not a right, it’s a privilege.”

We feel it is our right to have abundant, variegated foods just a short trip away from the grocery store.  Yet our top soil is devoid of any nutrients, and is just a junkie for the chemical, petroleum-based fertilizers we feed it in order for big agribusiness to grow crops.  Then, BOOM, a fertilizer plant blows up.

We start to worry that we’re running out of oil.  But rather than change the way we live, we search for another abundant source of energy so that we don’t have to adapt.  We blast a toxic stew of chemicals into the ground, literally creating earthquakes in order to bring up the natural gas (just another incarnation of our old friend, oil).  Then as we clear more land and excavate more ground to build more tract housing, BOOM, a gas line inadvertently struck explodes.  Or, the homes built over the fractured earth have flammable water coming from their kitchen sinks, poisoned by seeping gas.

We feel we’re entitled to a vacation.  So we take a cruise on a ship that chugs a gallon of gas for every six inches it travels.  And BOOM somebody has a bad moment in the bathroom and everyone starts getting sick all over one another.

We swap viruses in the airport.  We clog the highways and bi-ways in our personal vehicles, with one passenger per car still 80% of the time.  We fly everywhere, filling the sky with 60,000 planes over the U.S. at any given minute, tearing through tons of jet fuel in an endless cycle of travel and transplantation.  And BOOM, BOOM we wreck our cars on the highway and the planes come dropping out of the sky.

We stockpile munitions in anticipation of some societal collapse.  But when the predator drones come, BOOM, there will be no defending ourselves with rifles and handguns.  Instead we’ll just continue to shoot each other.  (And canned food stored in a root cellar is not going to cut the mustard for long.)

It’s in our collective psyche.  It’s in our DNA.  We have dreams of this; visions.  The Road tells the story of a post-apocalyptic wasteland as do hundreds of other books and movies.  The story is almost always the same:  We did it to ourselves.

Technology and innovation are good things, and have expanded our reach.  Yet a directly proportional sense of responsibility needs to accompany every advance and achievement.  Again, it’s in all of our stories, expressing our deep, unconscious knowing.  In Spider-Man: “With great power comes great responsibility.”  From Jurassic Park: “But instead of thinking whether or not they could they should have stopped and asked if they should.”

Things have happened so quickly since, say, the 1950s.  Back then we held a limitless sense of possibility and felt assured of interminable growth.  Since then the population on the earth has tripled, after being stable for thousands of years.  Our advances in medicine have cured many diseases, protracting longevity and decreasing infant mortality.  Yet these major boons have had massive impacts.

We’re just now making sense of all that has happened.  We’re coming to understand the impossibility of limitless growth.  We feel the burden of an astronomical population.  We get road rage.  We lock ourselves inside.  We delve into cybernetic personas online.  We kill virtual versions of one another in games like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft.  We spend more and more time sticking our faces in the tiny devices with transport us into an alternate version of our world we can control and manipulate.

These devices, at the same time, bring us ever deeper into an anti-mnemonic realm where nothing lasts long past the 48 hour news cycle.  One devastation quickly gets replaced by another in the media.  We condition ourselves to forget, and it becomes easy to downplay the current social and psychic climate on the planet because we piecemeal our reality in tweets and posts and video clips.  There is no longer any semblance of a sensuous, steady stream of reality, one held by an immersion into the moment.  Instead, we juggernaut forward through a fractious reality in a distracted fashion.  Short-term memory becomes lost.

In the meantime, we argue about everything.  In our effort to preserve our false sense of security and the myths of immortality we cling to, many of us adhere to the dominant group in our culture and fear the outsider.  The rest of us are pushing against the status quo in order to find a place in the world along with everybody else.  Each group just wants to feel secure.  We fight incessantly about God, drawing on literal interpretations and waging academic debates over them, or digging our heels into radical fundamentalist values and waging war.  In our daily lives we reward entertainment-value and ignore legitimacy, understandably too tired to hear about another cause, or problem, or concern in the world.

Like this one.

Just another doom-and-gloom report from the front lines of a dying world.

Does it have to be this way?

No.  We can turn over a new leaf.  I can start with myself.

Before I wrote this I was taking a shower and imagining writing something that spoke to the recent rash of tragedies.  I thought there was value in taking a look at these things not just in a newsy, one-at-a-time manner, but all together.  (Of course, I’ve barely scratched the surface with my mostly generalized list at the start of this essay.)

But then I thought, here I’ve been preaching doom-and-gloom for going on fifteen years.  I’ve spent much of my life on the fringes, looking in at the world through squinted eyes, badmouthing cars and companies and oil and sports and pop culture and any other bandwagon.  Do I really need to write yet another dark epistle about how horrible everything is?

Well, obviously I have.  The thing is, I think it’s going to be my last.  To quote from another movie, a documentary called Collapse: “I’m not going to debate anymore.”

I’ve done enough tugging on the pantleg of the world and trying to convince it that it is sick, that a reckoning is coming.  I’m tired of feeling bitter, and that what I think or do won’t change anything.  I’m tired of viewing the world as, generally, this mass of clueless people who are just going to keep on doing what they’re doing until we’re all fucked.

And we are, sorry for speaking French here, fucked.

At least, we’ve done inestimable damage, and we’re just starting to see the repercussions, both “natural” and “man-made.”

And it’s going to get worse.

But, you won’t need me to tell you.

Instead, what I solemnly pledge to myself and any of you who have actually made it to the bottom of this essay is that my new mission is to contribute something positive.  Where I would have ordinarily delivered more bleak reportage about the failing of the world, I will instead cite subjects of hope.

I’m not talking about dewy-eyed, naive idealism that electric cars are going to save the planet or small farms will be able to feed the exploding populations of India, China, Russian, and nations in Africa.  I’m not saying I’m going describe whole foods recipes and wear hemp and figure everything will be o.k.

Because brother, let me tell you, there is nothing we can do right now that will act as a panacea for our myriad troubles.  Things are going to get far worse before they get better.

It’s what we do during that time that will make the difference.  It’s how we will weather the storm.  How we will raise our children during these times, how we will change who we are and what we think we deserve in this life.  That is the only way through this and into a possibly brighter (or at least stable) future – we have to chop ourselves down, each one of us.  We have to stop bullshitting ourselves about what we take and what we feel we give back.  We need to relearn what it means to be equitable, and what reciprocity truly is.

(Hint: It’s not just recycling your cans and bottles.)

Finally, to paraphrase from one of the Zeitgeist movies:  Reality is emergent.  That means it is changing and developing all of the time, since we are changing and developing all of the time.  Our perception of reality and what actually “is” are inextricable from one another.

And reality is symbiotic.  Everything affects everything else.  Everything is interrelated.

This is not just hippie mumbo jumbo.  It is not “new age” thinking.

This is the oldest thinking that there is.  This is the ancient wisdom.  We respond to it in the same way we express our unconscious understanding through our storytelling.

And now it is time to manifest that understanding in our everyday lives, bit by bit, one day at a time.

I must move forward with a positive goal.  We are each of us Atlas, and we carry the world.

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