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Hollywood’s Storytelling ‘Oblivion’: How the Studio System Can Learn From Its Past Mistakes

Written by on April 18, 2013 

Released in October and December of 2006, respectively, the ads for big-budget video games Gears of War and Halo 3 were well-received for many of the wrong reasons. Ideally meant to help bridge the wide, long-present gap between gamers and a more general section of the public — the latter, of course, often seen as “incapable” of taking the former’s interests at all seriously — some praised the works as “artful,” “thought-provoking” and, what-were-we-thinking-during-the-Bush-years, “contemplative.”

Although it should be conceded that both turned out as very well-made, very fun ways to spend a few hours — while earning some legitimate thrills in the time being — none of those adjectives realistically applied to the final product, save for deep, personal thoughts about the use of a chainsaw to cut enemies in half as digital blood sprays onto an in-game camera. In meager attempts to illustrate depth via advertising, they only further exposed a juvenility in content.

But there was a second, far more pernicious matter lying at their center, one which we simply couldn’t acknowledge (nor fully understand the gravity of) until this very week. That issue was (and is) Joseph Kosinski, a then-unknown GSAPP graduate whose sleek sense of visual design helped land advertising jobs with the aforementioned computer titan, various car companies, Nike, Apple — in short, a range wide enough that allowed you to surely encounter his work before the name could, ironically, be considered marketable.

By all accounts, these commercials are of a high caliber: shiny, smooth, propulsive and locked in a package that gives these products the perceptible impression of owning special qualities that can improve your life. This is all well and good (save for the argument that advertising might be destroying society), but his story, that of an otherwise-talented showman, became troubling when, quickly and suddenly, keys to a castle were put in the man’s hands. Only credited with objects that need not show so much as the illusion of plot, character, or emotions past the primal sort that advertising lives off, Joseph Kosinski would now direct Tron: Legacy, a big-time Hollywood blockbuster whose total costs roughly equate to the GDP of several Central American nations.

Scoped with a level-headed angle, the success of one tentpole, be it Tron: Legacy or many others cut from the same cloth, are of no genuine concern, much less interest. There is the general exception of “we have no reason to hope it’s bad” or, in some unlikely scenario, if directed by someone whose output many care for (Sam Raimi’s Oz standing as a recent, pertinent example). Its eventual status as a critical wet squib, only praised for what Kosinski had been hired to deliver (pretty images that look expensive), would typically mean a small amount for the involved parties; that Kosinski swung and missed with his first foray into features should have had as much impact on the world of cinema as Tron’s soft box office landing. Nobody would, now, fund his next movie by draining the budget of a Dardenne picture, for God’s sake.

But the “problem,” such as it is, has been disseminating since Tron: Legacy opened 28 months ago. The case in point is that very next movie, Oblivion, which Universal decided to take under their wing after being presented snippets of a graphic novel Kosinski was “developing” for a number of years. To condemn may seem premature, but the Tom Cruise-starrer has already opened in a number of foreign markets and screened for numerous domestic critics, their reaction on the whole being not at all unlike that which befell Tron: the images pop, one or two interesting (albeit familiar) concepts exist within, and the rest ranges from disposable to inept. That this is the case is no skin off our collective back; save for a number of positive notices, the film will inevitably fail to even register on the radars of some.

Here, however, we face a crossroads. (One so serious that it takes hundreds of words to get to the point). It starts with the ascendancy of Joseph Kosinski and what that stands to represent for the future of blockbuster filmmaking: a self-made figure whose toils in marketing and experiments with an essentially fake graphic novel got him ahead. And “fake” is meant almost literally; what had (potentially) started out as some sort of passion project for a new-to-storytelling type was quietly transformed into a Hollywood smokescreen — as much an advertisement as what Kosinski had made his bones with, the director keenly aware of what this supposed proposition would signal to Hollywood.

It’s a snapshot of something bigger and more pressing happening in the studios nowadays: the system of present-first, conceive-later. It would have the capacity to be somewhat acceptable, even amusing, if Kosinski was only a rare case, but an odd pattern is clearly evolving into a genuine trend. Hoping to create another big-budget property — and, after years of dipping into their wells, without the same wealth of comic books or YA novels to snatch — we see major players jump toward the world of high-concept short films, simply buying rights to feature-length projects with the original writer-director talent aboard, regardless of what they have (or have not) done on a larger scale beforehand. It’s almost noble, really, to give these up-and-comers a career boost, but is there not something cynical on the creative side, taking time and effort with small-scale productions specifically tailored to garner studio deals? What are we to expect from products that mark an end result of jumping to the other side of the spectrum with zero stops in-between?

We should be so inclined to grant a chance if many of these instances have been turning out well. Yet a majority have yet to follow through on the promise of so much as making a film, and the biggest example of breaking through is Joseph Kosinski — a director whose general artistic M.O. is proving to be “make it look pretty, don’t worry about the rest.” And Oblivion has a plot of his own devising.

Our finest commercials-to-cinema filmmakers — David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry — worked their way in with original, intriguing projects (Alien³ discounted), not sheepishly invited themselves to the party. If the Joseph Kosinski method is a sign of things to come, does it mean we can’t all strive for something better?

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