Still from Videodrome (1983)
Back in 1983, in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, the fabulously named media guru Brian O’Blivion asked, “There is nothing real outside our perception of reality, is there?” A recent spate of films has once again been questioning the nature of our reality and who is controlling what we are and what we do. Which perhaps isn’t a surprise if you look at the reality in which we’re living: frustrated and depressed by the state-sponsored larceny of the banks and by the lack of any repercussions for the people who did it, we the newly impoverished audience are pissed off and harbouring a perceived sense of injustice alongside the feeling that we no longer control our own lives. Here to capture this feeling for posterity are, among others, Christopher Nolan’s yawnfest/pop-culture classic (delete as applicable) Inception, George Nolfi’s The Adjustment Bureau and Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. These three (and others besides, only I hadn’t seen them at the time of going to print) are works we shall call O’Blivion films, because they reveal – as Brian did – that while our lives are controlled by forces stronger than us, there is still some sense to it all, if only we could see it.
Which makes these films both of their moment and timeless. They play with our current fears of a lack of meaning and control, but overlay it with the classic three-act structure so beloved by innumerable screenwriting gurus and shit-scared Hollywood executives. Because while mainstream films are usually dismissed with the word “escapist” (as if a penchant for escapism betrayed some kind of moral weakness), their appeal isn’t really in the escape, but in how they are so deeply, conservatively reassuring: when we watch one we always know where we’re going, even if we can be surprised by how we get there. In many ways there’s nothing wrong with that. Just as religion has kept generation upon generation feeling better with its central idea that there is some meaning to and reward for all that human suffering, so mainstream films reassure us that no matter how crazy things get, no matter how lost we feel, there is a structure to it all and things will work out in the end. (If you’ve ever seen the original ending of Dodgeball, in which the misfit team loses, you’ll know what I mean. It’s a total downer.) The Adjustment Bureau has angels to ensure this will happen. You might think of the near-guaranteed happy ending as a cinematic version of the promise of an eternal life in some form of paradise, which is perhaps why Inception’s clever, uncertain dénouement, in which Nolan manages to have it both ways, has provoked a firestorm of reaction on the internet. (“Hey, Nolan,” they cry, “you’re not supposed to leave us in doubt! I came for certainty!”)
So while these O’Blivion films may mess with “reality” – mainly through the use of increasingly sophisticated CGI effects that allow directors to create pretty much whatever scenarios they want – their structure keeps us reassured that nothing too terrible is going to happen. Let’s imagine how your day would go if your life featured in an O’Blivion film. First of all, you will put in a normal day at the office, but a few things will be a bit weird, like that man who stared at you oddly as you bought a sandwich. He will turn out to be an angel, working to mess up your life on the orders of God (called the “Chairman” in The Adjustment Bureau, as if heaven were yet another multinational). In the evening you will go to the cinema and, for some reason somehow related to the sandwich man, do something completely out of character, like jumping through the screen. You won’t understand what’s going on for a while, but you’ll have some crazy adventures in a world that looks like yours but isn’t, involving a great deal of inexplicable running around and screaming. (If you’re really unlucky, you’ll realise that you’re in Inception and this whole world has simply been created so that some mummy’s boy can sell his dad’s company: a multiplicity of worlds dreamed up for a hostile takeover. Couldn’t they just have bought the shares?) Once firmly ensconced in your new world, you’ll be assigned terrifying tasks that will allow you to prove your worth against the forces of chaos. For example, you might join Sucker Punch’s half-naked ladies who are busy killing thousands of steampunk Nazis (don’t ask) and a dragon (again). Around this time you’ll discover the limits of your new world and a strange character will finally explain what’s going on – someone like Terence Stamp as an angel in Adjustment (“You only appreciate free will when you have to fight for it”), or Scott Glenn as a WTF character in Sucker Punch whose only job seems to be to turn up and spout platitudes (“Don’t ever write a check with your mouth you can’t cash with your ass”).
By the end of your journey into O’Blivion and the secrets behind life’s giant velvet curtain, you will be exhausted but probably, when you stop to think about it, no wiser than you were at the beginning, even if all is well in your world. In fact, after your little adventure you’ll probably feel much like Baby Doll, the main character in Sucker Punch, who ends up lobotomised. And the doctor who performs the operation might as well be talking to you when, after having driven the stake in, he turns to his colleague with a surprised look and says, “It’s almost as if she wanted me to do it.” Welcome to O’Blivion. §