Are you excited? I prefer oblivion

All-too-predictable sci-fi and tired post-modern campery imply that original cinematic ideas are rare

Peter Whittle

Suspended animation-characters who sleep through decades, centuries, of time travel — has been a stock feature of science fiction movies ever since Planet of the Apes. But film-makers who are otherwise sticklers for scientific accuracy still haven’t quite come up with a way of explaining why space-travellers of this kind manage quite magically not to age. I suppose it might have something to do with pure commerce — you can’t have your leading lady spending most of a movie as an 80-year-old crone. So, in Oblivion, the latest in a seemingly endless line of earth-after-Armageddon blockbusters, we have the romantic interest (Olga Kurylenko) emerging from 60 solid years of heavy dozing as gorgeous and pouting as the day she went under.

She’s not the only one. Tom Cruise, the star of this good-looking but convoluted and frustrating action epic, has somehow managed to stay at around the age of 32, and with no visible means of support, surgical, Scientological or otherwise. As one of a group of stewards whose function it is to patrol the toxic, abandoned earth after a massive war with interplanetary invaders, he appears in virtually every scene, and frankly his Peter Pan agility and sag-free physique is something to behold. To quote another famous movie line, I’ll have what he’s having.

Nearly 51 now, Cruise is well over a decade older than Clark Gable was when he finally dumped Scarlett O’Hara, but his appeal remains firmly that of the footloose, optimistic young gun he has played so many times before. It’s a persona which seems to irritate as many people as it attracts, and makes his continuing success — he’s been a bona fide movie star for a quarter of a century — interesting to ponder. The excited crowds who have turned up to see him at the countless international premieres for this film might give us a clue. Here and in the US we might be somewhat jaded, but in the non-English-speaking world he is adored without irony, and that is increasingly where Hollywood makes its money.

Cruise certainly makes the best of carrying this film, which after an absorbing first third, gradually disappears up its own black hole. All is not, of course, what it seems, which you sense from the start and are happy to go along with. But the appearance of groups of Swampy-type guerrilla fighters makes the heart sink, and from that moment, as cliché follows cliché — there should be a moratorium on the use of remnants of New York landmarks — any grip the story has had on you loosens. By the time we get to the intergalactic explosions, you’re looking round for the exits.

Oblivion is still ten times more entertaining than I’m So Excited, the latest effort from the hugely lionised Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. I complained last month of the overheated cult of the auteur, and lazy critics who are too ready to dissect a director’s career rather than make an honest judgment. Certainly Almodóvar has been the recipient of huge critical praise over the years. And it’s not hard to see why: he is gay, he glories in a camp sensibility, he provides big roles for women, and references to film classics infuse the atmosphere of his movies.

I’m So Excited has been cited as a return to the fluffier confections of “early” Almodóvar, such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Set in the business class of a plane whose landing mechanism is faulty, it centres solely on the interactions between a group of overheated, overblown characters and the airline staff. There is virtually no plot and nothing happens, but the best American sitcoms demonstrate that this needn’t be a problem if your dialogue is sharp and, above all, funny, and if your characters are in some way endearing or at least interesting.

On all counts I’m So Excited is a complete non-event. At the screening I attended, there was barely a smile raised, let alone laughter, from an audience which I sensed was otherwise well-disposed to start with. It really is no longer enough to have a group of camp flight-attendants lip-synch a performance of the title song (an Eighties hit by the Pointer Sisters) on the assumption that camping it up alone will have people rolling in the aisles. Maybe there were hilarious double-entendres that were lost in translation, but somehow I doubt it; the attempts at humour were broad and crude, the whole thing having the air of a great in-joke from which heterosexuals are excluded. The women are overdressed and sexed-up, the straight men probably closeted. It is very, very tedious.

It’s an odd thing, the postmodern campery of which this movie is just one example. Perhaps it is the gay equivalent of blacks “taking back” the N-word, but the glorying in kitsch and trivia for its own sake seems an odd way of celebrating what is called “gay culture”. Until the 1980s the only gay men one saw on TV were the mincing, limp-wristed queens, the Larry Graysons and the John Inmans, and it was taken as read that gays were sensitive, creative types — i.e. they could be relied upon to love musical theatre and interior design. They were, in other words, lightweight. All of this was challenged and thrown out, or at least it seemed that way.

But somehow it has seeped back into popular culture. Graham Norton is no less camp just because his style is more knowing. Shows like Sex and the City enshrined the idea that young urban women have a sort of natural alliance with their gay best friends when it comes to shopping and dancing. Camp — which Susan Sontag famously defined as being “the lie that tells the truth” — is now the label given to anything stylistically over the top. 

Perhaps this is what happens when something goes mainstream. But it is still odd that so many gay men seem happy to go along with it. 

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"