Friday, April 26, 2013

Disconnect and Oblivion

             “She said ‘There is no reason
          and the truth is plain to see’”

                                     Review by Ken Burke             Disconnect

A complex interweaving of several stories, all involved in some manner with cyber technology and its potential to ruin lives, especially those already in some type of crisis.

Tom Cruise, futuristic sci-fi, and stunning images all work to this movie’s advantage although its plot elements are a bit too reminiscent of a lot of familiar predecessors.

Henry Alex Rubin’s Disconnect actually has a lot of connections in it but they’re between characters in various parallel plots that otherwise don’t have a lot to do with each other.  Within each of those plotlines and the characters who inhabit them, though, we have plenty of disconnections which in all cases are further connected to problems with the oversaturation of computer-based technology in our culture and its inadvertent but destructive potential for shattering what should be otherwise normal, stable lives.  To try to keep up with all the players you definitely need a scorecard here, so I’ll provide one based on the order in which we first meet all of these troubled souls trapped in techno-hell.   We begin (above) with local news reporter (from a not-so-thriving station) Nina Dunham (Andrea Riseborough) searching Internet porn sites until she pays for a session with underage-but-not-admitting-it Kyle (Max Thierot) but all she wants to do is talk instead of watching his usual masturbation routine (he seems a bit disappointed but as best I remember those hormone-driven days of yore he could probably have relieved that disappointment in about 5 min. after finishing up his conversation with Nina and still been ready for his next client).  This leads to her trying to do a story on youth exploitation in these online brothels (which we see doesn’t even look as good as a regular whorehouse [Where do I get all of this background knowledge, you ask?] except for the tight computer camera shots onto bodies sitting on beds, not allowing us to see the squalor that these exploited “sex cam performers” live in under the stern, monetary-focused eye of sleazy Harvey [Marc Jacobs]), which helps her career as CNN picks it up but so does the FBI so soon the kids are on the run, Nina’s career is in jeopardy because she paid to connect with Kyle and then connected with him at a motel in an even less professional manner (he calls her a “puma,” a woman older than him but not yet at the “cougar” stage).  In that story the Internet is just an enabler of detestable decisions but in the next one a young couple, Derek (Alexander Skarsgård) and Cindy Hull (Paula Patton), already troubled by the recent death of their baby which has caused an estrangement between them, are put into tragic financial trouble because his depression over the lost child, combined with PTSD problems from Mideast military service and a bit of an Internet gambling addiction, runs head-on into a credit card and banking crisis because their identities have been stolen, seemly by a guy, Stephen Schumacher (Michael Nyqvist)—with the text “handle” of Fear and Loathing, which would seem to further indict him—that Cindy’s been chatting with in an online support group (nice use of display of their text chats on screen to substitute for dialogue), but even when they desperately go to hunt him down they find that there are further complications in their debt-ridden lives.

On we go next to another type of computer-enhanced tragedy as nice-but-shy kid Ben Boyd (Jonah Bobo) gets punked by a couple of jerks at his high school, Jason Dixon (Colin Ford) and Frye (Avaid Bernstein)—stupidly vicious enough to do tricks such as peeing into a sports beverage bottle, slipping it onto a convenience store shelf, then waiting to see the disgusted face of the guy that unknowingly takes a gulp of their bodily residue—who set up a scam of a fake girl, “Jessica Rhony,” seemingly intrigued with Ben, leaving him increasingly sexualized messages that result in a fake nude crotch-focused photo that encourages Ben to reply in kind, resulting in his humiliation throughout the school.  To complete these interlocking circles we find that Ben’s dad, Rich Boyd (Jason Bateman), is a lawyer for the larger corporation that owns Nina’s TV station so he comes down hard on her for not cooperating when the FBI wants to bust the operation that houses Kyle and his underage buddies; he also comes down hard on Jason’s father when he uncovers the bullying scam, but when he goes to settle the score with the kid he runs into the ex-cop brick wall that is Jason’s father, Mike (Frank Grillo), a widowed guy who physically defends his son against the attempted assault of Rich even though he has a strained relationship with Jason and has just found out himself the truth about Ben’s attempted suicide, leaving him simultaneously outraged with and protective of his son—and, in case you thought this couldn’t get any more complicated, Mike is also the Internet fraud investigator trying to help Derek and Cindy verify their thief so that legal action can be taken, a process too slow and unhelpful to keep them from setting out on their own vigilante mission when the probe points to Schumacher.

As you can see from all of the complex plot recitation above, computers and smart phones are instruments of evil that touch all of these characters, some more directly than others, but while the warnings about the corrupt use of machines is a clear theme here (although it’s more a collection of angst-drive stories about how people’s lives are ruined by devious assholes who now have more effective weapons at their disposal than just crude pistols and knives than it is a condemnation of the technology itself—these devices [desktops, laptops, smart phones] aren’t really implied as proto-villains that will eventually lead us to the horrors of the renegade technology of the Matrix films [sibling directors Andy and (formerly Larry, now) Lana Wachowski; 1999, 2003]).  The promos for and some reviews of Disconnect imply an anti-technology diatribe, but while this film clearly shows the unjust horrors that can ruin the lives of innocent people, such as Cindy and Derek (above)—or in the case of Kyle’s transients, wanderers caught up in a lifestyle not so much by choice but situational seduction (based on the reality that the runaway kids in Harvey’s grubby house aren’t professional sex workers so much as they are wayward youngsters who can’t resist easy money for the natural drive of pleasuring themselves—so why not do it on camera as a means of further arousal?—at a point in their lives where they don’t really have a clue what else they might be doing anyway)—it’s really about how lost, lonely, and crass our society has become where you can make a dishonest fortune with the proper keyboard strokes, you can viciously extend the normal teenage urge to torment the weaker members of the herd in order to hide your own insecurities (Jason/”Jessica” actually finds some meaningful dialogue in his exchanges with Ben, as both of them feel abandoned by their fathers, the later because his career interferes too much with his family life and the former because his disciplinarian Dad just doesn’t know how to raise a teenager without the help of his lost mate) or just enjoy the fleeting sense of domination in a social structure constantly shifting its priorities (so that even Ben’s slightly older sister, Abby [Haley Ramm], tries to avoid him at school so as not to be embarrassed in front of her higher-pecking-order giggly friends), make a fortune off the financial misfortunes of strangers that you don’t even have know the true existence of (we eventually find out that Schumacher is just another lonely soul like Cindy, that it’s not even his computer account that’s directly responsible for the Hulls' harassment but that he’s just an ignorant conduit for the real hustler in yet another state), and that maybe the worst crimes of all here aren’t so much legal as ethical ones, as the only responses to any of this overwhelming destruction of the lives involved is just wait for the under-enabled law enforcement to finally take action against cyber-thieves rather than provide better protection for those whose finances are being drained (the only advice Mike can offer to the Hulls), protect cyber-bullying adolescent perpetrators as just kids who need better parenting (as ex-cop Mike destroys the evidence that could convict his son), and see society’s exploitation of those too helpless to protect themselves as the opportunity for coverage leading to career advancement rather than trying to help the victims escape from their situations (Nina’s quite willing to allow her improper attraction to Kyle to temporarily ease her guilt over getting the glory for his story without trying to do anything to help him until her job is on the line; even then she’s more concerned with just trying to spring him from Harvey’s hold than help the rest of his colleagues be freed from their semi-sex-slave situation).

I hate to end up inadvertently echoing the old saw that “Guns don’t kill people, people do,” but clearly the lesson to be learned here is not that we need less obsession with this technology that so now easily ruins people’s lives but that we live with a species—ourselves—that can never be trusted to not do the wrong thing so that we’d better find better safeguards against these contemporary weapons that are capable of slower, more insidious, more lasting trauma than what we’d face from traditional weapons of assault except when mass murderers are on the loose, as with those ideologically-saturated idiots in Boston (although none of these technologies are easy to regulate or control as we’ve just seen in the inability of the Senate to pass gun control legislation favored by a large majority of the population and the contrasting easy ability of a hacker to enter the Associated Press Twitter account and post false news about bombs injuring the President, resulting in a significant Stock Market slide before the hoax was discovered and refuted).

Disconnect is a bit of a balancing act to follow with all of the overlapping but not quite connecting stories—the clearest interaction comes with Rich and Mike not only in actual proximity and interchange but coming to blows over the damage done to Ben by the horrible “prank” orchestrated by Jason and Frye, although we get no resolution at all as to what’s to come of the legal consequences for Jason as the scene cuts to a final hospital family conciliation for the Boyds as bloodied Dad embraces his now-restored unit of wife and daughter as the watch over their coma-quieted son ends the overall narrative with no resolution as to whether Ben will revive from his attempted hanging or not (I know I’ve gotten blasé about spoilers, but honestly the value in this film is not so much in being surprised with how everyone interconnects but more in how these interlocking stories are played out and impact you with their depictions of the many forms of desperation that infect contemporary life—I truly feel that you can approach this film with all of the “what” laid out for you, thereby not having to keep up a scorecard on the large cast, and still much appreciate the “how" of the delivery, especially in a marvelous parallel-action—or, rather, near-suspended animation—intercutting of attack scenes near the end as Rich battles Mike but almost injures Jason in the process, Schumacher pulls a rifle on Derek and Cindy but Derek uses his military training to struggle it from the gunman’s control, and Harvey confronts Nina at a motel during his escape with his wards over the state line resulting in her getting a bloody face just like Rich; it’s a tour de force of slo-mo filmmaking and tension-building editing, showing how all of these lives are constantly on the edge of destruction in various fiscal and physical forms).  Local San Francisco critic Kelly Vance faults Disconnect for its “lack of heart-to-heart talks between family members” (see complete review at Content?oid=3524807), which for me is not the problem with the film, it’s the problem with the characters in the film who are constantly looking at computer and telephone screens but not talking to each other, which is driving the Hulls, the Boyds, and the Dixons further apart in every scene, ultimately leading to the calamities that befall all of these emotional zombies, not so much because they are victims of modern technology but because they simply use it to burrow themselves further from the light of human interaction, accelerated by what transpires on their small screens but not fully caused by the cyberworld that has consumed them.  Disconnect is an active film, with constant intercutting among the various storylines, which adds a level of energy not found in most of the characters who are beaten down by their lives’ circumstances although we still see an active grabbing of possibilities from Kyle until he becomes confused and feels used toward the end, just as the opposite occurs with Rich as unleashed passion pours out in defense of his long-ignored “arty” son, all of this shot in a medium-def video mode so as to underscore the ordinariness of these existences and the insufficient protection any of their family circles or social structures can offer in a society where anyone can hide behind a manufactured Internet identity.

Just to make a transition out of Disconnect in a more harmless manner than the dark aspects of life and the modern devices that allow us to plunge further into darkness as implied by the film, here’s an old Rolling Stones song, “Connection,” that I’ve used before in some review (I forget what and I keep no record of these things; I should use my massive profits from this blog to hire an archivist—just kidding, IRS, now go find a billionaire to bother … oh, wait, that’s right, they don’t pay any taxes, do they?) but I find relevant again here if you’d like to listen at com/watch?v=t37ppBGJGkM.  (Song credited to Jagger and Richards but conventional wisdom—such as it is—says this is really more Keith’s song so here’s a version with him singing lead from the Martin Scorsese-directed 2008 documentary Shine a Light [with German subtitles for the interview inserts in case you’d like to practice your bilinguality]; the cut is originally from the 1967 Between the Buttons album, but Mick was singing lead on that version.)
[Blogspot has decided once again to add to the layout of this review with a big space before the next round of comments, so I suppose you're being told to take a break before flowing on to the analysis of the other movie in consideration this week.  I guess cyber-technology does rule whatever we're trying to do after all (just as in the final posting process each week when the master software suddenly decides to reduce my previous paragraph indents to just one space apiece, despite not doing that in countless prior previews, in case you wondered if that was a stylistic choice of mine—nope, all Blogspot).  Silly me to have doubted the digital overlords in my above attempts to deconstruct Disconnect.  Forgive me, oh Great Binary Executive Editors.]

 No matter how bad things get for the many characters in Disconnect, though, their events aren't nearly as Earth-shaking (literally) as the fate of humankind itself, along with our soon-to-be-abandoned planet, in Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion, a futuristic sci-fi movie about Earth having been made uninhabitable in 2017 (so if you haven’t taken the kids to Disneyworld yet you’d better start making plans soon or they’ll never forgive you) as the result of our use of necessary-defense-nukes which stopped an alien invasion but not before our own weaponry left us with dangerous radiation zones and the geological turmoil caused by the aliens’ destruction of our moon resulted in a cacophony of natural disasters that have buried our cities (there are some great scenes of the very tops of NYC’s George Washington Bridge and the Empire State Building just barely coming out of the ground that totally rattle your knowledge of these massive structures to realize how much of our former civilization is now completely underground), just as we constantly excavate the ruins of other human civilizations long buried under our “progress” as we have constantly overthrown earlier societies and obliterated their remains in order to rewrite history from the perspective of the latest conquerors.  So, as our story opens we’re in 2077 where most of the remaining humans have moved to Titan, one of the moons of Saturn, while skeleton crews remain on Earth to monitor and protect the huge machines that are drawing hydrogen from the planet’s oceans to use for energy in the new Titan colonies.  One pair of the left-behinds, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and Victoria/Vica (Andrea Riseborough again, showing her versatility), are assigned to live on the abandoned planet (high above it in a slim tower, actually) to patrol the flying killing machines called drones (they look like volleyballs with machine guns for arms) that protect the energy-processing machines from the destructive remnants of the aliens, the Scavs, until such time in a couple of weeks when they can join the other remaining Earthlings in the floating control spaceship, the Tet, and all head off to Titan.  Despite some minor problems with reactivating fallen droids and staying on the lookout for Scav attacks, zone patroller Jack and his flight control partner, Vica, back at their lofty base above the Earth make an “effective team,” as Vica constantly reports to Mission Commander Sally (Melissa Leo), with her irritatingly-charming Southern manner, up on the Tet.  However, through a series of unanticipated troubles Jack soon finds that all is not as it’s cracked up to be, either in his waking life (where after a hard day on patrol he always has dinner, a marvelous view far above the now-abandoned ground, a lovely swimming pool, and an eager mate in Vica) or in his dreams where he keeps seeing NYC from the observation tower of the Empire State Building (at a time confusingly prior to his birth), where he’s in the company of a mysterious woman who seems to be his consistent lover in this reality of the unconscious.

Serenity for Jack (enhanced by his secret visits to a lake house he goes to in order to connect himself to the lost Earth culture and even play records on a turntable somehow powered seemingly by very mild wind energy) is suddenly thrown askew as signals suddenly emanate from that almost-buried Empire State Building observation platform, then later he sees objects falling from the sky.  Upon investigation he finds a crashed space ship with its crew in suspended-animation “coffins” but before he can make any sense of this drones attack and kill the coma-ed crew except for one that Jack manages to save, whose name is Julia (Olga Kurylenko) and whose appearance is exactly that of the woman in Jack’s dreams.  After revival, and a less-than-welcoming attitude from Vica, Julia convinces Jack to return her to the crash site so that she can retrieve the flight recorder, but while there they are attacked and captured.  As Jack recovers from being knocked out, he finds himself a prisoner but of humans living underground—led by Beech (Morgan Freeman)—not the Scavs he assumed were his enemies.  As it turns out through ongoing exposition throughout the rest of the movie, there are no Scavs at all, just a large group of humans trying to put together enough “liberated” technology to mount an attack on the Tet (if I called it the “Tet offensive” would many of you know that I was making a bit of a pun on a bad [for the U.S.] turning point in the Vietnam War?  If not, you can learn more about that at because there are no humans on it (including “Sally”), but instead the energy-robbing aliens who damaged our moon, killed most of our population, and are consuming our planet’s energy before moving on to their next victim.  To further complicate things, Jack isn’t Jack, or at least not the original one anyway; turns out that actual Jack was on a mission to explore Titan 60 years ago in a spaceship called (appropriately enough) Odyssey but instead encountered the destructive aliens on the Tet.  Jack prime managed to send most of the crew, which included Julia whom he was married to, back toward Earth (where they crashed in the present story) before he and the original Vica (who had the hots for Jack despite Julia’s prior claims) was sucked by a tractor beam into the Tet and used as clone masters for pairs of Jacks and Vicas who first helped eliminate Earth’s population and now are all over the planet providing drone protection from the remaining human rebels (they’ve all been given brain cleansings as well so that they won’t be aware of the actual events that occurred with the original Jack and Vica nor these dominating aliens, although that intention doesn’t play out so well—good thing, though, because we wouldn’t have much of a story here if those sublimated memories didn’t start creeping through in the clones’ consciounesses [My spell check doesn’t care for this word, but it seems an appropriate plural to me; also it’s acceptable in the Yogacara school of Buddhism, which ought to give it some cachet, as George Costanza would say—you don’t have to look up George too, do you? If so, reading my reviews must make you feel like you’ve been through a memory wipe of your own]).  Eventually, our current Jack realizes that he’s just a clone as well, despite the deep feelings that he generates in long-lost Julia, but he’s a clone with stirrings of the real Jack’s memories and passions which is why he feels so connected to this lost planet and doesn’t share Vica’s programmed desire to be with him and go back to the mother ship (given that they’re all just clones with a necessary job to do in guarding the water-processing machines it’s not even clear that they’ll be needed by whatever the life forms are that run the Tet [“Sally” must be another clone or a type of computer-generated hologram because we never actually see any of the aliens, thereby allowing the well-spent visuals budget to go fully into Jack’s flying machine and the gorgeous landscapes that he navigates through]).

Without going into the complexities of how it all happens, Jack flies up to the Tet supposedly carrying real-human Julia to be explored by “Sally” but it’s actually a mortally-wounded Beech carrying a nuclear device that destroys the Tet, along with Beech and Jack.  All’s well that ends well, though, as a few year later Julia, now living at the lake house along with the child fathered by "real" Jack back when all the battles were going on, is found by the remaining humans including another Jack clone—that our protagonist pair encountered and fought with 3 years ago in our main narrative (although by this late into the tale we understand that the Jack we have come to know was a clone also, not the human we assumed)—who has also reconnected with the memories of the actual Jack so that the surviving humans can live and reproduce happily ever after on an Earth that never was harmed by nuclear warfare (the aliens almost annihilated us without much resistance, except for those rebel survivors, so that even those "forbidden zones" were just a ruse to keep the clones confused about the real situation caused by these mysterious invaders).

I’ll start the closing out of my comments with a shot of the Vica that we came to know in the movie (although we see another one later, as the mate of the second Jack clone that our Jack has a fight with, when he fools her into thinking he’s her Jack in a ruse to get needed medical supplies for a wounded Julia).  The reason this shot is somewhat significant is that it’s the only one I can find for download of either of the three main women in the movie (Vica, Julia, and Sally), even though I searched several websites where I found many variations of images of Tom Cruise but virtually none of the women that together provide a nice emotional range of reactions (Julia’s wild relief at being with Jack again after her decades of deep sleep but then her agony when he sacrifices himself to terminate the aliens; Vica’s programmed cheerfulness which is disrupted when her deep memories of Julia jealousy are aroused; and Sally’s icy command of the whole adventure, along with the usual “join us” offer to Jack before he and Beech activate the Tet-destroying bomb) that far transcend the limited range of cool confidence, confusion when confronted with cognitive dissonance (a fundamental understanding of human psychology; check it out further at, and single-minded heroic determination that are present in Jack’s limited persona.  I could understand this if Cruse himself constructed all of the websites but I doubt that even he has that much control of everything connected to his media presence (in a likewise fashion, it was also a bit strange that in gathering photo considerations for Disconnect I could find no pictures at all of teenage Ben and his antagonist, Jason, as if some misguided publicity hack was trying to protect their identities because of the cyber-bullying situation).  Whatever the PR intentions of just giving us multiple shots of Cruise rather than practically any other images from Oblivion, he’s not an unattractive sight but I just wish that I could show you both more of the other characters in the film (especially Julia) and some of the magnificent scenery, but that would be a reason to see this movie while it’s still on the big screen because it’s a wonder to look at, as awe-inspiring as the best nature documentaries.  Plot-wise you might not be so impressed, though; it seems like the production team assembled these fabulous wide-screen backgrounds and then had to come up with a script to justify putting some action in front of them.  It has the sense of a sci-fi recipe where you take the destruction of Earth from Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996), the revelation of forgotten identity from Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990; Len Wiseman, 2012), the army of clones from a single source from Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones (George Lucas, 2002), anything to do with the species-absorbing Borg from the Star Trek canon (such as Star Trek: First Contact [Jonathan Frakes, 1996]), the altered landscape of our “big blue marble” from Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968), and destructive machines from the Terminator series, put it all in a blender, whip it all into a blend of previously-well-embraced elements and then sit back to watch the cash flow in (which it did, a very fulfilling $37 million in just one weekend’s domestic gross).  

 Its elements are so familiar that it’s hard to not be distracted, yet its astounding visuals, constantly well-choreographed action (there’s a bit of The Empire Strikes Back [Irvin Kerschner, 1980] as well, with airships and drones zipping through crevices like the Millennium Falcon darting through an asteroid field to escape Imperial pursuit), and heroic triumph, even when all previous strategies seemed doomed to failure, add up to an enjoyable if rather mindless experience.  You can try to read deeper implications into it regarding the resilience of identity and the fundamental expression of selfhood, but you’d be better off just going along for the ride.  While you’re riding, here’s a parting tune for you, Jack’s favorite even though it’s one from 50 years before his actual time, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” at (from the Procol Harum album, with the original 1967 music video, very tame by contemporary standards).  I’ll see you again next week when “the crowd call[s] out for more.”

If you’d like more connection with Disconnect here are some suggested links: (this is a curiosity item for you: if you have shutter 3D glasses and your screen supports side-by-side 3D you can see how this regular trailer compares to the same imagery in 3D)

If you’re not yet lost in Oblivion but would like to be here are some suggested links: (21:00 footage behind the scenes, with lots of clip footage and commentary by actor Tom Cruise, director Joseph Kosinski, production designer Darren Gilford, and other members of the acting and filmmaking team; a great showcase of the movie’s astoundingly beautiful visuals)

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. Oblivion is one elaborate science fiction script. As indicated it has elements of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (original 50's version recommended) to James Bond to Star Wars. Regardless of what people may think of Tom Cruise, the guy picks good vehicles even when they would otherwise be rated as B movies. I liked it, not as the greatest scifi, but as a very good reboot of the genre. All we were missing was man evolving into talking apes.

    By the way, that cabin retreat had a couple of solar panels on the roof. Vinyl recordings continue to be featured prominently in recent productions and now here. It seems Hollywood continues to document the trends and the trendy concerns. These tidbits may be a good resource for the clean earth populations of 2077.

  2. Hi rj, Thanks as always for the comments. I didn't notice the solar panels on the cabin roof so they, along with that weak windmill, must have been the source for the turntable; thanks for the help on that.

    Not that I'd want to live until 2077 (at 130 years of age there'd have to be some astounding new technologies to even have me functioning as a semi-sentient being) but it would be marvelous to see how our depictions of such a shot into the future will look to those who dig into their archives of our "ancient" media to compare what we imagined and what they actually live in. We're on the verge of that now with such films as Metropolis and Blade Runner, both of which are set in the early 2020s. Ken