[Review] - Oblivion

Courtesy of Universal Pictures
I haven't seen a movie in theatres since February. This is a long time for me, but nothing that has been released this spring inspired any sort of desire in me. I'm rarely enchanted by prequels and remakes, or big glossy CGI spectacles, and I'm not going to waste money on any movie that can be described as "Die Hard on/in a ..." So, it's been a dry spell. But I've been looking forward to Oblivion. Not for any reason in particular, other then I'm always on the look out for an effective science fiction film, something that I feel we haven't been treated to in quite some time. And I'm not generally one for Tom Cruise films. But something in the trailers made me pause and reflect. And now I know what it was.

Joseph Kosinski obviously loves science fiction. Like Tarentino likes B-movies, Kosinski has clearly made a life study of the classic sci-fi of the '60s and '70s. While there was nothing clearly referential in the teaser material, I must have recognised an intention on the part of the director to make a film that wasn't just meant to look good, or make money, but stand up as an example of the genre, while also being a love letter to that genre. And what a love letter it is.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers, especially for the second half of the film, so if you haven't seen it yet, don't read this. Just don't. I'm giving you fair warning here. Really, just see the film, then come back, OK? Fine, fine, hit the jump. But don't say I didn't warn you. I wash my hands of any blame from here on out.

I want to watch Oblivion again, and I feel like the legacy of the film will be it's the sort that geeks like to watch and pick apart for all the little references. Not actual references, not shout outs of anything so obvious or ham fisted. But allusions, subtle reflections, the way references should be done. It shows both an appreciation of the source material, and the talent to incorporate them into the narrative in non aggressive or distracting ways. If I had to put money on it, I'd say Kosinski's (Tron Legacy) favourite films are Planet of the Apes and Star Wars. I make that assumption based on what I felt were referenced the most. I could be wrong. I doubt that I'm wrong in guessing that Disney will be looking at Kosinski in the near future to helm one of those ridiculous annual Star Wars films they're going to run into the ground. As for references, I saw glimpses of Brave New World, Omega Man, Star Trek The Motion Picture, 2001, The Matrix, the original Star Wars, Predator, Planet of the Apes, and a dozen others that I couldn't immediately place, and many more I know I missed. 

The first half of the film is a "last man on Earth" story, an Omega Man/I Am Legend/WallE tale that is a standard trope of the genre (and not the last one we'll see this year). Earth has been destroyed, and Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is part of a two person cleanup crew left behind to make certain the lights are off and the oven isn't on before the last of humanity packs up and leaves for Titan. The war that caused them to flee decimated Earth, and the remaining alien attackers are making life difficult for Cruise, and the massive thermonuclear vacuums sucking up Earth's oceans so it can be transported or converted into energy for the off-world settlement.

The first half of the film is a slow film, a film that builds itself up through atmosphere and character, like films used to in the seventies, before an action beat was required every twenty pages, and a movie had to have four "trailer moments." I doubt anyone but Cruise would have clout to make a "tent pole" movie as deliberately paced as this one. This is how I like films. I like it when they take their time, when they establish themselves, and when they give us a reason for caring about the characters. We're not waiting for the next explosion, we're waiting to see what Harper does next. And because the focus is on the character, we see that even before his world comes crashing down around him, he had it in himself to discover it on his own, if given enough time.

Because it's the way my mind works, I ran over the details laid out for us in the opening monologue, about the attack and the exodus and the various bits of science. I had planned on mentioning that the movie keeps the science it knows its going to get wrong vague, and what it does mention doesn't make a lot of sense. However, and points to the writers for this, that is a massive hint rather then just par for the course. To play off the audience expectation that the science in a science fiction film will be all manner of wrong, as a way of establishing that in-universe something is wrong is not only a brilliant tactic, but also one that assumes an intelligence of the audience, and again is a brave choice for a major studio picture, which tend toward the "lowest common denominator" style of storytelling. Even the standard cliches, like the memory wipe, which is mentioned in the first line of dialogue, sets your bullshit detector on "ready," ends up getting subverted.

The movie looks fantastic, and there is good reason for that: it's mostly real. I fall firmly on the practical magic side of things when it comes to film making, and would rather see an actor interacting with a prop, or watch a model built to scale then some CG digital mashup with the physics slightly wrong. And clearly, coming from the "classic" mindset, Kosinski does too. The attack drones were physically on set, the Bubble Ship was a gimble mounted functioning ship. And the scenery was mostly real Iceland, where the film was shot during the 24 hour sunlight period. The director shot footage of the clouds from atop volcanoes, and over the landscape from helicopters, and projected the images rather then add them in afterwards, so that the actors were actually immersed in the environment. It all adds up to a sense of realism, of physicality that science fiction needs in order to establish the suspension of disbelief. If the actors can reach out and touch things in this world, then so could the audience. Which isn't to say there is no CG, but what there is, is very impressively done. This is top notch stuff, and clearly was intentionally used as infrequently as possible, to reduce the chances of it distracting or obscuring from the story. The most impressive shots were those of the destroyed and haloed moon, or of the orbiting Tet.

It is a shame the trailers had to reveal Morgan Freeman's presence, as that reveal undercuts the effectiveness of the surprise. Happily, the major revelations of the film are preserved, and this is your last chance to turn back before this are given away. Still here? OK. With Jack plagued by half remembered dreams, and the sudden appearance of the women of his dreams (Olga Kurylenko), Jack is taken by Malcolm Beech (Freeman), who does his very best to be vague about the reality of their situation, because he knows this is a "show, don't tell" sort of movie (at least, at first), and wants Jack to figure it out for himself. From this point on, the action drives the plot more then the characters, and in the last half hour things get ridiculously compact and expositiony. At two hours, it is a comfortable length, but might had made use of another half hour just to give things a bit more elbow room.

The first twist is the discovery by Jack of a double, doing his job, living his life, in a so called Radiation Zone. And may I say, it is probably the best "man fighting with himself" scene I've seen on film. At no point was it blatantly obvious that Cruise was fighting with a Shemp, or talking with a composite image. Again, there was a harsh physicality to the entire scene, which made it believable. Unfortunately, the scene ends with a cliched shot to the gut, which necessitates a sojourn to Jack's cabin in the woods. The pieces all line up, and there isn't a plot thread left dangling that isn't woven back into the film by the time the credits role, but it feels as though it is at least one subplot too heavy. I just don't know which could have been cut, without everything else falling apart.

The ultimate reveal is, as the first half of the film, nothing new to sci-fi. But it approaches it from a different direction, providing if not new then at least unusual solutions to the questions. I will say this, that few movies use the Galactus, or grey goo, plot when developing their alien invasion movies, and I once again credit the writer's assumption of intelligence on the audience's part, and that a braying neon beastie wasn't necessary, nor was a fist fight at the climax to force the notion of finality. While the back half certainly isn't as cerebral as the front, it never forfeits that foundation. Even when it introduces a bunch of canon fodder characters (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Zoƫ Bell) who look as though they have motivations, it's just a shame we don't get to see much of them.

Oblivion isn't the greatest movie ever made, but it isn't trying to be. What it tries to be, and succeeds at, is being genuine. It wants to be honest about itself, and pay respects to those that came before it, and it does so wonderfully. And as proof of that, towards the end it has the most honest Bond-stlye one liner a person could ever possibly give.

Oh, and nice logo gag.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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