Skip to main content

I know I'm dreaming, but it feels like more than that. It feels like a memory.


Oblivion
(2013)

(MILD SPOILERS) The first of 2013’s original big budget science fiction films arrives following fairly underwhelming pre-release publicity. Things didn’t look too hopeful. If it wasn’t posters evoking the memory of Prometheus (not a fond one for many), it was a trailer that proved unable to instill a “must-see” factor, despite some gorgeous imagery. There's Tom Cruise, in the future, grinning away and reminiscing about the Super Bowl. And there’s Morgan Freeman. Isn’t he in everything? My expectations were certainly lowered, much as they had been for the director’s previous film. 


And, like TRON Legacy, Oblivion is a patchy affair when it comes to plotting. But, like that film, I would recommend it unreservedly as a feast for the eyes best witnessed in the cinema (an area where I’m afraid I neglected Legacy). In the case of Legacy, I can quite accept the legitimacy of the complaints from those who critically demolished it. Its storyline is threadbare at best, the virtual Jeff Bridges is risible, the acting often stodgy. But, as a visual and aural experience I’ve found it a completely immersive on repeat viewings. Oblivion doesn’t have quite same cachet, despite being almost as distinctive.

With two movies now under his belt, Joseph Kosinski should be recognised as one of the foremost visual stylists currently working in cinema. His frames are so clean and crisp, beautifully composed and edited to ensure clear and coherent action. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who just won a much-deserved Oscar for Life of Pi, ably abets him.


In addition, Kosinski understands FX like no other director working today (well, maybe Blomkamp). They are integrated with a sense of weight and physicality that shows he really cares, and doesn't just palm them off to the FX house and nod blankly at the results. The design choices are sleek and smooth, ‘50s futurism by way of Apple. This is a choice that feels bracingly fresh, particularly in the face of so much “used-future” chic (to be fair, Legacy was also very shiny-surfaced, just with a different hue). His bubble craft, the sky tower base, and the drones (which turn from benign to threatening in a most convincing manner) are all top notch; there’s an elegance evoking a space age that never occurred outside of 2001: A Space Odyssey (and a computer design here appears to be a transparent nod to Kubrick’s epic).

The music is perhaps not the peak of M83, maybe because it recalls a few too many recent soundtracks (both Daft Punk for Legacy and Hans Zimmer's work on Inception), but it's nevertheless gorgeous, deep and soaring.  I've spoken to others who found the opening sections rather slow, but they may be my favourite parts (excluding the Mr. Bobblehead and the classic pop tracks). A lot of that is about soaking up the sound and visuals at (relative) leisure. Kosinski fully embraces the chance to let his world breathe before becoming all-consumed with plot mechanics.


Of which, Cruise’s Jack does engage in a hefty info-dump to set the scene. As soon as he mentions that all humans had their memories wiped five years previously it’s clear that the door is wide open to all manner of potential twists and psych-outs. Anyone who’s seen or read a sprinkling of science fiction is likely to readily name a host of sources from which Oblivion is consciously or unconsciously derivative. Which is par for the course with science fiction (and all genres, let’s face it). What’s important is how satisfyingly this reinvention is.

In particular, the film takes as its starting point the hero who discovers that his identity may not be the fixed point he assumed. We’ve seen this in everything from Total Recall to The Matrix to The Bourne Identity, so it’s some credit to Oblivion that I hadn’t guessed the truth of the protagonist's plight prior to the reveal (or maybe I’m just slow on the uptake). But one consequence of the over-use of this sort of “discovery” mechanism is that there is no longer any “instant depth” attached to it (be it emotional or philosophical). It has almost become a standard action movie plot device.


Jack informs us that a war with alien Scavengers 60 years earlier left the Moon destroyed and the Earth devastated. The entire population was evacuated to Saturn's moon, Titan. Jack and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) remain behind, selected to maintain the drones that guard huge generators against Scavengers. These machines harvest the Earth's resources for use on Titan. Victoria reports daily to their commander Sally (Melissa Leo), who is based on a huge space station. But Jack is haunted by dreams of an Earth prior to the war, and a mysterious woman. With only two weeks of their mission left, a ship crashes on Earth. The only survivor resembles the woman from Jack's dreams.

One of the criticisms of Kosinski’s work, which some consider has been cemented here, is that he builds fantastically convincing worlds which lack any heart. It seems clear that, in terms of premise, Oblivion is intended to address that hardware versus people issue; it turns on a love story, after all. But what lets the director down is that he needed to nail the casting if he wanted to sell the sketchy emotion. How many times have we seen Cruise in a convincing romance (one where he had discernable chemistry with his co-star, rather than assuming with cocky confidence that he was irresistible)?


Essential to this is the amount of time that has been taken in establishing Jack and Victoria in the early stages; their daily routines and their arranged pairing. As a result, they are the only ones we really get to care about. These scenes are perhaps a bit too on-the-nose to be considered as an effective satire of the modern corporate world, but there’s an amusing recognition nonetheless; we can fully understand the discomfort and fear of Victoria at the prospect of incurring performance violations (which means it doesn't really need Freeman's character to spell this out so artlessly to Cruise later). Whereas Jack is played by Cruise, so of course he has a rebellious streak. Come to think of it, he’s playing a pilot for the first time since Top Gun; the sweep of vistas as Jack travels from task to task are far more awe-inspiring than anything seen there.

When the revelations and twists kick in, as mentioned, I was behind the game at first. It’s pleasing that the big reveal isn't the one I was dreading. But it does lead to a slightly disappointing climax. I'm not sure where they could have gone with the conclusion, but it’s fairly standard stuff we’ve all seen many times before (it’s one of a number of areas where the spectre of Lucas hangs a bit too heavily, the Tuskan Raiders-like Scavengers being another). There any number of potential plotholes relating to the ways and means of the denoument, but one aspect I appreciated was that Kosinski didn’t feel the need to explain everything relating to his world; only as much as was needed to understand Jack’s situation is covered.


Tom Cruise is doing his standard Cruise thing throughout, and he does it solidly enough. There’s not much to immerse himself in here, but it’s been rare of late for any role not to be diluted by his star-factor. Casting him was obviously a no-brainer to prop up an expensive and untested property; he may demand a fraction of the audience he once did at home, but internationally he remains a proven attraction.

By far the strongest performance comes from Riseborough, which has the effect of unbalancing the relationship about which the audience is supposed to care most; we really feel for what she is going through, and for her sense of rejection, even though she hasn't been given an especially strong character on paper. There’s a tragedy to her plight, and I felt shortchanged that Victoria appears to have been completely forgotten in the closing scenes.

In contrast, Kurylenko barely makes an impression. She doesn’t have the greatest of range, and to be fair to her, Julia is something of a cypher. But still, we need to feel something more than we do. A measure of how little insight we get into Julia is that we barely care about her unquestioning acceptance of circumstances at the climax (which also – and its difficult not to engage in spoilers here – leads to speculation regarding the breadth and range of potential similar encounters she may face in the future).


Nikolaj Coster-Waldau's role is so insignificant you wonder why he accepted it (I seem to recall Cruise personally requested him). As for Freeman, his presence actively works against Kosinski’s world-building. The casting of Cruise makes some kind of sense given his character; Freeman is distractingly the same old Morgan Freeman, but adorned with a large pair of John Lennon sunglasses.

One thing’s for certain, whatever Kosinski does next, it needs to be viewed on a big screen. And I’d relish him returning to the world of TRON (as long as Daft Punk come for the ride too), or venturing through The Black Hole. While Oblivion breaks no new ground in story terms (so the director might be advised to resist his creative impulses in that area) it is very, very pretty.

***1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.

No time to dilly-dally, Mr Wick.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)
(SPOILERS) At one point during John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum, our eponymous hero announces he needs “Guns, lots of guns” in a knowing nod to Keanu Reeves’ other non-Bill & Ted franchise. It’s a cute moment, but it also points to the manner in which the picture, enormous fun as it undoubtedly is, is a slight step down for a franchise previously determined to outdo itself, giving way instead to something more self-conscious, less urgent and slightly fractured.

She worshipped that pig. And now she's become him.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)
(SPOILERS) Choosing to make The Girl in the Spider’s Web following the failure of the David Fincher film – well, not a failure per se, but like Blade Runner 2049, it simply cost far too much to justify its inevitably limited returns – was a very bizarre decision on MGM’s part. A decision to reboot, with a different cast, having no frame of reference for the rest of the trilogy unless you checked out the Swedish movies (or read the books, but who does that?); someone actually thought this would possibly do well? Evidently the same execs churning out desperately flailing remakes based on their back catalogue of IPs (Ben-Hur, The Magnificent Seven, Death Wish, Tomb Raider); occasionally there’s creative flair amid the dross (Creed, A Star is Born), but otherwise, it’s the most transparently creatively bankrupt studio there is.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

I mean, I think anybody who looked at Fred, looked at somebody that they couldn't compare with anybody else.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) 
(SPOILERS) I did, of course, know who Fred Rogers was, despite being British. Or rather, I knew his sublimely docile greeting song. How? The ‘Burbs, naturally. I was surprised, given the seeming unanimous praise it was receiving (and the boffo doco box office) that Won’t You Be My Neighbor? didn’t garner a Best Documentary Oscar nod, but now I think I can understand why. It’s as immensely likeable as Mr Rogers himself, yet it doesn’t feel very substantial.

Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best

I think, I ruminate, I plan.

The Avengers 6.5: Get-A-Way
Another very SF story, and another that recalls earlier stories, in this case 5.5: The See-Through Man, in which Steed states baldly “I don’t believe in invisible men”. He was right in that case, but he’d have to eat his bowler here. Or half of it, anyway. The intrigue of Get-A-Way derives from the question of how it is that Eastern Bloc spies have escaped incarceration, since it isn’t immediately announced that a “magic potion” is responsible. And if that reveal isn’t terribly convincing, Peter Bowles makes the most of his latest guest spot as Steed’s self-appointed nemesis Ezdorf.