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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

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