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

Popular posts from this blog

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

This guy’s armed with a hairdryer.

An Innocent Man (1989) (SPOILERS) Was it a chicken-and-egg thing with Tom Selleck and movies? Did he consistently end up in ropey pictures because other, bigger big-screen stars had first dibs on the good stuff? Or was it because he was a resolutely small-screen guy with limited range and zero good taste? Selleck had about half-a-dozen cinema outings during the 1980s, one of which, the very TV, very Touchstone Three Men and a Baby was a hit, but couldn’t be put wholly down to him. The final one was An Innocent Man , where he attempted to show some grit and mettle, as nice-guy Tom is framed and has to get tough to survive. Unfortunately, it’s another big-screen TV movie.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

Archimedes would split himself with envy.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) (SPOILERS) Generally, this seems to be the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad outing that gets the short straw in the appreciation stakes. Which is rather unfair. True, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger lacks Tom Baker and his rich brown voice personifying evil incarnate – although Margaret Whiting more than holds her own in the wickedness stakes – and the structure follows the Harryhausen template perhaps over scrupulously (Beverly Cross previously collaborated with the stop-motion auteur on Jason and the Argonauts , and would again subsequently with Clash of the Titans ). But the storytelling is swift and sprightly, and the animation itself scores, achieving a degree of interaction frequently more proficient than its more lavishly praised peer group.