Tuesday, May 14, 2013
"Oblivion" is directed by Joseph Kosinski, the director of "Tron: Legacy", a very impressive visually and more impressively audibly thanks to Daft Punk, but one without a very strong story or characters. That film, however, was held up by the striking neon colors and techno soundtrack - it felt like something that should have been just a vapid blockbuster film that's more flashy lights than substance. I loved it for being an empty spectacle. "Oblivion", unfortunately, doesn't really have much more substance than the earlier film, and simply feels... mediocre. By now I think we've seen plenty of post-apocalyptic films, many of them very pretty and well-shot, with stronger lead characters, well-written stories, and concept that actually can challenge our perceptions of the world. This film has none of that, its a perfect Hollywood movie. And yeah, "Tron: Legacy" was just as bad... but it had Daft Punk! Yeah, I'm a hypocrite and a fraud, but I really love that soundtrack, okay??
The trailers unfortunately spoiled the twist that things are not what they seem to be in Tom Cruise's world, but luckily they didn't spoil everything, there's still a few mysteries here. But not the kind of mysteries that will leave you shocked to your core. If you're unlucky enough to have missed "Moon", the best live action SciFi film from the last decade, maybe the stuff that's happening here will really throw your mind for a loop. Honestly though, watch "Moon"! In a more positive light, "Oblivion" does have some really cool mechanical designs, great world visuals, and one truly fantastic action scene, so if you're looking for deadpan entertainment go for it. But its not the rote plot twists that ruin "Oblivion", its the empty characters. Its the wasted, utilitarian female roles that exist only to serve as sexual fantasy. And its the failure to really capture any kind of mood or emotion, its a movie that really is all flash which simply adds up to nothing.
Tom Cruise is living on Earth after a war with an alien species called the Scavs, who destroyed most of the planet making it unlivable for humans. So his job currently is to repair the military drones that protect an array of massive plants which are sucking up all the water from Earth's oceans to lead our species to Titan. the Scavs, though defeated, still are attacking humanity's machines, and to keep our top secrets secure, Tom Cruise and his partner, a very lovely redheaded woman, had to have their memories erased. By the way, the way I'm explaining the plot is actually the same way "Oblivion" explains it, with a voice over from Tom Cruise. These opening info dump narrations are becoming one a significant pet peeve of mine in modern films, it shows that the studios have no faith in their directors to be able to weave exposition into the narrative through showing vs. telling. It also shows me that Hollywood thinks I'm a moron who needs things explained to me right up front. So immediately all the mystery of "what happened to Earth?", "what is Tom Cruise doing?", "who is that redhead and can I have her number?" is cut away, since the movie spits it out onto your lap.
Luckily every trailer so far has had Morgan Freeman reveal that this movie has a twist ending, so there's still the tension of "what is really going on?" Is Tom Cruise really working for A) the aliens we supposedly defeated, B) a robot intelligence that conquered Earth, or C) an evil corporation using cloning as a means of running cheap labor across the vast distances of space? I guess I can't fault a movie for having terrible marketing that gave away much of its impact, though that really doesn't excuse much of the other problems here.
I should note that the world created by Joseph Kosinski is a richly creative and interesting place, at the very least. Most of the East Coast of the United States is now destroyed, turning our former monuments into ruins sticking out of the mud. The Moon is shattered, and in its place is a massive pyramidal object that we're told holds human civilization, waiting to be transported to Titan. New York City is now a plain of brown, with only a few thin valleys which once were avenues, and the spire of the Empire State Building holding itself up despite decades of neglect. My favorite designs are, however, the robots and machines that Tom Cruise lives. Everything in the future is white plastic and transparent walls, as if Apple cornered the market on architecture. The drones are flying spheres which make rather adorable noises, even when they're trying to be threatening they still come off as cute.* This is where the creative energy went in "Oblivion", leaving very little to spare for the characters and story, I'm afraid.
Tom Cruise is probably the only actor is able to do much with his character, which isn't surprising since he's in virtually every scene. The other supporting actors are not so lucky. None of them have any kind of arc, and they're all fairly one-dimensional or in some cases, non-dimensional. Andrea Riseborough gets to play Tom Cruise's partner, and her highlight is getting naked for the camera and swimming nude. Thanks to PG-13 ratings, we can only see her nude form in silhouette, but we still can enjoy the little triangle of light reaching between the empty space where he legs meet her crotch. (I'm ogling, sorry, she's very pretty in an usual way.) But her face is too round, she's not quite a perfect supermodel like Olga Kurylenko, whose character - despite having dialog - is somehow even more flat than her symbolic persona in the latest Terrence Malick film. Riseborough's character finds out like Tom Cruise that her world isn't what she expected, and perhaps her character could have created an interesting contrast by choosing to side with what she's known for years rather than rebelling. I say 'perhaps' because her character's real motivation to turn evil is a fit of feminine jealousy. Women characters can't make major choices unless its a reaction to male actions! Olga Kurylenko is simply... nothing in this movie. She has no personality trait at all. Her character is so blandly written that in one scene she gets shot, and she doesn't notice for at least a minute. There are supporting minor characters to be found in Morgan Freeman and Nikoaj Coster-Waldau, neither add much at all beyond being a mentor and... actually I have no idea why Jaime Lannister is in this movie, he adds nothing.
If anything made me hate this movie, it was the characterization. This is awful, guys. "Oblivion" is part of the new generation of Hollywood SciFi, where the revolutionary and expansive creativity of previous authors, who actually did have things to say about the societies in which they lived, has been borrowed to create mindless blockbusters. I hate this trend, but I accept it as necessary evil, maybe in the pulp we'll still get good action and interesting characters. "Oblivion" can't be bothered. I'm not complaining about Andrea Risborough's character as a feminist, I'm complaining about it as somebody who thinks movies should be about real people, not devices working a service to the unoriginal plot.
I had a curious moment towards the end of "Oblivion". At the end of the film, Tom Cruise steps inside the space pyramid, and I knew immediately that inside would be nothing more than a big silly CG monster and he would exchange a banter and defeat it. Nothing more, nothing less. And suddenly I wished I were watching "2001: A Space Odyssey", where the hero walks inside another big floating space object, but inside is no final boss. Inside is a completely insane finale that really makes no sense, but is still something amazing and even frightening. I hated "2001", but somehow "Oblivion" made me wish I were watching that film instead.
This review might be more harsh than I had planned. But I stand by everything I've written. This movie is just, empty. Its soulless. Its just like every other bad Tom Cruise SciFi film. What a shame. However, later this year will be two more films with just about the same concept, "Elysium" and "After Earth". Who will win the ruined Earth race? Not this one.
* "WALL-E" must have scrambled my brains. When the Machines take over, they shouldn't build any Terminators or death machines, just make little creatures with curious faces that hold rayguns. We won't stand a chance.