MOVIE REVIEW: Oblivion
OBLIVION-- 4 STARS
Film genres have their boom years and their bust years. Every genre has a big hit here and a big hit there every year, but, every now and then, a single year will have multiple watershed films that transcend and extend the genre. In the realm of science fiction, the years of 1968 (2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes), 1977 (Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars), and 1997 (Gattaca, Contact, The Fifth Element, Men in Black, and Starship Troopers) really stand out historically as years were multiple films made a significant impact to the genre and not just the box office. Time will tell, but we may have just had one go by in 2011 (Source Code, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Another Earth, Melancholia, Paul, Real Steel, X-Men: First Class, and, to a lesser degree, Transformers: Dark of the Moon).
In this critics opinion, the very best year for science fiction in film history was easily 1982, boasting E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Tron, and The Thing. All have gone on to be considered classics, groundbreakers, and trendsetters in their own right. Once we finish 2013, there's a good chance this year might join that group and maybe even rival 1982.
The ambitious (on paper anyways) science fiction slate coming in 2013 includes Star Trek Into Darkness, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Vin Diesel returning to Riddick, Will Smith and Jaden Smith in After Earth, the March flop The Host, the indie flickUpside Down, Neill Blomkamp's District 9 follow-up Elysium, Alfonso Cuaran's Children of Men follow-up Gravity, the summer slugfest Pacific Rim, the zombie blockbuster World War Z, and the hotly anticipated novel adaptations of Ender's Game and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. "Loaded" is an understatement and one more of those headliners is out this weekend.
The first really legitimate film that gets this year of science fiction started is Oblivion. From the producers of Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Joseph Kosinski, the kinetic director of Tron: Legacy (a movie I loved), Tom Cruise returns to science fiction for the first time in eight years since 2005's Spielberg juggernaut War of the Worlds. Oblivion, against recent trend, actually moved its release date earlier from a summer release this July to late April, while some of its peers like Jack the Giant Slayer and G.I. Joe: Retribution experienced nearly year-long delays to be here in the spring of 2013.
Filled with amazing post-apocalyptic spectacle, dazzling action sequences, and a heady story of twists and turns, the challenge of Oblivion is whether or not you, as the audience, can allow the strong visuals to make up for the weak narrative. This film will not go down as a 1982-level classic and borrows too many elements from other movies including The Matrix, Planet of the Apes, WALL-E, Tarkovsky and Soderbergh's takes on Solaris, Duncan Jones's under-seen Moon, and even a little Dark City, but Oblivion still has an unmistakable and impressive draw to it. Like all good science fiction, this film stays serious, asks big questions, and takes us to forgivably implausible places. That third element might sound like a knock, but that implausible creativity is what sets science fiction apart from other genres. Science fiction is where the unbelievable comes to life. That's this genre's "grain of salt."
For those who think they know all the twists of this film thanks to the supposedly-telling trailers (one, two, and three), you will be pleasantly surprised at the developments. There are some decent curveballs ahead in the journey, some mildly predictable and others very unanticipated. Still, a little too much is already out there, so the following will be spoiler-free.
Based on Kosinski's own graphic novel pitch with screenplay polish from William Monahan (The Departed), newcomer Karl Gajdusek, and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3), our setting for Oblivion is Earth in the year 2077. A thwarted alien invasion sixty years earlier in 2017 has decimated the planet and destroyed the moon. The nuclear fallout of the conflict did its fair share of the damage to make the planet uninhabitable, but the loss of the moon's gravity threw the planet's equilibrium into chaos leading to massive earthquakes and tsunamis that destroyed the rest. While the people of Earth won the war, they have been evacuated to Saturn's moon Titan, leaving one immense orbiting space station, the Tet, to regulate the farming of energy to support Titan.
Cruise plays Jack Harper, aka Tech 49, an adventurous technician who's been stationed on the planet with his by-the-book communications officer and significant other Victoria (Andrea Riseborough of W.E.). Monitored from the Tet by their commander Sally (Academy Award winner Melissa Leo), they are commissioned with drone repair and maintenance to protect the automated defense system tasked to stamp out the remaining alien resistance known as "Scavs," and protect the Titan energy extraction. After several years on the job and a mandatory memory wipe, Jack and Victoria are only two weeks away from their end date to join the rest of Earth's survivors on Titan.
While Victoria is anxious to leave, Jack's time working on the surface has endeared him to the empty humanity and civilization that remains. He has set aside his own little WALL-E lake house hideaway filled with mementos off the grid away from the decimation and also Victoria's knowledge. Adding to that nostalgia, Jack cannot shake recurring dreams and visions he has of himself living in New York before the war and with a mystery woman (Olga Kurylenko) that he can't remember.
When Jack rescues that very woman, astronaut Julia Rusakova, who arrives from a crashing 60-year-old space shuttle in cryo-sleep, from the violent drones he repairs, his emotions and duty become conflicted. Soon after, he is apprehended by an armed human resistance on the surface, led by Morgan Freeman's Malcolm Beach and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau's second-in-command, that may or may not have the answers to Jack's conflict and the nature of the true enemy at work.
As aforementioned, Oblivion, from a plot and plot twist standpoint, stands on the shoulders of other science-fiction films of recent memory and takes its dear sweet time to show its cards and play its hand. Clearly with four dominating heads at work (Kosinski, Monahan, Gajdusek, and Arndt), there were "too many cooks in the kitchen." When you step back, its story is very thin and wet-pasta-flimsy, but the execution is what saves the picture. While most science fiction movies can't carry a decent love story at its core, Oblivion succeeds with a rather touching Solaris-like connection between Jack and Julia that grows nicely. Cruise is an absolutely solid lead, both in action and in drama situations. As always, and its petty to still have to mention, please separate the man of Tom Cruise from the performer. He's still one of the best actors working today. Kurylenko just has to look good (originally that was supposed to be Jessica Chastain, but Zero Dark Thirty filled her schedule, picture that), but it's Riseborough that weaves a few tangled web strands of her own seduction and devotion that contrast well to rest of the love triangle.
Oblivion is an example where the visuals and aesthetics save a weak story. Recent Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi) photographs "apocalypse porn" from the desolate, yet striking Icelandic landscapes and vistas that are doubling as a washed-out Eastern United States. Not a shot is muddled or out of place, between the raw nature and the impressive futuristic production design. The movie breathes with those lonely visuals and pulses with a sublime electronic/orchestration mash-up score from French band M83. It's Vangelis-Blade Runner epic in tone. Like Kosinski's outstanding and inventive use of an orchestra-backed Daft Punk score from Tron: Legacy, the future of movie soundtracks takes another bold step forward. Altogether, Oblivion is a handsome package that can't be denied. Come to the film for the visuals and hang around for enough surprises and developments to make you feel better about the IMAX ticket price. Once again, it's not a sure-fire classic, but it's just the start to a promising 2013 for science fiction.
LESSON #1: WHEN THE EFFECTIVE BECOMES INEFFECTIVE-- The ongoing expectation from Sally's homebase for Jack and Victoria is whether or not they are an effective team. By effective, she means following orders and working together. If Jack puts aside his feelings and just rides out his two remaining weeks on the job, he won't make the waves and take the risks that challenge the team's orders and effectiveness. Like all moral dilemmas against protocol and orders, sometimes the heart wins and takes over.
LESSON #2: THE INSTINCTUAL DRAW OF ONE'S HOME-- Victoria is laser-focused on getting away from Earth and joining the others on Titan. She doesn't risk anything towards that goal. She won't embrace the surface or even take a gift of a flower from Jack for fear of contamination and leftover toxins from war. Jack is the complete opposite. Earth is still home and he is drawn to it. He feels the music, the books, the breeze, and the memories. Some of that is good, old-fashioned animal connection to one's habitat and home.
LESSON #3: THE DREAMS AND VISIONS THAT STICK WITH US TO THE CORE-- No prescribed memory wipe from the bosses can shake Jack's pre-war visions of New York and a fixation on a woman that he doesn't remember, but deeply loves. Whether the dreams and visions we have mean anything or not (enjoy the dream theory books and blogs), we all can relate to having such unforgettable flashes that we can't shake. We all have unforgettable dreams and imagery, some good, some bad, some real, some fantasy, that stick with us for life.