Tuesday, April 23, 2013

It's Not a Remake. It's Not a Sequel. It's "Oblivion."

Oblivion - Directed Joseph Kosinski, written by Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek, and Michael Arndt, starring Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and Melissa Leo - Rated PG-13

There's no real sci-fi connection to be made with Chigurh, but he is kind of like a human version of a drone, isn't he?

Don't be fooled by that gun. He doesn't use it much.

Oblivion is a rarity among big sci-fi films. It isn’t a sequel, prequel, remake, reboot, or anything like that. Technically, it is an adaptation of a graphic novel, but it’s really just an adaptation of an idea that has yet to be used in a graphic novel. Oblivion is an original sci-fi film that doesn’t appear to be an attempt at starting a franchise. That fact alone gives it an edge.

A film doesn’t deserve a pass simply for not being a franchise, however. In this case, it is the icing on the cake of an interesting story filled with great visuals. It isn’t ground-breaking, but if you allow it, Oblivion can sink its hooks into you for the full two hours.

I’m told by some of my students (for those who don’t know, I am a high school English teacher) that I am wrong in liking Oblivion. A few of them walked out of the film because “it was so boring.” After chiding them for judging a movie they gave up on, I told them that the mystery of the film was interesting. Sure, there was a surprising lack of action, but good sci-fi doesn’t have to be all lasers and explosions. To be fair, Oblivion does feature some action, including one very impressive scene in which the camera follows a drone on an attack run, but it is certainly not an action movie. The best sci-fi has always found a balance between action and story. People will see Tom Cruise and expect that balance to tip more into the action territory than the story, but that’s not what happens.

Oblivion is more concerned with the world of the film and the mystery of it. I’ve been intentionally short about the plot thus far because the filmmakers have wanted to keep it as secretive as possible. I can’t rightly continue a review without giving a bit more of a synopsis, however. So if you want to watch this movie as fresh as possible, stop reading now. For those continuing to read, I won’t necessarily spoil the film for you, but I will be giving some specific plot details. Consider yourselves warned.

The mystery of the film is what kept me completely invested in it. Cruise plays Jack Harper, a maintenance man with a wiped memory who, along with his wife(?)/co-worker, fixes drones on a decimated planet Earth. Earth had been mostly destroyed years ago during an alien attack and the bulk of humanity now lives on Titan, the largest moon of Jupiter. The humans won the battle, but “lost the planet.” Now, a triangular mothership called the Tet has been left in Earth’s orbit, controlling the drones that protect the giant machines that salvage the rest of the planet’s power. The aliens were defeated, but there are some stragglers left, and it’s up to Harper to keep the drones working so the mission can succeed. As the movie begins, Harper and his partner have two weeks to go before they get to retire to Titan with the rest of humanity.

Oblivion is not, of course, a movie about maintenance only. Harper keeps having these dreams of a regular Earth, and he seems to have a fondness for memorabilia of the planet before the attack. As you can imagine, this leads to some problems and a few shocking discoveries. I’ll leave it at that, but if you’ve seen the previews, you know there’s more to this story than just Tom Cruise and his girlfriend eating future food and fixing killbots.

Since we don’t get to actually see this war that Cruise tells us about, we’re left to imagine how it all happened. More importantly, it allows us to be suspect of the claims he makes and wonder if there’s something he doesn’t know about. Trying to piece together the mystery of Oblivion is the most rewarding part of the film. Although it also leads to a weak point in the film in that a lot of story has to be told rather than shown, which can lead to a bit of confusion. I felt like I was paying close attention to the film, yet when I left there were still a few question marks. Oblivion might be one of those films that really benefits from repeat viewings.

Because of the use of drones, and since this is sci-fi, one can’t help but start applying current events to this film and trying to shoehorn some kind of allegory out of it. I won’t get into any theories here, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to posit an idea or two about what this movie might be saying about the use of unmanned drones and where that might take us as a society. That might politicize the movie a bit too much for some, but I’ve always felt that good sci-fi should at least attempt to hold a mirror up to society.

Is this what you want, America?!  Is it?!

If a mysterious setup doesn’t do it for you, then perhaps the visuals of Oblivion will. The ruins of Earth are interesting, but we’ve seen it all before. It’s the futuristic home and weapons that set this film apart. First, the house is something right out of director Joseph Kosinski’s other film, TRON: Legacy. That’s a compliment, by the way, because the house looks very cool in this film. Just wait until you see the pool. The weapons steal the show, though. Actually, it’s just the drones. They are photo-realistic and come across as truly dangerous creations.

The look of the drones and the film in general is impressive, but sound plays just as much of a factor. Once again, much like TRON, Kosinski uses sound extremely effectively. The drones have a distinct sound that adds to their menace. The music factors in a bit, too. The score by M83 was fitting, though nowhere close as a perfect match as Daft Punk was for TRON. Regardless, Kosinski is a director to pay attention to as he obviously has a distinct style and a love for sci-fi.

That love for sci-fi might lead people feeling a bit more negative towards this film. It’s impossible to watch this and not be reminded of other, arguably, better films. Of course you’ll be reminded of any post-apocalyptic films, but there are also elements of (possible SPOILERS) Moon and The Matrix. I was certainly making active comparisons to those films as I watched, but it didn’t leave me feeling negatively about Oblivion. Besides, how can you really call something a rip-off when literally everything that has been released in the past few decades has at least been influenced by other work? Anyway, Oblivion might seem a little familiar, but it’s still visually and intellectually stimulating. Plus, it features Tom Cruise being, well, Tom Cruise. And if you’re a fan of that, which I am, then you’ll come away pleased with this one. And if you don’t like it, at least take comfort in the fact that there (probably) won’t be any sequels or prequels.

Random Thought (SPOILERS)

Did I hear Morgan Freeman's character correctly?  About an army of Tom Cruises?  How awesome would that be?  I know I said I was cool with this film being light on the action, but can you imagine what that film would be like?  Okay, screw it.  I want a prequel.  Oblivion: Invasion of the Toms.

Can you imagine an army of these smirking psychos descending upon you?

1 comment:

  1. Good review Eric. It has the look and style, but no story to really help it out. Just sort of falls where it stands and doesn't get any better.