Okay, sci-fi movie fans, it’s time to put your money where your mouth is. You’ve said you’re tired of 3D, tired of endless sequels, tired of the over-milking of name brands. You wish big-budget movies were willing to go darker in tone, and almost equally wish that not everything in them was designed to sell toys.
Here’s Oblivion. Go see it.
(Need to know more first? Read on.)
Frankly, I’m surprised there aren’t toys – an accurate replica of that bubble-ship thing with properly gravity-gyroscoping cockpit would be a cool addition to anybody’s collection. I suspect Tom Cruise’s longstanding aversion to lending his likeness has something to do with it (thus far, only imported figures bear his face). Likewise, the lack of 3D, coming from the director of Tron: Legacy, is unexpected. And yes, Oblivion does stand on the shoulders of other movies – the Tron sequel among them – but it’s ultimately its own thing, and really no more derivative that something like Star Wars was of Flash Gordon and The Hidden Fortress. If you want to compare it to Wall-E, as many have (superficially), bear in mind that that movie was explicitly and openly inspired by movies that went before it, notably Silent Running.
For me, the callbacks that matter most go back a lot further. The sense of routine amid isolation that so many Ray Bradbury stories captured. The slow and methodical pace of a Kubrick film. The nods to the original Solaris. And best of all, the visuals that could have come straight from the covers of sci-fi novels I read as a child; covers that could never have been fully recreated with the effects of the time. To say Joseph Kosinski is just copying other things is to deny that anyone else was ever influenced significantly by others in the same way, and with so much in that blender you can’t really call it a rip-off.
Many will find this a cold movie, because it keeps its characters fairly opaque and bound by routine, but that’s crucial to who they are – being the last survivors doing cleanup on a nuked Earth that you’re soon to abandon forever would require a degree of enforced self-control so as not to let the despair overwhelm you…I’d imagine, anyway. And comparing this to Tron Legacy makes clear that Kosinski does have running themes that are personal to him, about how people create their own worlds and wind up being isolated within them.
Also white surfaces. Lots of ’em.
The one place I think Oblivion blows it a bit is with the intro. An unmotivated Tom Crusie voice-over that has no reasonable point of origin within the story, and is too coherent to be credible as internal monologue. It’s black-and-white New York, in our time (the rest of the movie takes place a century or so in the future), and he’s remembering a time he couldn’t have lived in, and a woman he couldn’t have known. There’s no great way something like that can possibly pay off – obviously the woman in the dream will be real, and one way or another they’ll fall in love. No real mystery…or so we think. Then he gets back on track giving us the history of the future world, something I would say might be better off dropped in hints, except that there’s so much story later on that also needs to get dropped in hints, I suspect this was a time-saver. (Even with all of it, I have some smart colleagues who missed key plot points.)
Anyway, the story is that Earth was attacked by aliens called Scavs, who managed to split the moon Thundarr-style. We fought back with nukes, and won, but now Earth is dying out, and we’re extracting the last natural resources via giant pumps in preparation for a move to Saturn’s moon of Titan. Until everything is ready, humanity resides inside an orbiting space station called the Tet (short for tetrahedron, one assumes, though its significance as a Vietnam reference is not accidental).
However, some Scavs still remain, and steadily attempt to destroy the giant pumps and the drones that protect them. Cruise, playing a guy named Jack for only the third time in his acting career, and his partner in business and bed Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are seemingly the last two people on the planet, repairing the drones that get shot down during the day, and avoiding the Scavs by escaping to a floating home in the clouds by night. Their swimming pool up there is particularly amazing, with transparent sides and bottoms that offer a vertiginous view, and make the swimmers look like floating angels from out omnipotent POV.
But even as Jack does his job, he’s not quite happy with the idea of leaving Earth behind. In between missions, he sets up a secret cabin by a lake that only he knows about. He starts to take an interest in things he finds in the ruins. And the dreams of that other woman keep recurring. Meanwhile, it becomes apparent to him (and us) that the Scavs have more than just a passing interest in him.
What unfolds after that is best left to reveal itself at its own pace. Suffice it to say that certain casting choices have already spoiled at least one thing that might otherwise have best remained a surprise. And the revelations don’t come all at once, as the trailers might have led you to believe. This is more of a cerebral story than an ass-kicking one, though Kosinski pulls off at least one heart-racing action sequence involving rogue drones chasing Jack in the gyro-bubble-ship.
Once you know that there are drones, and you know what Hollywood’s general political orientation is, it doesn’t take an astronaut to realize that yes, there is subtext here about how the folks who send killing machines into the skies don’t always understand their true effects on the ground. That Jack begins the movie in a white outfit that gets dirtier throughout until it’s entirely black by the end is also no symbolic accident. Thankfully, this isn’t a movie that can be simplified into any kind of obvious Mideast analogy; it’s more a case study in the way people can lose themselves in work and their immediate environment, without realizing how much they’ll miss the chaotic elements of an outside world they can’t control. I think any of us who’ve immersed ourselves in books, movies or toy collections can connect to that feeling.
In the interests of full disclosure, though, a critic occasionally has the duty to recognize the reactions of others around him – except when those folks are clearly a recruited audience brought in by the studio in hopes of providing a live laugh/cheer track. So let me point out that the natives in this mostly critics-only screening were restless; many walkouts and walk-ins were noticeable. I’ve noticed other reviews describing it as soulless and unmoving, and while nobody’s emotions can really be “wrong,” I do think they’re missing it. This is a movie that needs to be given a chance, and credit for the fact that there is more under the surface than just Kosinski mixing his favorite flavors, and maybe you have to be a specific type of person to feel it (I would think professional writers totally fit the profile, but maybe not). If you’re allergic to one of those flavors – the Cruise one, specifically – it won’t feel like a feast.
As for me, I found it a powerful piece of sci-fi that’s exactly what I want to see more of. By which I don’t mean a specific sequel to this.
all images courtesy of Oblivion’s Facebook page.