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Sunday, May 15, 2016

Review: Oblivion (2013)

* *

Director: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Tom Cruise

How can a movie cost so much to make and still seem so incredibly half-assed? Is it really so much to ask that, with $120 million dollars to play with, the result not be shoddily constructed from the spare parts of other science fiction, action, and post-apocalypse movies? That at least one of the two female characters not be wafer thin? That it at least have enough of a spark of originality to not name its hero "Jack," the go-to name (along with "John") for everyman heroes? Action movie screenwriters of the world: if you need your hero to have a down to earth, dude's dude name, can we maybe start branching out a bit? If you're going to surround your protagonist with every cliche and recycled plot point that comes to mind, can you at least make him a "Mike" or "Dave" or "Chris"? That alone wouldn't make the movie better, of course, but it might make it somewhat less annoyingly familiar.

The year is 2077, decades after Earth has been rendered uninhabitable by an alien invasion that destroyed the moon, wrecking havoc on the natural functioning of the planet, and resulted in everything in sight being razed and exposed to radiation through warfare. Humanity won that war but the survivors have been forced to abandon the planet, relocating to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, and sustained by the energy supplied by the fusion energy generators that have been left behind on Earth and are in the process of draining the oceans. The generators are protected by drones, which are in turn maintained by a two-man team stationed in Tower 49, one of the few places not exposed to radiation. The Tower 49 crew are Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and Vika Olsen (Andrea Riseborough), whose memories were wiped before beginning their mission and who spend their days repairing drones, being on the lookout for "Scavs," the remaining aliens who want to destroy the generators, and looking forward to the end of their mission and their return to Titan. Well, Vika, who holds down the command center and never leaves Tower 49, looks forward to returning to Titan. Jack, on the other hand, is enchanted by some of the places that he finds while patrolling near the ground, particularly a spot in the woods near a river, which he has turned into a nest of sorts full of the artifacts and curios that he has collected from the ruins of society, and finds himself plagued by visions of himself and a woman on the observation deck of the Empire State Building.

When he spots a craft falling from the sky and goes to investigate, he's shocked to discover the remains of a pre-war spacecraft and several stasis chambers containing humans suspended in a hibernative state - including the woman he sees in his visions. That woman is Julia (Olga Kurylenko) and she's the only one Jack is able to save when the drones begin destroying the stasis chambers, taking her back to Tower 49, where Vika views her with suspicion and fear. Vika wants Julia gone and just wants to go on as usual with Jack, but he wants to know more about Julia and wants to get answers to the questions that Vika is scared to ask. He returns to the crash sight with Julia in order to retrieve the flight recorder but the two end up being captured by Scavs, who reveal that they aren't aliens at all, but human survivors. The leader of the group is Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman), who wants to enlist Jack's help against the advice of his second-in-command, Sykes (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who doesn't think that Jack can be trusted. Jack, meanwhile, doesn't trust them, either, particularly after they reveal that they want him to help by using a drone to destroy the generator. In an effort to sway him to their side, Beech gives Jack just enough information to be intrigued enough to set out to seek the truth about his own existence.

Although Oblivion boasts some memorable production design, with Tower 49 defined by its clean, sterile look, perched high above the clouds, while the landscape down below alternates between lush, forested areas and vast desert areas where, beneath the sand, the remnants of New York city can be found. Aside from that, though, there's nothing particularly compelling, original, or memorable here. While Cruise, despite having fallen out of public favor for various reasons, remains an actor with charisma enough to carry a movie, as a character Jack is such a blank that it's difficult to build something compelling around him. It doesn't help that, aside from brief interludes with Beech and his crew, Jack is only ever surrounded by characters who themselves amount to nothing. Julia is an enigma who tells Jack just about nothing, aside from the fact that they're married, even though the revelations of the finale suggests that she knows enough that she could have led him to the truth a lot sooner than it takes for him to discover it for himself; Vika is a character who seems like she hasn't just had her memory wiped, but has had a lobotomy as well; and Sally (Melissa Leo), the supervisor who communicates with Jack and Vika from above, is so obviously not what she's meant to seem that the only real surprise would have been if she turned out to really be the human supervisor tasked with managing Tower 49.

Plot-wise Oblivion contains two big "twists" that are so obvious so early that the film's slow progress towards revealing them just becomes frustrating. In addition to being easy to guess, the two twists don't really work together in a way that makes sense once everything comes out into the open. The first revelation is that Jack and Vika are clones of people who originally lived in our present day, before the alien invasion, and the second is that the clones aren't really working for a human colony on Titan, but for the aliens. There isn't actually any radiation in the so-called radiation zones, the clones are just made to believe in the radiation zones in order to keep them from discovering another set of clones that work in another area, and though in and of itself that plot point would work fine, it doesn't really function with what Beech reveals to Jack later on, which is that the aliens invaded with an army of Jack clones. If the clones can function at their assigned task while being aware of each other and aware that they're working for the aliens, then what's the point of the elaborate fiction that each Jack and Vika team is the only one and that they're working for a colony of human survivors? Why not just program them in the same way they were programmed during the war? On second thought, don't answer that. I don't care. Oblivion isn't a movie worth caring about. If you have a compulsion to see a recent Tom Cruise science fiction actioner, just watch Edge of Tomorrow instead.

1 comment:

Wendell Ottley said...

I liked it, didn't love it. It had lots problems, most of which you point out. Great review.