Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Cult Movie Review: Oblivion (2013)




[Note: Spoilers ahead. Swim at your own risk.]

In imagining Earth’s future, Oblivion (2013) reaches back to the sci-fi cinema’s past. 

This big-budget summer film stars Tom Cruise as a heroic character, Jack Harper, caught in a corrupt “future” establishment and coming to learn that reality isn’t quite what it appears. 

Jack is a drone repairman, or Tech 49, precisely, working out of a luxurious sky-base over the ruins of Earth following a great war with unseen aliens called “Scavs” or “Scavengers.”  If Jack doesn’t keep several drones operating constantly, these aliens will return and pulp the giant fusion reactors which are sucking the world’s oceans dry, and are desperately needed by man if he is to make an exodus to Titan, Saturn’s moon and begin anew.



Students of the sci-fi movies of yesteryear will immediately recognize many of the creative touches in Oblivion.  Jack is a hero not entirely unlike Zed (Sean Connery) in Zardoz (1974) or Logan 5 (Michael York) in Logan’s Run (1976).  He’s smart and curious enough to recognize the things “wrong” at the edge of his periphery on 2077A.D post-war Earth, but not quite smart and curious enough to buck the system…until pushed to do so.

In diagramming Jack’s journey of self-discovery, Oblivion quotes extensively from many other films of the same historical period as the examples I noted above. 

Early in the film, for instance, Jack finds a dark hole leading down into the ruins of the New York Library, and -- if you’re old enough -- you may recall James Franciscus making a similar trek into Under New York in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). 

There’s a subplot, too, involving cloning that reminded me of The Clonus Horror (1978).

But frankly, Oblivion is an equal opportunity “borrower.”  It cribs images and themes from the 1980s and 1990s as well as the 1970s.  The finale replays the climactic moments of Independence Day (1996), for instance, while featuring a subplot about human memory and an “artificial” romantic relationship that harks back to Total Recall (1990).   One aspect of the plot’s resolution involves a “surprise” straight out of 2009’s Moon.

And last but not least, Oblivion’s final, explosive confrontation pits Cruise’s Jack against, essentially, a large-scale version of HAL from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), right down to the dulcet mimicry of a “comforting” human voice recreated by machine, and that famous, glowing red eye.

Thus the burning question regarding Oblivion remains this one: Does the film earn all these appropriations, and weave them into something worthy and meaningful?  Does it transform itself beyond pastiche, and stretch instead…towards transcendence? 

Or is just a collection of ingredients in search of coherence?

The answers are decidedly mixed. 



Certainly, Oblivion is dazzling to behold.  The vast majority of the visuals featured here are absolutely astonishing, from the Mount Olympus-like Station 49 perch with it bubble-like swimming pool, to the “monument(al)destruction” of Earth landmarks like the Empire State Building, and the Statue of Liberty. 

Earth’s “new,” post-apocalyptic terrain is legitimately incredible to behold and there is not a moment or instant of phoniness to be pinpointed.  I especially enjoyed the shots of a shattered moon hanging in orbit, a constant reminder of the planet’s devastation.

But to its detriment, Oblivion doesn’t really trust its audience that much, which -- in fairness -- has probably grown out of the habit of watching such 1970s dystopian/anti-hero fare.  Accordingly, Oblivion spends an inordinate amount of time focusing on aerial dogfights between Jack’s fighter plane and automated attack drones instead of its hero’s existential angst.  The climactic battle in an abandoned industrial factory/headquarters that is apparently also a section of the New York Metropolitan Library (!) is so pro-forma and dull I checked my watch twice during it. 

By this point in the story, such “action” pyrotechnics are not only unnecessary and distracting, but an insult to the intelligence.  A quick third-act rewrite could have immediately established that a nuke had to be flown up manually to the orbiting “Tet” or HAL device, thus necessitating Jack’s sacrifice.  Fifteen minutes of running time could have been saved, and as I like to remind film students from time to time, the trick to making a good film -- as simple as it sounds -- is to put the good stuff closer together, and cut out the stuff that doesn’t work, even if the stuff that doesn’t work happens to be an expensive action scene.


Similarly, Oblivion involves a love story, one that spotlights flashes of Jack’s “wiped” memory resurfacing in dreams and nightmares.  At the ruined Empire State Building with his true love, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), Jack recounts his wedding proposal to her there…in another lifetime.  The two characters recite the emotionally-resonant dialogue of that rendezvous, accompanied by evocative black-and-white images of New York City As It Once Was.  It’s touching and well-done, no question.

But then the very next scene shows us the exact same sequence of events at the Empire State Building except in color, with the same two characters – and the audience too – experiencing the proposal a second time. 

This interlude -- conveying a message already laboriously explained and completely understood -- brings the movie to a grinding halt.  Again, a third act rewrite, or even a judicious post-production edit, would have left the movie with just one of those proposal scenes, not two in immediate succession.

I wonder, is there anyone out there who didn’t “get it” after the first scene?

I don’t have anything personal against Tom Cruise and I have certainly enjoyed his performances over the years in legitimately great sci-fi movies such as Minority Report (2002) or War of the Worlds (2005)., but his impressive ripped physique, chiseled good looks and stolid demeanor all tend to work against Oblivion and the character he plays.

Cruise is so taciturn and physically dominant a presence that he doesn’t often seem in real danger, and never seems genuinely surprised or shocked by the revelation that his life is not what he thinks it is.  This is where I must hark back to Moon (2009), and Sam Rockwell’s performance.  

There, Rockwell also played a “tech guy” working a boring but mysterious routine for unseen overlords, and coming to terms with a surprise about his nature…and his destiny.  But he was able to invest the role with a deeper sense of humanity and surprise.  In his eyes, the audience registered disbelief, regret, anger, and finally defiance.

This is where “blockbuster” thinking tends to spoil a good science fiction film, and Oblivion is truly only a few degrees away from being a good science fiction film. 

A more introspective, more thoughtful, less Adonis-like -- and probably less bankable -- lead actor might have been able to invest the film with genuine pathos, personality and humanity, and provide the audience more to hold onto at each step of the journey.  With Cruise in the lead role, projecting little interior personality, the audience simply spends Oblivion’s first hour waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the narrative’s (predictable) surprise to be extruded on cue, as though from the auspices of The Industrial Screenwriter-a-tron 3000.(TM)

The film’s final act, and thus its ultimate meaning, also gets muddled because of Jack’s true nature.  I admire Oblivion for making the argument that a clone with the same memories can be, essentially, the same person as the original article.  That’s an argument that would not have found traction, say, in a run-of-the-mill genre actioner like The Sixth Day (2000). 

But the same clone gambit takes away the magnificence and impact of Jack’s self-sacrifice to provide -- in another instance of summer blockbuster-style thinking -- an unreservedly happy ending.  This is the Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) ending all over again. 

Sad that Data died in a blaze of glory to save the Enterprise one last time?  Well, we’ve got a ready-made replacement for Data right here -- down to all his memories -- so you don’t have to grapple with any sad feelings while you leave the theater. 

One key aspect of the 1970s sci-fi cinema that Oblivion hopes to emulate is, indeed, downbeat endings.  Beneath the Planet of the Apes wasn’t afraid to kill Taylor (Charlton Heston) or destroy the Earth.  The Omega Man (1971) also ended with a heroic self-sacrifice.  Soylent Green (1973) was even more down-beat in its final, notorious ending. 

Oblivion wants to nod and pay tribute to all these dark gems of these 1970s classics, but it doesn’t earn the same respect because it wants, simultaneously -- and more than anything else -- to relentlessly crowd-please.  The desire for a successful commercial outcome overpowers the desire to make real art, or make a real storytelling statement.

What truly seems missing from the science fiction cinema today is, alas, this idea of transcendence. 


Folks can pick on and dismiss Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) all they want, but that was a film that didn’t end with an act of destruction as the saving grace of mankind, by point of contrast.  The aforementioned The Omega Man, too, concerned the idea of a man transcending his limitations and experience to achieve something truly timeless and noble for the planet…even if he couldn’t live to enjoy the fruits of his act. 

Oblivion is a movie about a guy doing the impossible, making that sacrifice and then, miraculously, still getting the girl of his dreams, a child, and a beautiful house by the lake.

And by the way, there’s a truly great scene at that house by the lake.  Julia tells Jack about the time he told her about their future together.  They would live in that house, fight and quarrel, grow fat and old…and then die together.  The world would eventually forget them, but they would be together for a time, and that would be enough.

After explaining so poignantly and naturally the reality of our human life, it’s a shame that Oblivion must resort to relentless drone battles and a canned happy ending.  It thus bows to the exigencies of movie blockbuster nature, not human nature.  To make a comparison, it’s as if if Romeo and Juliet ended, and then suddenly Romeo and Juliet’s clones fell in love, resumed up the romance, and bought a nice summer house in Verona.

I’ve read many critics championing Oblivion by lauding the fact that it isn’t a sequel, a remake or a reboot.  In my opinion, that’s a pretty low standard for praising a movie, even if it is a great PR tactic.  The fact is, the movie is passable and enjoyable summer entertainment.  But its quality doesn’t go far beyond that threshold.

But if Oblivion isn’t a sequel, remake or reboot, is it actually an original…or a “clone” instead?  

17 comments:

  1. Good review John. Every sci-fi movie you have ever seen before, is done once again in this movie. It got so annoying, that I just began to lose interest with all that I saw and didn't care after awhile.

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    1. Hi Dan,

      I loved how the movie looked. The special effects and designs were impressive. But as I watched, I felt emotionally detached from everything that was happening, and I blame that feeling of detachment (which my wife felt as well...) with problems in the script, an unnecessarily slow-pace, and an enervating lead performance from Cruise.

      It is true that this is no reboot, remake or prequel, but that those aren't real artistic accomplishments in my book.

      Thank you for the comment!

      best,
      John

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  2. Anonymous11:48 AM

    John interesting review of Oblivion. You are correct about the "cloning" of scenes of earlier science-fiction films. The fault always is that the screenplay needed another rewrite. I think you are also right about a better edit of the film will help, but it can not correct a weak part of a script.

    SGB

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    1. Hi SGB:

      I believe a tighter edit: bringing the movie down to 95 minutes -- would render a significant improvement. The movie rehashes its points endlessly, and this rehashing provides time for the audience to get ahead of the storyteller.

      Best,
      John

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  3. Anonymous12:48 PM

    I rarely go to movies but happened to go to the theater this time. All in all it was an entertaining film but nothing really impressive.

    The musical theme played during the "driving through the desert" scene was very 80's and I loved the snare drum sound. This music repeated later in the movie. A bit too retro but still had a "liberated" feel to it.

    The film felt like it included all the imaginable sci-fi clichés. Even if the memory erasing and alien parts are not true, they still are clichés. Probably we only lack time travel by the end of the movie. I would have appreciated more if the movie explored only a few genre themes. A nitpick but one that annoyed me was that when Tet was destroyed, all the drones just miraculously stopped working. Didn't we learn anything from Phantom Menace technology?

    The line "I'm your wife." felt corny. I think everybody got that by then or could understand it a bit later. The falling in love and accepting the truth part happened really quickly after that line.

    The revelation that it was the commander and not Julia who went to Tet with the bomb got me off-guard. The script surprised me although I should have seen this coming. It was nice to feel this way.

    I would call the copies just "copies" rather than "clones" (I don't think the word was used in the film itself). I found no emotional impact about the ending. The film was in a denouement phase, Julia the child were living happily after the sacrifice. It would have been a great ending. But no, the movie pushed a copy and a voice-over explained to us how we should feel. Not working at all. Why should I care about another copy who wasn't the one that I followed throughout the film? They are completely different persons to me and it is anticlimatic if Julia falls for this different man.

    Entertaining but nothing more.

    -T.S.

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    1. T.S.

      I feel very much like you do. The movie isn't terrible, it's just entertaining, and it doesn't transform its elements to make a work of art beyond average. I don't want to bash the movie. It entertains while it lasts, but ultimately isn't particularly memorable or inventive.

      Thank you for your comment!

      best,
      John

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  4. Part I

    Bah! Let my avatar’s expression reflect my feelings over the criticisms posted. Looks like I am once again gonna have to set things straight. *rolls up sleeves*

    While true that many of the story points in Oblivion are not notably original on their own, the manner in which they unfold from the stack I found refreshingly clean and deliberate. Moreover, Joseph Kosinski has better matched the sparsity of his storied setting with the very tonal and rhythmic nature of the story itself. Forget for a moment of the baggage of cribbed genre tropes and just consider how, from one immediate scene to the next, this movie is in constant exploration of environments, both far and intimate, literally and emotionally. Kosinski never loses his firm grip on this aspect; the plot, as formulaic is it may be, never supersedes the experience. He has rendered a completely immersive world of futuristic wonder and it is that world that always comes first visually and atmospherically. This steady sense of discovery of the onscreen here-and-now goes a long way for me.

    The story’s cinematic presentation is so elemental that many of its aforementioned clichés almost become archetypical, not unlike the classic archetypes of a good Western defined by its landscape. It is revisiting some of the classic themes of science fiction by reducing them to their essences: memory, identity, the soul, god metaphors, planetary cataclysm... all made visceral again. I might be more critical of the film if it was simply ripping off one or two others directly and without saying something different or coming to a different conclusion. Instead, it seems to be channeling the past forty-odd years of science fiction cinema as a way to communicate with the widest (savvy) audience by speaking the very language of the genre. Kinda think of it like a mixed tape that you once made for a girlfriend; the individual songs obviously not of your own creation but nonetheless thoughtfully selected from abroad for their lyrics and meaning, or just plain familiarity, then carefully arranged track by track for an altogether holistic, poetic expression that is distinctively yours. The question is whether or not Oblivion finds its own point of view in a similar manner. In my opinion, it most certainly does.

    I’m intrigued by the premise of an alien super-entity machine that masks itself as a governmental agency and controls Earth, in part, with an army of technicians genetically mass produced from a kind of idyllic, Adam-and-Eve construct; a super alien that dominates Man via his own creationist myth. I like how this shapes and isolates our Adam protagonist, even isolating him from his Eve counterpart (later revealed as the false Eve). And I think there was plenty of existential resonance to this main character. It just wasn’t over indulged with monologues. The exploration of Jack Harper lies in the subtext of his physical narrative. The frontier he roams daily is just as much an extension of his own inner psyche; a cave entrance covered in hieroglyphics leads to a library tomb holding literary clues to his own subconscious; a half-buried sports stadium stands as an edifice of his mind—remembering a great game but not remembering his own past.

    This is also why Tom Cruise was vital in the role. Casting a character actor like Sam Rockwell for indie-eccentric "acting" (read: hogging scenes wholesale with quirks and contemporary method antics) would only undermine the imagery-first stature of the film. The scale of Cruise’s screen persona and the universal bandwidth his emotional conveyance blends in far better with the epic world Kosinski has created here. The actor has been in some bad movies but I’ve never seen him phone in a performance. Not once, ever. Here he plays a man whose world is slowly shattering and he plays it openly and convincingly.

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    1. Hi Cannon,

      Always a pleasure to read an intelligent alternative viewpoint on a film.

      I do appreciate the film's visuals. They are dazzling, to be sure. Furthermore, I share your admiration for Kosinski. I was one of the few genre critics, I believe, who gave a positive review to TRON: Legacy. So I don't have it in for the guy.

      We come to a crossroads at this point: Does Oblivion re-purpose its ingredients (which you amusingly and cleverly liken to a mix-tape) in a way that allows the film to transcend them?

      We diverge in our answers to that question.

      I have nothing against Tom Cruise, but he just skims the surface here, in my opinion. He seems to possess no inner life. Rockwell was doing "indie" acting (hogging scenes wholesale with quirks and contemporary method antics) in "Moon?" Wow. I totally didn't see that. I saw a very human character, and one who I could a.) relate to, and b.) see thinking, all the time.

      Cruise doesn't do deep. He's still playing Maverick all these years later. Which is disappointing because I feel that this was not the case in War of the Worlds (2005). I felt he really gave us a flawed character there -- a dumb jock soured by middle age and the fact that he wasn't going to be a sports star, or a movie star, or whatever dream had driven him to become such a shallow bully. The movie was -- as much as anything -- about his growth as a human being and parent, and I felt Cruise was able to nail that.

      I didn't feel it here.

      Next...

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  5. Part II

    Additionally, there is something meta-clever in this casting choice. Cruise’s Jack (Reacher) Harper is like an amalgamation of career highlights: the fighter pilot antics of Top Gun, wire-dangling/motorcycle stunts of Mission: Impossible and surrealist love triangle from Vanilla Sky. Weirdly, he even wears the same Yankees ball cap from War of the Worlds, as if we’re seeing a different end to Ray Ferrier’s story that ultimately succumbed to extra-terrestrial takeover. It’s as if the Tet ship in Oblivion is cloning the very action hero mold of Cruise that audiences have come to know, now dressed uniformly white. Therefore, the pensive nature of Harper plays both ways, equally reflecting an aging movie star who’s perhaps finally grown weary of all the blockbuster heroics. A great moment comes when Cruise scrambles up over a sand dune and meets another Cruise, in a mirrored version of the same movie, and then fights him...self.

    Your assessment that the story wraps up too happily and with a false sense of sacrifice is understandable but also superficial, once you really start to crack down on the ideas that transpire. First of all, that the film strives for many of the loftier themes of 1970s sci-fi shouldn’t necessarily obligate it to end in similar despair. Ideas are what make ideas interesting, not gloom. Second, there is nothing hollow about Jack Harper’s sacrifice aboard the Tet. He was Tech 49. The Jack Harper that appears in the closing scene was Tech 52. On the surface this may seem like nothing more than a glossy cheat to give audiences a movie star resolution, yet beneath lies something equal parts eerily disconcerting and philosophically virtuous. You could even say that it challenges audiences to think twice about the ending, using commercial filmmaking as a sleight of hand. Harper 49 dies, period. He never gets to experience any tranquil family life retreat. His replacement goes further to suggest that no one back on Earth, particularly his wife and daughter, really cares, since they’re practically reimbursed with a carbon twin who’s all too ready to love them back.

    To this extent, Harper 49 is basically proven disposable, even forgettable, forever erased from the grand scheme of things and thus hinting a double interpretation of the film’s very title. And yet this also brings into question a system of values: we are what we remember versus what we actually do. Memories may give us identity but they’re still limited to the abstract. It is action that ultimately defines a man, the choices he makes that morally affects the objective, physical reality around him. It was the choices Harper 49 makes throughout the narrative -- in response to a specific set circumstances which can never be replicated -- that defines him with his own individuality, separate from his countless clones, including Harper 52. So even though Harper 49 ends up losing the hot girl, the scenic real estate and his sweet LP collection, fuck it, he still attains profound individuality by way of great virtue through his actions aboard the Tet, and for his own piece of mind.


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    1. Hi Cannon,

      Part II of your comment is getting to the good stuff, and material that is certainly debatable...and stimulating.

      I like your interpretation of the title because the movie provides no other. That your reading incorporates and internalizes it is, in fact, a testament to your thoughtful and intuitive mind. Well-done.

      However, where you see a meta interpretation of Cruise's presence, and suggest that the movie is offering a kind of layered thematic approach (happy on the outside/introspective on the inside), I just don't see it. Everything else about the film: the repetitive dogfights, the drippy romance, etc. -- suggest a far more conventional approach.

      But I commend you for bringing that idea to the film. I would be willing to grant you this interpretation. It tracks well enough for me.

      My problem is how do we get there?
      How does the library/factory set-piece further these themes?

      Why the double flashback at the Empire State Building when one would clearly suffice?

      Some of the ideas you comment on here would work better and perhaps even emerge fully, I feel, without the crushing narrative and thematic repetition.

      As I write in the review, the trick of making a good film, on a very reductionist level, is to put the good stuff together and omit the bad stuff. The bad stuff in Oblivion -- like the repeated scenes and the endless drone assaults, which tread on cliches --separate the good stuff by a wider margin and allow for audiences to see how dodgy some of the plotting is.

      For instance: Sally the Computer is so smart a machine that she can intuitively sense that Jack represents a danger upon his return to the Tet.

      She is smart enough to scan his bodily readings and sense his heightened blood pressure/adrenaline. She is concerned he is lying.

      Well, why couldn't she scan Morgan Freeman too, and see that he was MALE, not female, and that Jack's proclamation of mission objective (return the female to the Tet for observation) was a ruse.

      Oblivion gives us a computer smart enough to check for blood pressure on one person, but not the gender of the other passenger? Wouldn't that kind of check come first. A good way to test Jack is to scan -- as she scanned him -- the nature of his passenger. And this is clearly not beyond the Tet's capacity since its drones register all the Odyssey ejectees as "human" through the suspended animation canisters.

      Instances like that permeate the film, in my opinion, and the repetition of dogfights and romantic scenes allows more time to ponder them, and grow distanced from the narrative.

      Also -- and I fear we are going to see the same thing in Star Trek: Into Darkness -- movie-makers are today rewarding impatience.

      Back in the eighties, it took a whole sequel, and three years to get Han Solo back from carbonite, or two years to get a revived (but not entirely whole...) Mr. Spock back in action.

      Movies like Nemesis and Oblivion can't STAND the idea that moviegoers might be sad at the end, and yet they want the jeopardy (but not the real cost) of an important character's death. Therefore, we get this notion of a major character dying, only to be provided, ready made, with a replacement.

      I like how you parse the death, and make it sound noble of subversive, but I don't for a minute feel that Oblivion feels this way about its own ending. It is clearly a Hollywood Happy Ending.

      Next...

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  6. Part III

    Special mention should go to the director as a visual storyteller. Kosinski is a true framer. He designs. He storyboards. He is meticulous with graphic compositions. He allows his imagery the space and time to breathe. His action set pieces are less spectacle oriented and more aesthetically oriented. Harper’s bubble-ship pursuits do not assault the senses with blurred, chaotic, hyper-active speed but, rather, stress clear fluid motion through the frame similar to the X-wing dogfights in Star Wars; sharply cut without falling prey to the current trend of cheap flash-editing. Each shot is very specific. The drone attack inside the Scaves stronghold is executed with dynamic camerawork that tracks said orbs on axis, elliptically, through shafts and into different levels. I thought these sequences were exciting but also surprisingly light amidst the 2hr plus running time; I counted only three majors.

    Oblivion isn’t perfect. Though tonally apropos to the vastness of its setting, a number of the film’s dramatic character interactions are nonetheless slightly dulled with a hushed delivery of excessively spaced dialogue. Olga Kurylenko is kinda flat (Andrea Riseborough is the real female standout here), Morgan Freeman’s character drifts precariously close to parody, the resistance freedom fighters are generic and there is at least one clumsily redundant scene of exposition. But these were all minor nitpicks for me. I was spellbound by the film as a whole. I didn’t want to leave its world and I strongly connected with the main hero.

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    1. Cannon,

      I watched a trailer for Star Trek Into Darkness this morning in which Kirk and Spock fly their ship through a narrow trench, and flip the ship on its side to make it fit through a crack, essentially, in the wall. This exact scene is already in Oblivion, and probably a dozen other science fiction movies (was it in Independence Day too?).

      I can't bring myself to champion the camera work there -- as much as I like Kosinski -- as anything too special in this regard, since we have all seen this moment a dozen times (and will soon see it again...).

      When will bad guys learn that they can also turn their ships sideways?

      I do agree with you about Andrea Riseborough. She gives a nuanced, and incredibly affecting performance. I left the film thinking about her, and her character, and how she is doomed to this half-life, over and over again, of loving fully but never being fully loved in return.

      Riseborough's performance is a strength of Oblivion, I agree. I happily grant that point.

      Morgan Freeman, in my opinion, was not used in particularly original or dynamic fashion, in essence doing a cheap-jack Lawrence Fishburne from the Matrix.

      Lo and behold, here comes the trustworthy, preternaturally-calm, sun-glassed, baritone African-American supporting cast member to tell the lily-white hero that reality as he sees it is a lie.

      Freeman's purpose is roughly the same as Morpheus's in the Matrix and this is another "ingredient" crib in my opinion.

      It has been fascinating to read your interpretation of Oblivion, and I feel there are some points here worth exploring on re-watch. I recently re-watched The Thing (2011) on blu-ray, a film you very smartly made a case for a few years back, and felt that your interpretations held.

      So I stand by my points, but I will leave the door open a crack for a second watch of Oblivion on DVD/blu-ray in the months ahead. When I do that re-watch, I'll be looking for the points you describe.

      It's nice to read your work again.

      best,
      John

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  7. Subjectivity is in full swing here. This is another one of those 'agree to disagree' debates. But there are just a few closing points that I wish to address.

    1. While Moon did not warm me over as it seemingly did with everyone else, I wasn’t really speaking negatively about Rockwell (whom I like as an actor) or his performance. I thought him appropriate for that film because it was largely isolated to an enclosed space and therefore more reliant on character/performance driven storytelling. Oblivion is a far grander and more graphically driven story, in the visual design sense. Cruise himself, at least as a screen presence, is, as you described, "Adonis-like". And I consider it more thematically fitting that the Tet would choose him, among NASA’s finest, as one of two human forms to epitomize its 'effective team' unit. In other words, seeing an average Joe like Rockwell walking around a fashionable, ultra-sleek sky-flat opposite a stunningly gorgeous, corporate redhead in heels would just seem, I don’t know, out of sync. I simply didn’t go into this one looking for internalization, but rather a character that appeared tailor made for this particular external world.

    2. Tet-Sally not scanning the cryosleep-capsule was rather convenient (though, Prometheus got away with just as much). I suppose one could reckon that, after deeming Harper a non-threat, she (it) had no reason to further scan the craft or cargo. Now, as to why Sally doesn’t detect Harper’s real motive, I thought that one was fairly apparent: because Harper was, in essence, telling the truth. He knew at the moment that Sally was scanning his body over for every physiological tell-tale, so the vague answer he gave was merely expressing his inner conviction to see the mission through.

    3. I think the narrow trench escape sequence has been the go-to nod for The Empire Strikes Back since forever now; Lucas himself used it again for the prequel pod-race. Kosinski’s love for all things Star Wars was already made clear in Tron: Legacy, so I thought the scene in question in Oblivion was merely par for the course.

    4. Just be grateful I didn’t post my five page thesis explaining how this film acts as a metaphorical, Jungian sequel to Cocktail.

    "The bar is open!"

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    1. Hi Cannon,

      Excellent thoughts, as always.

      The narrow trench escape sequence -- which is what I will call this genre convention from now on -- is now a cliche in science fiction films, and it bums me deeply to see it in both Oblivion and Star Trek: Into Darkness. It's getting really, really lame, at this point...

      Regarding Tet-Sally, I understand that Jack outsmarted her/it by telling the "truth" ("I want my species to survive,"), but the machine, if it was wary -- as clearly it was since it was scanning his blood pressure -- could have found a second, objective source of evidence about his motives: the wrong-sex human being he carries as cargo. My point is simply that though Oblivion has some really great visuals and terrific ideas, some of the execution fails, and a re-edit or rewrite could have solved some of the more egregious problems.

      I definitely must read your five page thesis on Oblivion as a metaphorical, Jungian sequel to Cocktail!

      best,
      John

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  8. SteveW1:35 AM

    So, I agree about Cruise--his patented persona distorts the movie, and I wouldn't be surprised if he also pushed for more "action" in the script. But no one would have funded those visuals on that scale without him.

    Part of what was missing for me was an authentic whiff of craziness that you got in loony sci-fi dystopias like Zardoz, Omega Man, etc. It's all very controlled, smooth, and non-crazy--so that when Cruise's clone shows up by the lake ready to join the family, you don't go, whoa...weird. It's meant to be a real happy ending.

    Then there's a plot point that bugged me: Freeman says that Earth was invaded by thousands of Tom Cruises, wiping out humanity. But those thousands of clones must have been programmed to wipe out humans right? So why is the Cruise clone we see NOT programmed to wipe humans, but rather tricked into believing that he's fighting the aliens? Why the ruse (that is exposed) when they could simply program him to kill humans as they did before? Did I miss something?

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    1. Hi SteveW,

      You bring up another great point about Oblivion's story details not holding together entirely. Cannon and I have discussed why Sally/Tet couldn't just see that Morgan Freeman is male, and therefore not the requested specimen.

      And you bring up, quite ably, the fact that -- at some point unmentioned in the movie -- Tet must have changed the drone programming (from kill human to consider oneself human), and that there is, essentially, no motivating reason for that shift. In other words, Vic and Jack could do their job much better if -- in the spirit of the soldiers that wiped out nine-tenths of the human race -- they kept their original alien programming.

      This is, as you note, a considerable oversight in logistics and plotting.

      I also agree with you that there is none of the craziness here that we tend to associate with the 1970s dystopia genre and movies such as ZPG, Logan's Run, Omega Man, THX-1138 and Zardoz. In some senses, the imaginative nuttiness of some moments in those films (like Carousel in Logan, or the suffocating punishment tents in ZPG) paper over the flaws in plotting and execution. Oblivion, by contrast, feels rather rote, and there isn't much distraction from the idea that we're about to get a big surprise that doesn't turn out to really be a big surprise.

      Great comment!

      best,
      John

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  9. Anonymous8:08 AM

    That was a truly interesting and thought-provoking debate regarding the pros and cons of OBLIVION, many thanks.

    One of the issues that had not been mentioned, IMHO, is the reward one gets when watching the film a second time and from the inevitable different perspective acquired at the end of the the first viewing.

    Some of the criticism thrown at the film may be owed that everything should be evident and self-explaining upon watching the film the very first time but in this day and age of home video and repeated viewings I'd find such criticism rather cynical.

    I'm sharing "Cannon's" interpretation of the film, but can't possibly agree that Olga Kurylenko's performance was "kinda flat". The second viewing clearly reveals Kosinski's tip-to-the-hat to Tarkovsky's SOLARIS, except that it's not Kris Kelvin wondering about the fake incarnation of his former wife, but Julia being awoken by her former husband who hasn't aged a day for 60 years.
    As a consequence her actions are thought-through and cautious and only appear "flat", IMHO.

    Another item is the casting of Tom Cruise as the protagonist. While I wondered how mankind could possibly achieve such a large space station and antigravity technology after an extinction event in the year 2017 (!) it took me some while to realize that appearances were most deceiving.

    I can't help but Tom Cruise, despite his age, still strikes me as a perfect candidate for male roles that require the protagonist to carry a certain naiveté and innocence (i.e. to believe that all that state-of-the-art stuff had been man-made).

    The only major issue I had with the film was how Morgan Freeman's character seemed to seriously expect Jack Harper 49 to help them reactivate the drone to destroy the Tet without providing Jack with all the information he would have needed to even consider to do this voluntarily.
    Of course, it would have given away the twist and therefore was a "necessary evil".

    And while the final confrontation with "Sally" had debatable issues, at least the protagonists in OBLIVION knew it was a one-way-ticket (in contrast to the protagonists in INDEPENDENCE DAY...) and Morgan Freeman played the excitement to come face to face with that murdering bitch so well, that I simply would never have wanted to miss this scene.

    The only thing we didn't get was the inevitable epilogue, when Jack 52 would have been introduced to his daughter: "Am I the ... Yes and No".





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