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