Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Paradise In Oblivion




If ever there was a movie that defined junky science-fiction escapism, Oblivion fits the description.  The first in a long series of new and upcoming post-apocalyptic, special effects-filled extravaganzas, the new movie starring Tom Cruise asks little of the viewer’s intelligence and values spectacle over compelling characters, but nonetheless delivers exceptional entertainment and action sequences to rival even those of renowned films like Star Wars.  Those who desire a futuristic, thinking man’s tale should look elsewhere for satisfaction, but as far as mindless, end-of-days pictures come, there are few movies that can compete with Oblivion.

Tom Cruise opens the movie by monologuing about a cataclysmic war in 2017 which humanity won, but only at the cost of ravaging Earth with nuclear weapons and losing the planet’s moon to an alien force.  The opening reminded me of movies like The Last Airbender which go out of their way to explain massive, epic-scale wars via dialogue without actually showing the audience anything, but Oblivion starts to gain pace after the first 10 or so minutes.  Tom Cruise plays Jack Harper, one of the last men on earth, whose assignment is to repair lethal combat drones which then defend ocean-sucking “Hydrorigs” from any alien “scavengers”, or scavs, left over from the 60 year old war.  He and his assistant turned romantic partner Victoria inhabit a luxurious tower high above the surface, complete with a radio station and landing pad for the high-tech "Bubble Ship” that Jack pilots to scour the region for broken-down drones.  They maintain daily contact with a strangely ominous supervisor named Sally, who regularly inquires whether they’re still “an effective team”, to which Victoria makes cheerily positive if not wholly honest reassurances.  The self-described mop-up crew is just two weeks from completing their term of service and joining the rest of humanity on a distant moon called Titan when a scavenger beacon sends a pod hurtling into the wasteland outside Jack’s favorite forest retreat.  Investigating the crash site, he discovers that the pod contained several humans in cryosleep, one of whom he manages to rescue from the drones that promptly attack the survivors.  Inexplicably, Jack recognizes the woman from his dreams and she identifies him by name, leading him to ponder exactly why the company he works for wiped his memory and what secrets his past conceals.  The woman, Julia, urges him to recover the ship’s flight recorder, but in the process of doing so the two are captured by scavs, who cast even further uncertainty on the increasingly dubious preconceptions that Jack holds about his world.  It’s here that I must stop to avoid divulging spoilers and ruining the movie for my readers.

Like all science-fiction movies worth their salt, Oblivion has a lot of plot twists, so many in truth that the apparent reality of the film’s universe changes immensely about every 15 minutes.  Unfortunately, most of these twists lack a strong payoff because the viewer is hardly invested in any of the story’s characters, who are wanting in complexity and emotional depth.  Oblivion is like the majority of Michael Crichton thrillers in that it features a gripping, unpredictable narrative but fails to stir up substantial empathy for its protagonists. Character development is rather lacking in this movie, which ultimately undermines its love story and key plots twists.  Other critics have also noted that Oblivion’s story isn’t entirely original and borrows ideas from a multitude of other sci-fi films, but these charges are frankly overblown.  To say that Oblivion stole the “humans vs. robots” theme from The Matrix is to overlook that The Matrix first derived it from older movies like The Terminator and 2001: A Space Odyssey (whose influence here is also discernible).  Accusing one movie of ripping off another merely because it incorporates a common science-fiction subject is a poor assessment of that movie’s individual worth and could by extension target all the movies Oblivion supposedly emulates.  In any case, Oblivion’s writers do a commendable job at prolonging the story’s mystery by feeding the audience new details up until the very end; the movie’s one big flaw is simply a deficiency of pathos.

Although it has a decent story, Oblivion is primarily a visual film and accordingly merits a big-screen viewing.  Much of the movie was filmed in Iceland, so the landscapes are magnificent and beautiful, a far cry from the bleak and desolate wastelands one might expect from a post-apocalypse movie.  Much like director Joseph Kosinski’s last feature, the impressive Tron: Legacy, Oblivion features intriguing art design and dazzling special effects, highlighted by Jack’s distinctive Bubble Ship and the vicious UAVs.  The vehicles in the film are a unique and aesthetic fusion of art styles from Tron and Valve’s Portal series, and many of Oblivion’s effects were captured on camera with full-scale models, lending an authenticity to the flying sequences that many other movies lack.  In particular, the aerial showdown between the Bubble Ship and drones is one of the most exhilarating and well executed scenes of vehicular warfare since the Mos Espa Podrace in The Phantom Menace and final battle in Transformers.  The cinematography is also superb, and the actors play their parts well, however limited their roles may be in complexity.  If the movie’s production has a weak spot, it would be in the rather mundane score and disruptive editing.  A stylish but random aquatic sex scene adds little to the plot, Jack summarizes the scav war by monologue not once but twice in the film, and scenes periodically cut to black, as if for a commercial break, instead of going to completion, but these are just mild complaints in the big picture.

Overall, Oblivion is a good old-fashioned sci-fi adventure about heroism and dying courageously for a cause higher than oneself.  Even though there’s not much political or social commentary to be gleaned from it, aside from a warning against blindly heeding authority and accepting information unquestioningly, two factors which have contributed to ever-expanding control by the U.S. government through the use of drones, Oblivion nevertheless offers high-quality, big-screen entertainment in an admittedly lackluster movie season and acts as a strong introduction to upcoming summer blockbusters.

Grade rating: B+ (where F is Wall-e, C is I Am Legend, and A is The Matrix or Planet of the Apes)



Trailer Reviews -
Pacific Rim – Giant robots fight giant monsters on a giant screen.  GLaDOS will co-star and Hellboy will have a cameo.
The Great Gatsby – This appears to be the byproduct of a rebellious producer, who sought to adapt an old book into an expensive 3D movie without any special effects and to sell it on the promise of 1920s strip joints, and some incredibly deluded superstars, who falsely interpreted USA Today’s public opinion polls and Time’s 100 Most Powerful Celebrities lists as accurate reflections of reality.
Fast and Furious 6 – Indicative of society’s moral decay, the F&F series has been objectifying women and wrecking vehicles for the last decade.  This installment offers more feelie amusement for the country’s proles.
Sandra Bullock cop movie – “From the director of Bridesmaids”, that movie no one liked, comes another comedy which is only funny in that its trailer was screened for the audience of Oblivion.
R.I.P.D. – An aging special agent teaches a young, smartallecky whippersnapper the art of hunting and subduing cheesy-looking alien lifeforms/monsters/ghosts who blend in with the everyday world.  Have we heard this story before?
Man of Steel – Superman looks geared to get the Batman Begins / Thor treatment.  Based on the footage released, it appears Zack Snyder and the Dark Knight writers have unearthed the mortal side of a decidedly immortal figure.
Star Trek: Into Darkness – The Starship Enterprise crew is back to fight a villainous mastermind with an intellect to rival Sherlock Holmes’.  Paramount Pictures has shown us basically the whole movie by now through trailers, but it looks awesome anyway.
Elysium – Barack Kardashian and District 9 had a baby, in which the 1% have trashed Earth and run away to an idyllic ringworld, leaving the 99% in a world wracked by starvation, disease, murderous androids, and overall squalor.  Blockbusters like this are why no one takes multi-millionaire movie stars seriously.
Thor: The Dark World – Of all the movies that didn’t need a sequel, Marvel chose to continue the Thor saga.  The trailer looks impressive, but I don’t know how the studio will maintain Thor’s dramatic, Shakespearean story, even with Loki returning.

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