Thursday, April 25, 2013

OBLIVION Is An Imagination-Packed Trip to the Twilight Zone


- I went into Oblivion having read some mixed and negative reviews. After having seen the film, I can say that it's probably not for everyone, but I can also say that I really enjoyed it. In fact, I'd call Oblivion one of the best real sci-fi movies in quite some time. Of course, I came into the film with certain predispositions. For one, I'm a sucker for any and all Twilight Zone-esque "nothing is as it seems" sci-fi. I love stories that play out like puzzles. And I love movies that can throw a unique, high-concept premise at me that actually makes me think. So many of the big sci-fi blockbusters these days give plot the short shrift in favor of big action and cool moments. Oblivion has both, but it's also got some real thought and discussion-provoking concepts at its core. For another thing, I count myself as a big fan of director Joseph Kosinski. Sure, some still claim that his first feature, Tron Legacy, was underwhelming. Maybe, perhaps ... I could see where the movie had some script issues. But visually? Stylistically? To me, Tron was 100% awesomesauce in that regard. Bottom line: I don't get Kosinski's detractors. The guy has a knack for crafting incredible visuals and eye-popping sci-fi worlds.

The less known about the plot specifics of Oblivion going in, the better. The very basic framework is this: Tom Cruise plays Jack, one of the last men on a now-desolate planet earth. Following an alien attack by a mysterious race known as the Scavs, humanity used a last-ditch nuclear countermeasure to destroy their enemies - but doing so left the earth largely irradiated and uninhabitable. The surviving humans have left earth and have migrated to a massive space station called The Tet, with the goal of eventually relocating to Titan, one of the moons of Saturn. To accomplish their goal, the humans have sent an army of drones to earth, to convert the oceans' water into energy and fuel for their journey. At various outpost towers around earth, the last remaining humans on the planet oversee the mission and the drones. In Tower 49, Jack and his partner/lover Victoria take orders via satellite feed from their commander, Sally. They are an efficient team, and they mostly do as they're told without question. But Jack - restless, nostalgic for the planet he's soon to leave behind, and plagued by visions of pre-war times - begins to sense that something is not quite as it seems.

Say what you want about Tom Cruise, but this is the sort of part he was born to play. Cruise is the kind of actor who gives off so much intensity and restless energy that it's not hard to buy him as a guy who can't simply accept his orders and not question the truth behind his assigned tasks. Cruise puts his all into this role, and never seems to be phoning it in for a second. At this point in his career (or at any point, really) Cruise probably couldn't get away with playing an ordinary Joe. But Cruise does pull off the part of the man of destiny - the exceptional Chosen One seemingly guided by fate towards the role of hero. There's almost a film noir-like aspect to the film, and to Jack. A man trapped by circumstances beyond his control, a pawn in larger game. To this end, I found myself fully onboard as we - alongside Jack - begin to question what's really going on.

The rest of the cast is uniformly quite good. I wasn't familiar with Andrea Riseborough before this film, but I thought she was excellent as Victoria. The entire film is colored by a creeping sense of dread, a sense that something is off - that beneath a character like Victoria's facade of preternatural calm, there lay some sort of deep existential torment. Riseborough really conveys that and sells it. She's a by-the-book company woman on one hand, but there is also something about her that's slightly unhinged. And as more is revealed about her, we see why, exactly, that is.

A little more problematic is Olga Kurylenko's character, Julia. Julia's identity is a quasi-mystery for much of the film, but I felt Kurylenko plays things a little too sedately and soberly. Her character's entire world has been turned on its head, but that isn't 100% conveyed in the script or through her performance. I really like Kurylenko overall though - she has an old-school beauty and screen presence that most other actresses of her generation do not. I just think there is something slightly off about Julia as portrayed in the film. Otherwise, Morgan Freeman has a brief but important role in the film, and it's one of those roles that may not have been all that memorable if not played by the titan that is Freeman. We have such a built-in attachment to the actor that the movie can use a lot of shorthand with his character. It might have been interesting to get a little more backstory on his character, but Freeman gets some nice moments nonetheless. I'll also give a special shoutout to Melissa Leo, who plays Jack's commander, Sally, and who only appears via grainy video transmissions. Leo does a bang-up job here - striking the perfect tone of so-friendly-she's-actually-creepy menace.

Now, visually, OBLIVION is pure eye-candy. For one thing, this is an incredibly-realized sci-fi world. You can see the effort that went into designing the movie's buildings, vehicles, drones, and costumes. You see a little of stuff like Star Wars and Mass Effect in the designs, sure. And yes, the overall aesthetic has a lot of homages to 70's and 80's sci-fi in general (a lot of white, a lot of stuff that wouldn't have felt out of place in Tomorrowland at DisneyWorld circa 1987). But I still think that the movie feels unique, and just meticulously thought-out from a design perspective - and how often can one say that about sci-fi these days? But what makes Kosinski stand out for me is not just his world-building, but how he captures these really amazing images from inside those worlds. He doesn't just zoom around, he hovers and idylls and lets you absorb certain scenes in a very old-school fashion. Today, some might call this slow-pacing. But to me, the more measured and methodical pacing is perfect for this sort of movie - in the same way that classics like Blade Runner let you linger in the world and soak in the atmosphere. Kosinski's style also helps emphasize the size and scope of the film - there's a sense of awe and wonder here that you just don't get from the likes of a Michael Bay. With all that said, Oblivion still delivers a couple of fairly breathtaking action scenes, including a rip-roaring aerial chase scene that is a major highlight. In any case, I'm now even more a fan of Kosinski's capabilities, and I'm excited to see what he tackles next.

And by the way, I've got to mention the soundtrack from French techno outfit M.8.3. It's awesome. Moody digital beats and ominous synthetic grooves create perhaps the most memorable sci-fi soundtrack since Daft Punk amped up Kosinski's last film, Tron Legacy, with their future-shock sounds.

Where Oblivion falters just a bit is in the way the story is paced. The movie's major revelations are all back-loaded in its final act. This makes for a pretty riveting final act, but it also means that the middle can get pretty draggy. What's more, because the movie keeps so many of its plot points close to the vest for so long, that means that, in the end, characters like the one played by Freeman feel slightly undercooked. On the flipside, I think in retrospect that a few of the major twists were perhaps telegraphed a little *too* early. For example, very early on in the film, we find out that the memories of Jack and Victoria have been majorly messed with. If we hadn't known that right off the bat, later revelations might have been a bit more shocking.

This is also a movie that people are going to pick apart, plot-wise, until the end of time. I don't think the unanswered questions are that big of a deal though, for the most part. The movie paints in broad strokes, and doesn't get into a lot of uber-specifics. A lot is left to the imagination or individual interpretation, and I'm okay with that. Again, I see it as a bit of a throwback to the days of Blade Runner - where part of the appeal is that we get to fill in many of the blanks as we see fit.

Overall, I felt like the film did a commendable job of keeping up that Twilight Zone-ish "what the hell is going on here?" sort of tension for most of its running time. And I also felt like the final-act payoff was well worth the wait - a thrilling and epic climax that I found to be fairly jaw-dropping. That climax is ever so slightly undermined by a coda that's a little bit "meh" in comparison. But man, the movie's last twenty minutes or so had me on the edge of my seat.

For those who enjoy classic, mind-bending science fiction, Oblivion is a unique and welcome throwback of sorts to 70's and 80's genre films that were as much about igniting your imagination as they were about getting your adrenaline pumping. Oblivion has its share of fun action scenes, but I really admire the way it presented us with this strange, gorgeously-realized future world scenario, and slowly but surely peeled back its layers to get at the terrible truth at its core. I want more movies like this one.

My Grade: B+

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