Friday, April 26, 2013

Oblivion: A Spring Sci-Fi Surprise

     At first, Oblivion--the second film directed by Joseph Kosinski after 2010's beautiful but shallow sequel to Tron--seems like it's a paint-by-numbers collage of all the major sci-fi ideas of the past few decades. It's a giant, simmering stew of the major tropes from The Matrix, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dark City, Moon (I could go on and on). But as the film progressed, that feeling of familiarity started to become innocuous. The script's nothing special (to be kind) either--its stuffed full with stereotypes and plot questions that plague the science fiction genre. But that detriment started to not matter as well. It's due to a few reasons: Tom Cruise's solid performance as Jack Harper, which ranks among his best in recent years, M83's driving and thumping score that helps keep every major scene exciting, and Joseph Kosinski's incredible use of realistic CGI and ability to stage action scenes that completely help serve the story instead of being the main draw of the film (ala any Transformers turd).
      The beginning is the weakest part of Oblivion, but luckily the opening voice over doesn't continue into the main meat of the film. The year is 2077. Sixty years ago, the earth was ravaged and the moon destroyed and chaos with a group of beings called "Scavs" (I thought it was "Scabs" until reading about the film after the fact) has left the Earth in an uninhabitable nuclear wasteland. Cruise's Jack Harper is a technician, one of the few humans tasked with working on the barren Earth. The rest of the human population have migrated to giant space station called the "Tet" and are working their way to colonizing Saturn's moon, Titan.
      Harper and his work partner/lover Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) live in a glass station above the clouds, and every morning they check in with Sally (Melissa Leo, speaking in a stereotypical southern delivery), the mission control supervisor on the Tet, and Cruise jets down to Earth's surface, seemingly as routine as clocking in at the mill. He quickly moves around and repairs the drones that monitor the area, circular balls armed with powerful machine guns that shoot any creature that comes close to the "resource extraction machines", these massive triangular buildings that suck up the remainders of Earth's seawater for certain minerals and valuable substances. Back at the sleek, future IKEA-furnished glass tower, Victoria communicates back to the Tet about how well the mission is going.
    When watching the trailer for Oblivion, it seemingly depicts too much of the story, showing Cruise getting captured and tied up in front of a scuzzy Morgan Freeman. But luckily it's a bit misleading: Oblivion holds plenty of surprises, and although none of them are particularly original to the science fiction genre, they still pack an enthralling punch in the film. When taking the engineer job, much of Jack's memory had to be erased, so when certain places or feelings start to become familiar, Harper has some serious deja vu that starts impeding on his ability to perform his job at an "effective" level. I will say that one actor's presence put a smile to my face, just because it's nice for him to gain some notoriety: Game Of Thrones' Jaime Lannister himself (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). But Cruise is a tough actor to judge: he's become such a star, such an entity above himself, that it's amazingly difficult to see him as a character in a specific movie instead of "Tom Cruise", one of the most famous actors of all time. But he performs admirably here. Though his story is familiar, Cruise portrays Harper with enough wonder and excitement to feel for Jack Reac...I mean Harper.
     Two other important things: Oblivion looks and sounds wonderful. Kosinski's Tron: Legacy didn't really hold my attention, but that was due more to a story that I couldn't have cared less about than Kosinski's direction. In fact, it was impressive: his ability to insert visual effects into the story fares much better than many modern directors. It helps having an Oscar-winning cinematographer in Claudio Miranda (whose shots in last year's gorgeous Life of Pi were breathtaking) for this film. Every action scene is clear, concise and completely hold your attention. M83--a musical artist that I've never been too interested in--also provides a pulsing score that takes some of the best aspects of other pivotal composers (much like Oblivion takes from important sci-fi allegories) and mashes them into an ear-titillating sci-fi-actioneer soundtrack.
     Yeah, it's a lot of praise. But let's not get too ahead of ourselves. The detriments of Oblivion do detract from the experience, but not enough to keep you from liking it. The story (and specifically the script)--as stated previously--doesn't contain much in the way or originality or ingenuity. Some of the dialogue is laughable (specifically one situation, where Cruise remembers the last Super Bowl with a fake, cheering crowd) and I could have done without the voice-overs. But the spectacle and excitement of the film is surprising. Earth as a wasteland has been done before, and it will be done more this summer in the not-so-good-looking After Earth (starring Will Smith and his son) and the incredibly-good-looking Elysium (starring Matt Damon). But Oblivion stands tall in its own right, with stellar visuals and plenty of exciting situations that plant you on the edge of your seat.     (B+)

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