Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Oblivion (2013) directed by Joseph Kosinski

If only Tom Cruise would stick to being in bad films my life would be a lot easier.  A constant drip drip of stinkers like the atrocious Jack Reacher, or Rock of Ages would be easy to avoid.  But oh no, he's got the arrogance to go and be in good films as well.  The bastard.  There's an absolute embarrassment of riches in Oblivion, the only fly in the ointment being Cruise.  It's a film that succeeds despite Cruise starring in it, rather than because of his presence.

Cruise plays the very Tom Cruise-ily named Jack Harper: last handyman on Earth.  The year is 2077, and the planet lies in ruins in the aftermath of an alien invasion.  We won, but not before the aliens; the 'Scavs' destroyed the moon, causing enormous tectonic upheaval that has destroyed the entirety of civilisation.  To win the war, mankind used nukes, which has rendered the planet not just smashed up, but highly radioactive.  Earth being pretty comprehensively trashed, humanity decided fixing it wasn't worth the effort.  So the human race is in the final stages of relocating to the Saturnian moon of Titan, and is collecting as much water as possible from the Earth to power their fusion engines.  Only a vast orbiting space space station 'The Tet' remains, keeping an eye on Jack and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough).  Together they function as a two-man team, Victoria providing mission control as Jack repairs the robotic drones that guard the water collectors from the vicious remnant Scavs.

Tom Cruise as Jack Harper
There's not much in Oblivion that you won't have seen before; it's a patchwork blanket constructed of plot, designs and themes nicked from all over science fiction.  Encoded into its DNA are random bits of Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, Moon, Gattaca, Sunshine and Wall-E, among many others.  They even plunder the world of video-games, taking inspiration from (or to be a bit more uncharitable, ripping off) bits of the Gears of War and large chunks of the Mass Effect series.

But this isn't necessarily a criticism; Oblivion successfully synthesises all of its influences into something worthwhile, and the end product has a consistent, austere stylishness.  Kosinski's previous film, Tron: Legacy, was a complete disaster plotwise, but boy oh boy it looked and sounded absolutely amazing.  Oblivion achieves the same level of sheer beauty, although with a plot that's a damn sight better constructed.  This is a fully realised world; with the drones and Harper's equipment look like the end product of Apple moving away from consumer electronics and towards arms manufacture.  Our heroes flat suspended high in the clouds is a masterpiece of conceptual design, everything simultaneously functional and pleasingly minimalist.

Andrea Riseborough as Victoria
The production design is some of the most impressive I've seen in a very long time, and it's showcased beautifully by cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who worked with Kosinski on Tron and with Ang Lee as Director of Photography on Life of Pi.  Nearly every five or ten minutes you get an artfully composed panorama that'll take your breath away.  Early on there is a stunning night sequence where Tom and Victoria swim in a pool suspended miles above the ground.  It's absolutely stunning, like a painting come to life.  I saw this film on a pretty big screen in the Greenwich Odeon, but I wish I'd seen it on IMAX.

The sound is similarly impressive.  After the impressive coup of getting Daft Punk to score Tron, Kosinski heads back to the well of French electronica, securing M83's services.  The score is pretty similar to Daft Punk's work on Tron, but then, that was amazing - and it the same style works beautifully here.  The soaring synths anchor the film deeply within the history of science fiction films, creating a mood that's at once futuristic and slightly retro.  As soon as I left the cinema I fired up Spotify and downloaded the score.  I absolutely adore films that hire big names in electronic music to score their films; it always seems to work out fantastically.  There's the aforementioned Daft Punk and M83, but The Chemical Brothers' score for Hanna was sheer dynamite, and Underworld and Mogwai's collaborations with Danny Boyle have always been fruitful. Also worthy of mention are the sound effects, particularly the electronic boom of the drones, which manages to be both slightly cute and threatening at the same time - but every sound in the film, from the mechanical hums of the dragonfly-copter to the clicking of the aliens' garbled language is superlative stuff.

The plot also impresses, though to be honest at times it's skating on some pretty thin ice as far as plausibility goes.  The film throws up enough intrigue, with satisfying revelations and reveals from start to finish.  But it's the kind of film where on the way home you start to think about it, murmuring "Hang on.. that doesn't make sense".  Then, later, lying in bed, you sit up with a start and shout "That's a load of bollocks!".   But at least the first time you watch it it all just about hangs together, though I reckon repeated viewings will expose further flaws.

But, as I said at the start of the article, Oblivion is a good film in spite of Tom Cruise being in it.  The script is ever-so-slightly clunky at times, especially in the big emotional beats, and Cruise's natural smirkiness accentuates these flaws.  It's also pretty obvious that there are scenes designed purely to stroke his considerable ego.  Fortunately, Kosinski tries to get these out of the way early on, but you shudder through an atrocious scene where he mimes a Superbowl touchdown, or when he puts on a NY baseball cap and decides to shoot some hoops and make friends with a fish.  They seem weirdly manipulated, moments calculated to make Cruise seem "like a regular guy".  Perhaps the most out of place is a scene where he pulls a space-age motorbike out of nowhere, straps on some goggles and drives around a bit.  It's got no plot relevance whatsoever, and his future motorbike accomplishes nothing that his far more sensible helicopter thingy doesn't do far better.  The only sensible conclusion is that Tom Cruise wanted to ride a motorbike around a bit, and nobody had the guts to tell him 'no'.

Olga Kurylenko as Julia
It's a pity, because Cruise aside the rest of the cast is pretty good.  Morgan Freeman plays the same character he always does, but at least he looks pretty cool doing it.  Olga Kurylenko is also decent enough, although suffers from having to play sincere and emotional opposite Cruise.  It's Andrea Riseborough that stood out for me; obsessive, conflicted and torn up inside, outstandingly beautiful yet somehow as artificial as the technology around her.  I've seen her in a few things lately on stage and screen, but here she shines.

As far as science fiction blockbusters go, Oblivion is a cut above most.  It's got a compelling story, it's not afraid to slow down a bit every so often and it looks amazing from start to finish.  Towards the final scenes, even the casting of Cruise didn't rankle me as much as I thought it would, largely due to the film shifting gears and subtly poking fun at him a bit.  Definitely worth a night out - but the bigger the screen and the louder the sound system the better.


Oblivion is on general release from 12 April 2013

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2 Responses to “Oblivion (2013) directed by Joseph Kosinski”

Zimb0 said...
April 21, 2013 at 2:09 AM

I think that personally, the Moon motifs are the strongest influence on this film. So much so, that I guessed the big reveal within the first 20 or so minutes. My question is, having seen all of those movies and played all those games, can you elaborate on how they influenced the film? I'm interested in this take and would hope you would expand.

londoncitynights said...
April 21, 2013 at 11:48 PM

Well, I don't want spoil the plot so I'll be a bit vague with the references. But if anyone's reading this that hasn't seen the film, spoilers below:

Planet of the Apes: The visuals of the ruins of New York poking out of sandy desert and specifically a blink and you'll miss it shot of a destroyed Statue of Liberty
2001: A Space Odyssey: numerous HAL references, and a direct visual reference to the star child in the final scenes.
The Matrix: a group of human rebel survivors living in a wasteland dressed in rags being menaced by flying, killer robots.
Moon: Themes of cloning, personal identity and fear of replacement.
Gattaca: Some design and costuming references, the character of Victoria reminds me of Uma Thurman's Irene.
Sunshine: The cinematography in the final sequences.
Wall-E: A lone caretaker cleaning up a ruined earth.
Gears of War: The ruined library scene feels like a direct reference, as does the behaviour of the Scavs here:
Mass Effect series: general design, specifically Tom Cruise's rifle. The noises of the drones reminded me of the Reaper sounds in Mass Effect, and the final confrontation also reminded me of interacting with Reapers in Mass Effect 2.

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