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Josh Reviews Oblivion

May 1st, 2013

Oblivion, the new sci-fi movie from director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) and starring Tom Cruise, comes very close to greatness.  Tantalizingly close.  It’s a shame, then, that the film falls short, that its reach exceeds its grasp.

I don’t want to tell you too much about the plot.  You’re better off going into the movie absolutely cold.  I will tell you that the film is set in the future, after Earth has been devastated by war with an alien race.  Humanity won and the aliens were defeated, but at the cost of the planet being rendered uninhabitable.  Humans have abandoned Earth to settle on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.  Tom Cruise plays Jack Harper, a soldier/repair-man, one of the last humans left on Earth.  His job, along with his partner Vica (Andrea Riseborough), is to tend to the mechanical drones that are extracting the last of the planet’s resources.

Oblivion gets off to a rocky start with an impenetrable, exposition-filled opening monologue by Tom Cruise’s character, Jack.  Mr. Cruise tells us, via voice-over, all sorts of information about the backstory and the story’s history, but two seconds after his monologue was over I had forgotten all of it.  I was paying attention, but so early in the story — not yet knowing anything about the characters or the world they’re living in — it was all just words, meaningless to me without context.  I found it to be a terribly clumsy way to start the film.  That backstory would have been better communicated through the unfolding of the story.  Much of what Mr. Cruise tells us in that opening voice-over is made obvious by the next 30-45 minutes of the film, in which the film shows us the world and situation of Jack and Vica, without needing to explain everything.  And the film actually includes a much more sensible moment for all of that exposition about a third of the way in, when Jack (Cruise) discovers another human, Julia (Quantum of Solace’s Olga Kurylenko).  We get a scene of exposition, set at the dinner table, in which Jack explains things to Julia (and the audience), basically repeating everything he said in the opening!  So why have that opening monologue at all?

The film would have been far stronger had that opening monologue been removed, and the audience just dropped into the story.  Because, after that dreadful opening, the next 45-minutes or so of the film are absolutely fabulous.  We follow Jack Harper through what turns out to be an eventful day, learning about him, his routine, the perils that he faces, and his relationship with his partner Vica.  Without any exposition, just through the visuals and the action, we discover the world in which the film is set.  It’s beautiful and thrilling and I was totally taken in by the film in that early-going.

This opening 45 minutes is absolutely gorgeous, a visual feast.  While the narrative of Tron: Legacy was a soggy mess (click here for my review of the film), there’s no question that the film was visually stunning.  Oblivion is even more impressive, visually.  I was captivated by the look of the film — this futuristic world is remarkable well-designed and well-realized.  There’s a sleek, white, ipod-look to this future world, one that is intriguingly contradictory to the idea of a destroyed, desolate Earth.  But it works — that seeming contradiction gives the film a visual energy, a sense of mystery and weirdness, that really drew me in.

I absolutely adored the design of the small ship that Jack uses to traverse the landscape.  It’s sort of the bat-pod (from The Dark Knight) crossed with an ipod crossed with a small space-ship, and it’s awesome.  I also fell very quickly in love with the look of the drones that Jack is responsible for maintaining — and most especially with their distinct sound-design.  The sound of the drones is remarkable, very memorable and very viscerally dangerous.  The first time we see one of the drones in action, we know immediately that these machines are not to be messed with.  I was reminded of the look and feel of the menacing ED-209 machines from Robocop.

As I wrote above, the design of Oblivion was impressive, as was the execution.  Wikipedia lists the film’s budget as $120 million, and it looks like a film that cost twice that.  Pretty much every single scene in the film is a visual effects shot of some sort.  I have no idea how the look and scale of the film was accomplished.  I don’t know how much of what I saw on screen was created practically, through sets and props, and how much was created via CGI.  But however it was accomplished, I found the film to be extraordinarily convincing, visually.  I believed in the reality of the film.  The world felt real.

Unfortunately, once the actual story of the film kicks in with the discovery of Julia, I thought the film started to stumble.  It’s not terrible, not at all.  It’s just that many of the plot-turns and character arcs felt very familiar to me, as if the film was an assemblage of stories and ideas from other, more original sci-fi films (Blade Runner, Moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and more).  And the plot hinges on a coincidence so extraordinary, so mind-bogglingly unlikely, that it really hurt the over-all effectiveness of the film for me.  (For those of you who have seen the film or who don’t fear spoilers, I will discuss this in more detail at the bottom.)  There was also some of the same awkwardness-of-exposition at the end of the film as there was at the beginning.  Once we learn the truth about Julia, I immediately had a lot of questions.  As the film raced towards its conclusion, it seemed that the film would not address those questions, which left me feeling increasingly unsatisfied.  Then, right at the very end, we get a flashback in which the film DOES address and answer many of those questions.  But why was that flashback held for the very end?  I think that flashback would have been much stronger had it come far earlier in the story.  I would have preferred to have had those answers, and to have had a fuller understanding of the film’s back-story, before heading into the climax.  Then I wouldn’t have been mentally grousing, all through the film’s second half, about all the things that didn’t make sense to me or that I didn’t think the film was going to address.

There aren’t many actors in the film, but the small ensemble is strong.  I thought Mr. Cruise and Ms. Riseborough were terrific together.  I loved the weird dynamic between the two, and I loved the questions posed by those early scenes in which we see the two of them interact with one another.  I have often written that Mr. Cruise is a better actor than he needs to be with his movie-star good-looks, and he works hard to sell the emotional reality of the film.  Morgan Freeman pops up in the film’s second half, playing a typically noble Morgan Freeman-type character.  He’s great, as always, though not exactly surprising.  I was pleasantly surprised to see Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (he plays Jaime the King-Slayer on Game of Thrones) — he was fun and effective in his small role.

I really enjoyed Oblivion.  It was particularly fun to see on a really big screen, on which the film’s magnificent visual effects could play to powerful effect.  I just wish the story was a little stronger, a little more original, with a few fewer holes in the narrative.  This could have been a really great film.  As it is, it’s just a good one.

OK, that’s the end of my review, but if you don’t fear SPOILERS you can hang around for my discussion of what I felt was the key weakness of the film.

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It’s one thing to reveal that Jack (Tom Cruise) isn’t just an ordinary joe, a normal dude working a repair job.  I can buy the idea that, in fact, he was the first to encounter the mysterious Tet and that ALL of the techs working on the planet were actually just clones of Jack.  But what I can’t believe is that the woman whose crashed ship he encounters just happens to be his wife.  Of all the people in the world, it’s his wife??  Who was trapped in cryo-sleep for all those years while the cloned Jacks have been working on the planet??  That is just WAY too big of a coincidence for me.  It doesn’t make any sense.  How would Morgan Freeman and his men have known what happened to Jack’s original wife?  How would they have ever guessed that she had survived, and that she was floating around up in orbit somewhere?  Even if they somehow knew who Jack’s wife was and that she had survived Jack’s ship’s original encounter with the Tet, how would they have possibly known where she was up there in orbit, trapped in cryosleep?  How could they have possibly known the codes to bring her ship crashing to Earth?  How could they have possibly known that Jack would act fast enough to save her from being killed by the drones?

Or did they not know ANY of that?  After all, Morgan Freeman’s plan really had nothing to do with Jack’s wife.  It was about appealing to his humanity, getting him to open his eyes and discover the truth about himself and his situation, and so to become willing to help Morgan Freeman and his men.  Really, Jack finding the crashed ship and witnessing the drone brutally murdering all of the humans would have been enough for Jack to realize that things were not what he thought, right?  This would mean that it really WAS just a coincidence that the ship that Morgan Freeman brought out of orbit contained Jack’s cryo-sleeping wife, which makes the whole thing even MORE unlikely and implausible!!

I think Julia’s being Jack’s wife was totally unnecessary.  She should have just been a woman with no prior connection to Jack, but to whom Jack forms a connection (and she to him) as their adventures unfold.  I think that would have been a much simpler story-development, one that wouldn’t have required me to suspend my disbelief nearly as much.

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