Saturday, April 20, 2013

Oblivion / *** (PG-13)

Jack: Tom Cruise
Victoria: Andrea Riseborough
Julia: Olga Kurylenko
Beech: Morgan Freeman
Sykes: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
Sally: Melissa Leo

Universal Pictures presents a film by Joseph Kosinski. Written by Kosinski and Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt. Based on the comic book by Kosinski and Arvid Nelson. Running time: 126 min. Rated PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence, brief strong language, and some sensuality/nudity).

I am suspect of reviews of science fiction films that complain of “meandering”, and many of the reviews of the movie “Oblivion” do. Somewhere along the line Hollywood confused the science fiction picture with the action picture, and now most audiences are trained to believe that science fiction is supposed to be filled with action, when it is really supposed to be filled with ideas. “Oblivion” isn’t a cornucopia of ideas, but it does take its time to allow the audience to think about what is happening and why.

Perhaps that is what has fueled most of the mediocre reviews about the movie. Its plot is not really complicated, although it is presented in a way that makes it appear to believe it has a big secret to reveal. Because the screenplay co-written by its director and the man who wrote the comic book source material, Joseph Kosinski, takes its time to contemplate the characters and their situation, it ends up broadcasting its secrets before they are revealed. While this is not excellent screenwriting, it’s still a well-made movie, exciting and thought provoking.

The year is 2077. We meet Jack and Victoria. They man one of the last human outposts left on Earth. 60 years prior the planet was invaded by a technological alien race, known as Scavs. There was a great war that eventually led to the use of nuclear weapons which ravaged the surface of the planet. “We won the war, but lost the planet,” says Jack. It seems to me that by losing the Earth, we did lose the war; but we’ll let him have his comforts.

The remaining humans are in the process of moving to the satellite planet Titan, located in the rings of Saturn. Most of the preparation takes place on the great space station known as the Tet. Great machines suck the last of Earth’s water resources from its surface to power the mission to Titan. The machines are under constant threat of attack by the few remaining Scavs on the planet. Drones protect the machines. Jack and Victoria are the mechanics that keep the drones running.

Jack is not so sure he wants to leave Earth, however. He’s haunted by dreams of meeting a woman at the Empire State Building, which is strange since New York City was long gone before he was even born. He finds books and knickknacks on his ground missions that seem to hold a significance to him that he can’t put a finger on. Even the Scavs seem to have some reserve around him that contradicts what he knows about them. Then a satellite crashes to Earth. It contains the woman he sees in his dreams.

Obviously, I cannot tell more of the plot without revealing secrets; however, most audience members won’t have too much trouble staying slightly ahead of the script in terms of surprises. There was one surprise late in the movie that I didn’t see coming. It doesn’t really change much in terms of the twists I did see coming, but it was interesting.

The effectiveness of the plot isn’t really what makes this movie work, though. Kosinski’s production design is the best tool he wields.  Kosinski’s first feature was the design heavy “Tron: Legacy”, and he brings his experience from that film into this one to give us an Earth with shattered monuments we recognize, but a desolation that turns it into an alien land. The outpost where Jack and Victoria reside is an object of beauty. I couldn’t help wondering if the Tet sent a pool man down every week to keep it looking so fish bowl perfect.

I would’ve liked further exploration, visually and practically, of just how the alien presence in the film functioned and reasoned, but the nature of the story doesn’t really allow for it. What the movie is really about are the illusions we cling to because of what we are told. Humans have a fighting spirit that is often countered by our ability to adapt and accept. Without some intervention by others, Jack’s illusion would just continue and he’d never be the wiser, but there is that righteousness in us that would rather have the truth than the illusion.

“Oblivion” doesn’t spend too much energy driving its ideas home. It’s much more of a visceral and visual experience, like Kosinski’s substance light “Tron” sequel. Its ideas are there, however, and it doesn’t depend on its action the way so many science fictions do these days. The movie looks spectacular and provides an entertaining adventure that could’ve come from one of those old sci-fi fan mags, like “Astonishing Tales”. It won’t go down as a science fiction classic, but it will please those looking for a break from the “Transformers” brand of sci-fi.

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