Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Oblivion Plays Like a Decent Enough Mash-up of Other, Better Sci-Fi Films

There's some pretty remarkable sets in this film.
Note: This review has heavy spoilers.

There are several things I like about Oblivion, the Tom Cruise sci-fi movie from earlier this year that focuses on a pair of humans charged with mop-up duty on Earth in the aftermath of a major alien war. But there’s also a lot of cliché riddled crap and shortcut taking that makes the film play like an inferior mash-up of a dozen better examples from the genre, particularly The Matrix, Wall-E and Moon.

On the plus side, it’s absolutely gorgeous. Writer/director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) has a background in architecture, and he puts it to good use here, crafting sleek visuals and eye popping production designs that do a great job of rooting the film in a specific aesthetic.

It also plays with some interesting ideas related to the nature of identity and how concepts like cloning and memory play into that. Is there something tangible about our unique individuality or are we just a collection of our thoughts and memories? This stuff is nothing new, but the film takes an interesting stance that reminded me of my favorite line from Danny Boyle’s Trance (my review here) – “To be yourself you have to constantly remember yourself.”

I was particularly intrigued by the notion that Cruise’s Tech 49 Jack feels a pull toward his previous life, while Tech 49 Victoria (Andrea Risborough) is totally content to be oblivious. T49 Jack dreams of the real Jack’s experiences with wife Julia (Olga Kurylenko) and says it feels more like memories, but it is implied that T49 Victoria is living out the dream of the original Victoria (who makes eyes at the real Jack during a late-in-the-game flashback).

Oblivion wastes a couple of good actors in nothing parts.
But, despite these elements, there are times when the whole enterprise is just too lazily derivative. While I can live with working with the same central themes and even plot points of countless other science fiction movies – most specifically Moon, which also involved a series of clones who were duped into doing a maintenance job for an off-planet entity – there’s a throw paint at the walls approach to this thing that make it ultimately feel trite and unimaginative.

Take, for instance, the rebel forces led by Morgan Freeman’s Beech. When you’re already evoking The Matrix by including an underground rebel force fighting against an alien enemy that’s basically feeding off our planet, is it really necessary to make the leader look like a Morpheus doppleganger? And if you’re going to go down this road with these rebel forces, couldn’t you do anything to flesh them out if even just a little bit?

As great as he is on Game of Thrones, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is utterly wasted here as Beech's second-in-command. He may have more than three or four lines of dialogue, but it doesn't feel like it. Bob, the bobble head figurine glued to the instrument panel in T49 Jack's bubble ship, seems a more fully rounded character. Freeman doesn't get it much better, but he does get more characterization than Bob, so that's something.

The bonus features show a deleted scene in which Beech tells T49 Jack that the real Jack (who was an astronaut) was his hero as a boy, which made me realize there could’ve been some interesting grace notes about how it psychologically played on the human race to have an American hero become the face of their oppressor for 60 years. But nope; not even that one scene makes it in the film, let alone an expansion of its potential implications.

I’m also at the breaking point when it comes to climaxes like this. Why do so many world bad guys have infrastructures that can be totally wiped out by attacking one central location? As in Independence Day and Stars Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, this movie has the hero destroy something, which then renders all the subordinate drones useless. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb. And this overused trope is made worse by two, hard-to-ignore annoyances – 1) Why do the aliens even let T49 Jack in with the cargo when they know he’s gone kind of rouge, and 2) Why does exploding a little drone demolish a gigantic alien space shape?

Cruise transcends the script, providing a character
worth caring about.
Thankfully, the film has a dynamic lead in Cruise, whose grounded intensity and a committed physicality does a lot to smooth over the rough spots. He overcomes a thin script to give us a character worth caring about through sheer force of presence alone.

Thinking on the film now, my main thoughts drift mostly to Cruise in favor of the actual film. I’m sometimes a little sad about the trajectory Cruise’s career has taken since all that couch jumping crap eight years ago.  Up until that point, he had proven undeniably adept at humanizing pricks. Sure, there was the occasional Ethan Hunt, but more often than not, he was flawed and complicated like Charlie Babbit, Jerry Maguire or Frank Mackey. Cruise was always a pretty boy, but he brought a real edge to his roles, and his willingness to be borderline unlikeable despite being the biggest star on the planet was always the biggest draw for me.

Lately, Cruise has shied away from these types of characters. Outside of the occasional eccentric supporting performance (the great Tropic Thunder, the horrible Rock of Ages), he’s basically opted to play the genial inoffensive hero in a plethora of action movies. In other words he’s become Will Smith, going for safe pop corn flick after safe popcorn flick. It seems an atpyical thing for a movie star of his stature to do as he delves deeper into his 40s and 50s, particularly in today’s movie landscape. Most (George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Hanks) tend to stretch and tackle more interesting fare, but Cruise has instead opted to go all Liam Neeson.

Coming out of the 90s, if you would’ve told me Cruise still wouldn’t have an Oscar by 2014, I’d have been shocked. His star power was too big and the net he cast when working with all-time great directors was too wide to think he wouldn’t have gotten that recognition by now. But, 2014 is upon us and Cruise hasn’t even given a performance worthy of such consideration since Collateral, which was nearly a decade ago. And he’s not likely to do so any time soon given his next five movies are all firmly planted in the popcorn realm.

Cruise always brings his A-game, so it’s hard to fault him for doing something he does well, but it does sometimes feel like this is an adult playing kids games. Still, despite the rant, he’s a definite asset to this film, which, for all its faults, is a pretty solid entertainment. B-