Friday, August 9, 2013

Everybody wants to [destroy] the world, part 1


Seeing Oblivion for the first time is a lot like seeing a great movie for the second time. 

Directed by Joseph Kosinski
Written by Karl Gajdusek, Michael Arndt, and Joseph Kosinski
With Tom Cruise (Jack Harper), Andrea Riseborough (Victoria), Olga Kurylenko (Julia Rusakova), Melissa Leo (Sally), Morgan Freeman (Beech), Nicolaj Coster-Waldau (some useless character who got all of Zoe Bell's lines), Zoe Bell (criminally wasted)

Spoiler alert: severe

Part 1 of 3 in a look back at 2013's films of the cursed Earth; Part 2: After Earth and Part 3: Elysium here and there respectively.

If it weren't based on the true events of Tom Cruise's life, I'd call Oblivion the most derivative good movie I've ever seen.

Almost nothing in Oblivion is not either an homage or lift from another film, and Oblivion reaches deep into the science fiction canon—to the extent I half expected Morgan Freeman, when he does show up, to possess psychic powers and worship the bomb. (Spoiler there!  Except his name's on the poster and his face is on one of the Blu Ray box covers!  That's right, the terrible one.)

So, this is like the most boring movie ever made, right?

But there's also a direct, massive, and really almost actionable theft from a very recent movie.  Just to name it would be to spoil Oblivion completely.

Document produced with redactions.  Relax.  I do this for a living.

That's practically sufficient as a plot synopsis, but as a refresher: the Earth has been lain waste and rendered uninhabitable by an alien invasion; under orders from the orbital Tet station, a small force of technicians oversee the complementary and largely automated processes of killing the remaining aliens with drones and stripping Earth of its remaining resources, principally water, with giant refineries.  When they're done, which will be soon, the Earth will be fully evacuated for Titan.  What could possibly make Earth less inhabitable than Titan is never adequately explained, nor depicted; it is in fact a pretty transparent lie.

Neither is it explained why the "Scavengers" that came to take our energy resources needed to do so when they started out with the wherewithal not only to travel interplanetary distances but to shatter the Goddamned moon.  (Further, the need for H2O on Titan of all places—the moon of Saturn, the gas giant, 99% H2, and itself complemented by oceans of CH4 and NH3 on top of mountains of ice—is explicitly stated to be for hydrogen fusion power.  You can’t blame Oblivion for this mistake, though; as much as this difficult fact necessarily serves as a chilling indictment of our dreadful society, Imperial Earth never was made into a movie.)

But you're missing the fun if you sweat the science, or try to parse out the untruths surrounding the alien presence on Earth in order to deduce their real endgame.

I sweated the science because my idea of fun is warped and horrible: 1.24 X 10^29 J, or one hundred trillion Tellar-Ulam devices, give or take, or about an hour's worth of the sun's total energy output (not terrestrial insolation).  In other words, a kaboom surely sufficient to satisfy any helmeted Martian.

One of the technicians remaining on Earth is Jack Harper.  He lives on top of a mile-high tower with his coordinator, Victoria, "Vica" for short.  Naturally, being the only humans either of them ever sees, and being spectacularly attractive folks to boot, they've developed a romantic relationship, bolstering their working relationship.  However, that relationship is strained of late as Jack views the end of their tour with mixed feelings, reluctant to leave the Earth—his home—and, worse, he dreams of a past he's never known, and a woman he's never met, but will soon.

Oh, and for added nothing-out-of-the-ordinary-here: neither one remembers anything of their lives before five years ago.  This is for security reasons, in case the Scav survivors happen to capture them.

"We get paid when we get to Titan, right?" 
"Yes, Jack."

The fact of the matter is that the Tet is a robotic alien starship, and there are many Jacks and many Vicas, cloned by the Tet because the Tet itself, while smart, lacks a true strong AI and needs their wetware to solve the occasional unexpected problem.  The original Jack and Vica were astronauts sent to investigate the approaching Tet, six decades earlier.  The "Scavs" are really the human survivors of the Tet's attack.  The woman Jack remembers in his dreams is another astronaut, whom his progenitor left in space.  She was the original Jack's wife.  And she's coming home.

Oblivion's plagiaristic streak is not well-camouflaged and, of course, has been covered in scrutinous detail elsewhere.  Just as its post-apocalyptic landscape remains artificially replete with easily recognizable monuments, so does its plot.  I believe one critic, reviewing it upon release in theaters, suggested a game of spot-the-reference.  That would be fun, but it's best to try to save it for your second or third viewing.

This is because Oblivion is nevertheless a terrific film, and none of the mere pleasures of recognition that constitute the sum of its Seltzerbergian Science Fiction Movie parts come close to equaling the joy inherent in Joe Kosinski's fantastic vision.

On Kosinski's commentary track with star Cruise, there is naturally (and I say it without animus) a fair amount of mutual back-patting, but one observation Cruise made came off as sincere in its surprise, when he expressed astonishment that Oblivion is still only Kosinski's second film.  But I'm not astonished: his first film was Tron: Legacy.  Name a number, any number, and Tron: Legacy will still be one of the best films of that many years.

The commentary also reveals that Tom Cruise loves it when random dudes get disintegrated by lasers.  People say he's weird because he's got a weird religion.  But, man, we're all just folks.

Oblivion is a continuation of his work there.  The story elements are a foundation for an audiovisual experience, an artwork to be appreciated for what it looks and sounds like for as much as, or more than, the ideas and themes it conveys.  In this regard, Oblivion is fucking great.  As with Legacy, Kosinski has teamed with a highly complementary musician to provide the score.  In Legacy it was Daft Punk.  Here it's Anthony Gonzalez and M83 (returning from Legacy, traditional film composer Joseph Trapanese is present as well, and his contribution cannot be forgotten).  It's different enough from Legacy's score to fit this rather different film, but both scores were clearly commissioned for a man who gives a damn about what his movies sound like.  Many and more prominent directors should take note.  The only guy that's close to Kosinski when it comes to true wall of sound is Nicolas Winding Refn, but his last movie was Only God Forgives.

The cinematography is, as expected, fantastic, and the production design is profoundly beautiful.  Kosinski shoots straightforwardly—many shots focus on a single, central subject—but never boringly.  Lighting is sublime: the many scenes in Jack and Vica's control tower/love nest were accomplished through the use of rear projection of the exteriors onto big sheets outside the set, rather than greenscreen, manufacturing the illusion of the cast being seen before a real sky through the expedient of shining the light from a real image upon them.  We can imagine this was no small aid to acting as well, and it pays off.  Big-ass apertures were used to capture images under these comparatively dim conditions (which may explain Andrea Riseborough's own enormously dilated pupils).

"It's too dark and I STUBBED MY TOE."

Even CGI is used comparatively sparingly.  These clouds, I learned, are real, one of the many landscapes (skyscapes in this case I suppose) which Kosinski photographed on location in Iceland.

Practical effects were used in other unlikely situations.  The sequence where a drone enters the tower in its deadly glory?  Practical.  Real drone.  (Fully armed and operational?  Kosinski didn't say.  But one scene with a drone's laser scanner apparently involved real lasers.  I thought it was a joke at first, but Kosinski seemed deadly serious.  I quote: "Practical lasers.")  The cockpit of Harper's soaring VTOL bubbleship, a nice piece of design by itself, was real and was really mechanically moved during shooting to mimic somewhat the G-forces of its flight.

And Tom Cruise did a fair number of his own stunts, too, on account of being dumb and too big to not indulge.

Despite being put together out of SF Legos (or Duplos, for all the subtlety involved), and for all its visual grandeur, what Kosinski creates is nonetheless, as he did in Tron: Legacy, a genuinely human film.  Oblivion has the edge on Legacy in one respect, however—for all my grousing, it is science fiction in a true sense, soft perhaps, but distinct from Legacy's wacked-out science fantasy.  And for all its scavenging, Oblivion is a coherent piece of SF that could have been written in 1968.  It asks big questions, and isn't totally pat about the answers.

It's here that comparisons with REDACTED (okay, it's Moon) can be more than specific pleading in a complaint.

Oblivion is the most expensive placement yet in the burgeoning genre of throwback science fiction which Moon pioneered back in 2009.  See also, this year's Europa Report, much, much harder in its SF than this, but looking over its shoulder toward the past very much the same.  You can certainly count 2010's Beyond the Black Rainbow as well, if you like to watch terrible two hour movies crushing the life and interest out of good 65 minute movies.

Oblivion looks every penny its $150 million budget, but can feel at times like the much smaller films of science fiction past—in a very good way.  It's a romance, about a dead man, his live wife, his clone, his other clone, and his clone's girlfriend.

Jack finally finds true love.

It is not perfect.  Two related issues arise from Oblivion's original material, rather than its footnotes.

Take Olga Kurlyenko.  She is not quite wasted. She gets to act in two, perhaps three scenes; four if you count being thrown around a plexiglass ball and looking beaten up acting.  Which, sure—she's on camera, ain't she?

This is a shame, because the last time I saw her, as the decidedly Not-Bond Girl in what might be my favorite Bond film, the devastatingly underappreciated Quantum of Solace, she was a bit of a revelation. She does not have as much to do here. What she does have to do, however—make you believe she's confused but cagey upon being rescued from the wreckage of her returning spaceship and waking sixty years after she fell asleep, and that she can love a clone of Tom Cruise—she does extremely well.

So, like... okay, do the dozens of remaining Jack Harpers each get a turn being her husband, or are they stuck with their Vicas permanently, and being slightly different, do they want to be, or do they clone Julia, or do they intermarry with the surviving human population, or what..?  Oblivion 2 is just gonna be a single-location dramedy where Tom Cruise, Tom Cruise, Tom Cruise, Tom Cruise, Tom Cruise, Andrea Riseborough, Andrea Riseborough, Andrea Riseborough, Andrea Riseborough, and Olga Kurylenko work out the logistics of the weirdest marriage you're ever likely to see unfold on the silver screen.  I dunno about you, but I'm in.

Andrea Riseborough is not wasted in the slightest; I'll hand them that. And, without wishing to be prurient, there is one unbelievably sexy and shockingly beautiful scene with Ms. Riseborough, featuring a distant storm, a glass-bottomed pool, and no swimwear.  There may be an in-universe explanation for those dilated apertures.

Now, totally prurient: not till now did I realize how unfortunate it is that Wild Things was not a sci-fi movie.

The unfortunate thing is that as great as Riseborough is (very), it's as something close to a villain.  It is Victoria that serves as Jack's most immediate foil through the first two acts of the film.  Kosinski is careful never to overtly demonize her—let's be clear, if they weren't clones being used by a horrible robot space god, and instead really were going to Titan by way of the Tet to rejoin the rest of humanity, she'd be objectively 100% in the right about everything—but it is true that every action she takes is a calculated move to silence Jack's questions, and his ego, and to maintain the status quo and to keep him by her side forever.

The implication made by the revelations of the end of the film is that Victoria, like Jack, had an unconscious knowledge of their true selves' relationship—merely that of colleagues—and that this entire farce has been an acting out of her fantasies at his expense.  It's not that this is, in itself, bad—it's executed very well and gives one of the most human and tragic of antagonists likely to be seen onscreen this year—but ultimately Vica's major character trait is weakness, and primary motivation is the affection of a man.  Julia is not so weak, one surmises, but her goal, too, is reconnection with her husband, or at least her husband's clone with some of her husband's memories (close enough, right?).

And the true villain of the movie, "Sally" from "mission control"—in fact just an avatar of the mechanical Tet—is also personified as a woman, and its goal is to ensure the effectiveness of Jack and Vica's team.  When that team ceases to be effective, it's eager to replace Vica with a new female companion more to Jack's liking—Julia—and presumably systemwide, across the dozens if not hundreds of two-human technician teams that maintain the Tet's resource extraction operation.  This detail is why I disagree with the arguments that Oblivion has any sort of sexual politics as opposed to just a bit of thoughtlessness with its women, along with some suggestive, probably accidental imagery: the putative representation of female authority is building its own women to be subservient to a man?  If there is a sex thing here, you've got to grapple with that twisted metaphor of a mother-daughter dynamic—personally I'm pretty sure it doesn't mean anything, but I guess reasonable minds can differ.

So for my part I wouldn't go so far as to accuse Oblivion of being about a sperm destroying a giant space vagina, although, well...


This is not to excuse Oblivion.  The one, not overtly monstrous, female "character" that we can reasonably infer to be independently strong we can do so only because Zoe Bell once rode on top of a fucking car, and can probably lift one.  She does not have any lines.

So, you can see that Oblivion does not exactly pass the Bechdel test.

"First Django Unchained and now this.  Fuckin' wasted on these people.  Who the fuck is this guy?  Some TV actor.  I was in Death Proof fer fuckssake.  Look for me in Raze.  I play a female slave forced into gladiatorial combat with other women.  Passes yer fuckin' Bechdel test with flyin' colours, I bet."  I have no idea if Bell actually talks like this, but I do know that she spells "color" incorrectly.

Taken in isolation, perhaps it's not really a big deal—fiction without any weak female characters would be even more stultifying than fiction where too many are—but it is worth dwelling on for a bit.

And Oblivion is worth dwelling on.  It's a cover band, for sure: but it knows all the hits, it plays them beautifully, and the original songs it buries in the set you might not notice, but they're pretty interesting too.

Like Moon, Oblivion wonders what makes us who we are.  Unlike Moon, there is more hopefulness in its question, and a suggestion that, with technology and will, we can be reborn.  In Tom Cruise (or Andrea Riseborough) form.  Which would be nice.

Joe Kosinski is worth spending a few minutes discussing apart from Oblivion, as well.  The comparisons of Oblivion to Moon lead naturally to the comparison of Kosinski to Moon's director, Duncan Jones.  Moon was Jones' first film, and I said to myself at the time that I'd never seen a first film so amazing—everything about Moon surpasses great.  Tron: Legacy did much the same thing, in a wholly different mode.  Both have a clear love of science fiction, and old school SF at that.  Both have now brought sophomore efforts (Source Code for Jones) that were exceedingly good, as well.  Both have done such amazing work already, and still have such amazing potential that I feel has only begun to be tapped.  There is a bright future for movies in general if two men like these are permitted to keep making such awesome and (ironic in the context of this review) original films: Jones giving us cerebral, hard science fiction, Kosinski the soft science fiction and science fantasy spectacle for our occipital lobes.

There's a danger, perhaps slight, but I think real, that this might not be the case.  Jones has had tons of trouble getting his SF noir Mute off the ground, and last I heard was going to be wasting a few years and his considerable talent with a film adaptation of World of Warcraft, the worst thing ever invented by humans.

Kosinski's been luckier, and one surmises more profitable: apparently he's got another Tron film in the works, though I'm unsure about where that universe could possibly be taken after Legacy, and I'll believe it's coming out as soon as 2014 when I see it.  There is also Kosinski's oft-referenced and oft-delayed remake of The Black Hole, and I'll believe that exists when I see it too.  And this is all well and good: I do indeed direly desire The Black Hole and I'm up for TR3N in a heartbeat despite any misgivings.

But I want (and you should want) Kosinski to work his own material as well.  People got excited about the lackluster Pacific Rim on account of its "originality"; it may be an irony that about the only sci-fi classic Oblivion doesn't reference is Frankenstein, but the end result of Kosinski's mad science is still a stunningly original cinematic experience.

So buy, buy, buy Oblivion.  And, sure, buy Moon too.

Score: 8/10


  1. I agree with your assertions and with your perspective. I thought Kosinski's interpretation of Tron: Legacy was inspired, and the soundtrack one of the most impressive I have ever experienced in a cinema house.
    There is an artistic flow, a rythm to his craft that I find compelling. And I also look forward to his future work.
    Look forward to more of your SF cinema blogs. Keep it up!

    1. Thank you!

      Even now, I still don't know what Kosinski's up to exactly, but I'm sure it'll be good. And I think the only soundtrack I've listened to more than Oblivion's is Tron: Legacy's.

      Apolgies for taking a long time to reply to your seriously-appreciated comment (someone actually *reads* these?), I was away for about a week.

      As for sci-fi, I just finished up a too-long review of World War Z, which will probably make anybody who ever liked my reviews hate them all over, even though technically it's a favorable one.