Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Movie Review: Oblivion

Directed by:  Joseph Kosinski.
Written by: Joseph Kosinski and Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt based on the comic book by Kosinski and Arvid Nelson.
Starring: Tom Cruise (Jack), Morgan Freeman (Beech), Olga Kurylenko (Julia), Andrea Riseborough (Victoria), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Sykes), Melissa Leo (Sally), Zoe Bell (Kara).

I quite enjoyed Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion for the first two-thirds or even three quarters of its running time. This is a visually stunning sci-fi film more concerned with characters and ideas than action sequences – although it has a few great ones in it. No, the ideas are not particularly original – borrowing for films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix and Moon among many others, but at the same time I prefer a movie like this to something that uses a sci-fi concept just as an excuse to have a lot of things blow up. And it must be said that this is Tom Cruise’s best performance in years – and he’s more than ably supported by Olga Kurylenko and especially Andrea Riseborough. But the conclusion of Oblivion isn’t nearly as satisfying as the setup. It’s true that in movies like this, the answer to the question is rarely as satisfying as the questions themselves – and most audience members will probably be able to guess the “twist” from fairly early on in the movie (I did, and spent the rest of the movie hoping I’d be wrong).

The film takes place on Earth in the distant future. Aliens known as “Scavengers” attacked the earth, and in order to survive, humans had to use nuclear weapons – winning the war, but all but destroying the planet. On earth now are a few surviving “Scavs” – and two people with a base perched high above the ground. This is Jack (Cruise) and Victoria (Riseborough), whose job is basically drone repair. The rest of humanity has taken up residence on the largest moon of Saturn, and there is a giant space station known as the Tet floating above earth that gives them their orders. There are giant machines harvesting the earth’s water supply for the rest of humanity – and the Scavs are trying to stop them, which is why humans need military drones to take them out, and why Jack and Victoria need to be there. Victoria runs things from their home base, but Jack goes out daily in his cross between a plane and a helicopter to fix the drones that break down. He cannot travel too far on the ground, because they are surrounded by “radiation areas” that will cook him from the inside out.

A crash landing of a spacecraft changes everything. A Scavenger signal was sent off into space, and the result is a crash landing of a spacecraft that Jack races to investigate. Before he does though, the drones also race there, and kills all but one of the crew. This is Julia (Kurylenko) – who wouldn’t you know it – is the woman Jack has been dreaming about.

Cruise hasn’t been this good in a movie in years. While Victoria blindly accepts everything they are told by the Tet, and is counting down the days until their tour is over (they have just under two weeks to go), Cruise’s Jack is haunted by dreams and memories that he should not have. To protect the mission, both he and Victoria have had their memories wiped before coming to Earth, but Jack still has dreams about a woman he should not know or remember. He doesn’t really want to leave Earth, unlike Victoria, because to him, something makes it feels like home. He even has an idyllic little hideaway next to a stream with books and records from humanity’s past. Cruise is excellent as a man trying to piece everything together in his mind, even though his mind is not all there. The two women in the film are also excellent – Kurylenko as the personification of female perfection, and Riseborough as the cold, analytical woman who may well be haunted by her own memories, but will never admit it to Jack – and wishes she wasn’t. For much of the movie, it’s just these three characters – and the drones – that make up the entire cast.

The film was directed by Joseph Kosinski, who directed Tron Legacy a few years back. What the two films prove is that Kosinski is great at using special effects to maximum impact. The more special effects driven movies I see, the more I realize how utterly uniform they all are – how no matter who the director is, they all look the same. That is not true of Kosinski, who created a distinct world in Tron Legacy – building off a 30 year old movie – and does an even better job in Oblivion. This film has an original, and spectacular, visual look – and it uses special effects in support of its story, rather than in place of it. I’m growing increasingly weary of big, special effects driven movies, but I will look forward to whatever Kosinski does next.

The problem with the movie is the ending, which simply does not work as well as the rest of the movie. If the opening and middle parts of Oblivion were involving, if derivative of other, better movies, than the ending pretty much undoes that goodwill by taking the lazy way out – the path of least resistance if you will. Instead of doing something bold and original, the ending is simply uninspired.

That’s not enough for me to say that Oblivion is a bad movie – it isn’t, and I would suggest you see it on the biggest screen possible to fully soak in the terrific visuals. But it is enough for me to be slightly disappointed in the film. After a promising start, I was hoping for more out of the film.

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