Sunday, April 21, 2013

Movie Review: Oblivion

Directed by Joseph Kosinski. 2013.


There might not be a single original element in Oblivion. Plot elements hail from the illustrious I Am Legend to the lowbrow Independence Day. The gadgetry looks peached from Minority Report and run through the Apple workshop of Jonathan Ive. The cinematography hovers in documentary-style wide shots of the landscapes and landmarks. I hope they cut Hans Zimmer a check for the score. Without a doubt the movie plays like a scifi pastiche, but Oblivion has one ace up its sleeve, and a substantial one at that.

You see, original movies invent the ideas. Lesser movies mimic them until they become staples. Oblivion walks a fine line borrowing the elements but not the tropes, the gestures which go along with them. This liberates the familiar from the confines of the crusty cliche and gives them a new lease on life.

So we get the gadgets, but not the explanatory technobabble. We hear the backstory but not the historical minutiae. There are flashbacks, but the hero doesn't blabber about them incessantly. We get a love story, but not umpteen moments in which we're they're almost separated for good. There is the heroic moment of recognition, but no histrionics as the music flares up and the camera circles. Especially, the joy!, there's no moment after the recognition where the hero decides to explain the situation to someone who, for the convenience of dim filmgoers, doesn't know what's happening. The result is a mix of familiar sci-fi, crisped and served on a thoughtful, if not bulletproof, plot.

After a Pyrrhic war with alien invaders, the human survivors have fled to an orbiting space station, the Tet, where they await transport to their new home, Titan. Tom Cruise is Jack, one of the last Earth-dwelling humans and a technician tasked with protecting the massive machines which extract Earth's remaining resources for the journey. Actually, Jack is a sort of Maytag man for the floating, spherical drones which do most of the protecting, protecting from the scavs, alien survivors intent on throwing off the evacuation. He lives with his partner Victoria in their Jetsons-like apartment in the clouds, from which he daily and dutifully descends to repair the drones. The two are not married per se, but we sense that the closed quarters and length of their assignment have funneled them into the traditional roles, and while it might be a sweet thought that the last people on Earth are a sort of Adam and Eve, it's dark twist that they remain not to people and endure, but take and flee.

At least Victoria, Vix to Jack, wants to flee. Jack is a good deal more sentimental about them and about Earth. While there's intimacy and the frisson of romance between the two, we sense that Jack likes the experience and business of his routine. Victoria wants to go home. Jack is home. He likes Bob the bobble-head on his dashboard. He likes to put on his Yankee cap when he sets off to work. He likes to tell stories about the surface when he touches down. These are all nice subtle touches, nothing beating us over the head. The situation and contrast between Jack and Vix is nicely summed up when Jack gives her a small tin of growing grass, painstakingly grown and a nice nod to man's most traditional and respected role as farmer. Without a word she steps away and drops it off the balcony. It might be contaminated, she notes. Sensing his disappointment, she pacifies him with some poolside nookie.

Vix aside, Jack is most at home on the surface where he has illicitly prepared a Thoreau-esque cottage and furnished it with Earth artifacts. Yet they're not so much for preservation as they are to make him feel at home, for home is not the touch displays and chic of his stratospheric apartment, but the record player, sunglasses, and books of his grassy preserve. Ah, yes, books. A Tale of Two Cities. A biography of Van Gogh. Books are the key to Jack's downfall and redemption.

On his next repair job Jack repels down into the NY Public Library. After a scav ambush, which seemed more intent on capturing than killing him, Jack prepares to ascend to the surface. Grabbing the cable he spots a burning book and then having stomped the flames picks it up. Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome:

Then out spake brave Horatius,
the Captain of the Gate:
"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods."
Jack pockets Horatius for his collection and climbs up. Ultimately the scavs capture Jack and the secret to his dreams and the truth about Earth's fate come into focus. This is handled subtly, if a little too slowly. What's most striking, perhaps, is what's missing. No kitschy aliens. No lengthy speech from the  bad guy had honcho. No action escape. Anyway, we don't need to discuss the revelation here. It's familiar but functional. More importantly, though, it's meaningful, and it's meaningful because it is Jack's character and arc that stitch everything together.

You see Jack's not really so alone on Earth. There are many like him, but he was given the keys to the truth because someone saw in him the spark of his ancestors, and they saw it when he picked up that book. Ultimately, Jack's recognition of his repurposing sets in motion the final confrontation at the Tet which is marred by one misguided line. Here, Jack proudly recites the moral from Horatius to which the computer responds, "I am your God." The situation demands a line fraught with portent and bravado about Jack reclaiming his individuality and history but what we get is, "Fuck you." I thought of the end to Speed where the hero's partner is taunted by the madman played by Dennis Hopper. When the partner offers the same profane reply as Jack, Hopper snaps back with vicious scorn,

In years, we've come from, "I regret but I have one life to give for my country" to "fuck you"? 
The line really hit a sour note, especially coming off of the gravitas and severitas of Macaulay's Horatius. Too, by the end we feel Oblivion's pacing problem. It luxuriates in the leisurely stride of 2001 and Solaris, but lacks the visual energy and mystery to keep you enthralled. A number of its points and gestures could have been made more briskly which would have cut down the time and punched up the impact. Still, Oblivion is a success. Action junkies will be sorely disappointed, but aficionados of slow, thoughtful sci-fi will find a kindred spirit in director Joseph Kosinski who assembles from familiar and occasionally inglorious parts a meaningful story, subtly told, sometimes even beautiful.


  1. Solid review. There's a lot of CGI, there's no denying that. However, the CGI in the movie is really good and I can't diss something about a movie when it adds to making the movie entertaining.

  2. Thanks for reading and your comment! I enjoyed yours as well, and yes I was surprised how immersive the IMAX-CGI-cinematography package was. It didn't hit the plot beats very hard so it never felt like it hit critical mass like a typically plotted movie. Unfortunately the style didn't quite achieve that sought after lyrical, rhapsodic flow either, so the result is somewhat flat for a movie of this length.

    Thanks again for your thoughts!