Oblivion - movie review
Hollywood loves science fiction movies where Things Are Not What They Seem. You might think that’s because a good mystery is a great way to draw viewers in and explore a science fiction world, but no; it’s because Things Are Not What They Seem is the perfect escape clause for when a film goes off the rails. There’s zero chemistry between the leads? The backstory makes no sense if you think about it for even a second? Those sets that were meant to be all chilly and futuristic and creepy are actually stupid and laughable? The whole thing seems to be shamelessly ripping off the classic science fiction films 2001 and La Jetee? It doesn’t matter, because Things Are Not What They Seem. Welcome to Oblivion.
It’s the future, and the world has gone into the toilet. An alien race known as Scavengers (or “scav’s”) turned up one day and blew up the moon, sending earthquakes and tidal waves across the globe. Humanity won the war that followed, but at a high price: the planet is in ruins, everybody still alive has moved to Jupiter’s moon Titan, and huge machines strip-mine what’s left behind to keep the colony there going. Thumbs up to Oblivion for having Jack (Tom Cruise) tell us this in a voice-over while he goes about his daily chores; it might be a massive clunky info-dump, but at least it’s better than the usual opening text spelling everything out.
Jack’s daily chores, by the way, are nothing fancy: he’s the guy who flies around repairing the attack drones that defend the giant machines sucking up the Earth’s oceans, while his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) stays back in their sleek modernist base / house as a link between him and “The Tet” – the giant orbiting space station that runs things on Earth. They’re partners in their personal lives as well – joint showers and everything – but while she’s happy just sticking to the rules Jack isn’t happy in a way he can’t quite explain. Throw in the fact they had their pre-repair job memories wiped for security reasons and you’re probably getting the idea that yes, Things Are Not What They Seem.
There’s a difference between making your future world seem a little off key and making one where you’ve just thrown a bunch of stuff you think is cool at the screen safe in the knowledge that it’s never going to have to make any sense. Would a two-person repair base on a destroyed planet really look like something out of Home Beautiful circa 1966? Would Victoria really get around in stylish dresses when she never leaves the house? What’s the deal with all the gratuitous swimming and showering? It doesn’t matter because THINGS ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM.
(Of course, when the twist is actually revealed it explains none of these things, but that’s the kind of thing you’re not supposed to notice until the trip home.)
With his first film Tron Legacy, Joseph Kosinski established himself as someone who could come up with strikingly beautiful futuristic imagery. Having Daft Punk in charge of the soundtrack didn’t hurt either; here he’s teamed with M83 and while the results aren’t quite as impressive the soundtrack certainly has its moments. That’s the problem with this film: Kosinski can craft striking and memorable moments, but he’s lost when it comes to doing anything with them.
Koninski originally pitched this idea as a graphic novel, and it shows in the way the story seems built up from a handful of striking images – New York buried in mud, The Tet looming in the sky, Jack’s base on a pylon sticking up through the clouds, Victoria’s art-designed work station. When he gets away from these images, the film breaks down: the action sequences are average at best, with none of the fluid movement or staging of Tron: Legacy’s memorable lightcycle battle. The performances might be aspiring to a Kubrick-like restraint, but they feel more like action figures being posed against a variety of increasingly pointless backdrops.
Thanks to the all-purpose excuse that is Things Are Not What They Seem, even usually fatal flaws can almost be excused away here. Clunky dialogue? At least one major actor in this film’s very small cast seemingly having been cast entirely based on looks? Tom Cruise constantly flexing his increasingly implausible muscles? Global devastation that initially seems impressive but quickly turns out to be little more than endless mud flats with the Empire State Building sticking out of them? They all could be excused if the story was any good. It isn’t.
In much the same way as he creates individual images but can’t string them together into interesting sequences, Koninski has a number of decent ideas here that he never quite figures out how to turn into an interesting story. Major elements are revealed seemingly at random, shock twists are delayed so long they become obvious well before Jack figures them out, others are just dropped in with little warning and the ending is interrupted by an extended flashback designed to answer a question that was already answered twenty minutes earlier. Many of the twists make no sense, even once The Truth Has Been Revealed; none of them are explored in any real detail.
This isn’t smart enough to justify the boring moments, it isn’t pretty enough to justify the clumsy action, it isn’t surprising enough to justify the bits that don’t make sense and it isn’t funny enough to justify the silliness that lies behind almost every scene. But in between riding a fold-out dirt bike and firing a raygun Tom Cruise does get to wear cool sunglasses; that at least is exactly what it seems.