April 24, 2013

Tom Cruise’s Oblivion

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Oblivion is a pretty difficult movie to review without spoiling. It continues the string of recent Hollywood science-fiction productions whose narrative structures resemble an onion. From the start, Oblivion is presented as a mystery. It’s 2077 and Earth is in ruin. Sixty years ago an alien race known only as Scavs destroyed the moon, and the resulting instability sparked apocalyptic natural disasters all over the planet. Humanity, using its nuclear stockpile, won the war, but the ensuing devastation ruined the planet beyond repair. Humanity evacuated in droves and went to the planet Titan, leaving behind only a skeleton crew to extract the seawater necessary to supply humankind’s new home. The movie focuses on two of these crew members. The ever intrepid Tom Cruise plays Jack Harper, a character that he seems to inhabit so comfortably it’s as if the role was written exclusively with Cruise in mind. Along with his communications officer and sometime carnal partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), he performs routine maintenance on the drones that protect the resource extractors of Earth from frequent incursions of remaining Scav resistance. The two live in a luxurious suite suspended on three precarious stilts high in the clouds; they even have a swimming pool. With amenities like these, it makes you wonder why they would leave in the first place.

Of course, that’s kind of the point of the movie — to make the viewer wonder at the unsettling nature of it all. From the beginning there are unsubtly telegraphed visual and narrative cues to suggest to the viewer that the situation is more complicated than it seems. As the movie progresses, more and more layers of the mystery are peeled back in a satisfying fashion. The savvy connoisseur of science fiction might be able to parse the mystery faster than the uninitiated, because many of the tropes employed by Oblivion are common to earlier science fiction classics. Indeed, Oblivion borrows themes and visual direction from such estimable productions as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, The Matrix and Prometheus. Director Joseph Kosinski has even said, in no uncertain terms, that Oblivion was meant as a homage to sci-fi films of the ’70s.

The visual palette is perhaps one of the prettiest, if not the prettiest, visions of post-apocalyptia ever conceived on screen. Viewers are treated to sweeping vistas of Earth (specifically New York City) in grandiose ruination. From his trusty white hovercopter thing, Tom Cruise surveys jagged mountains, crevices, glaciers and deserts, all within a day’s flying distance of what used to be New York City. New York, itself, is also displayed in splendid decay. We see the Empire State Building buried in a mountain of silt, the remains of old football stadiums, a creaking Brooklyn Bridge half sunken in mud and the cave-like remains of what used to be the New York Public Library. The vehicles employed by Jack Harper are gorgeously futuristic, in stark contrast to the dusty remnants of civilization and the drones whose spherical deliverers of laser fire are angry eyes-in-the-sky that seethe with a palpable sense of threat, abetted by the sonorous metallic beeps that they emit. In short, this film is gorgeous.

Visual fidelity, however, doesn’t save this film from losing much of its steam once the big reveals of the plot are encountered. After the secrets of this multi-layered onion are laid bare for all to see, the film descends into predictable medleys of CGI action, with aerial dogfights, gun battles and the lot. The abrupt tonal shift from the hitherto deliberate pacing feels hackneyed, and the film seems to overstay its welcome. But this is really Tom Cruise’s turn to shine, and he displays his action and piloting chops with customary aplomb. Therein lies the problem. It’s always a trade-off when famously typecast actors such as Tom Cruise appear in movies, because their characterization is already established by their body of work. In the case of Oblivion, Cruise delivers a competent, even inspired, performance, but he cannot save the film from descending into another Tom Cruise action flick in its latter half, and this detracts from the deeper themes that the film was trying to explicate. The denouement, and the means by which the conflict is resolved, also strain credulity, and the film ends somewhat clumsily with the use of a deus ex machina (literally) to wrap up the plot.

Ultimately, the film doesn’t quite know how to resolve the grand mystery that it presented in such a satisfying fashion, and out of consideration for its two-hour timeslot, rushes the ending in a way that is anticlimactic, plothole-ridden and almost farcical. And at the end of the movie, the viewer is left with one, unresolvable question: What has the title of the movie got to do with the plot? Maybe I missed something, but there appears to be no rhyme or reason to why the movie is called Oblivion. Not that this cheapens the film, but it does make you wonder.

Oblivion tries to be the next big thought-provoking science fiction epic on the scale of The Matrix or Inception. On account of its lackluster second half and Tom Cruise typecasting, it doesn’t quite get there, but its smart beginning, art direction and ambition make it a somewhat worthwhile watch.

Original Author: Colin Chan