Oblivion (2013)

*. Voiceover. Exposition. Most filmmakers hate it. But it’s often a necessary evil in an SF movie where some work has to be put into introducing a new world. Often necessary, but not always. They played with using it in Blade Runner, but most people agree it’s better without.
*. Oblivion begins with a long voiceover, courtesy of Jack Harper (Tom Cruise). What a terrible cold open. It put me off the film right away. And the bigger problem with it is that I didn’t see where it was necessary. There doesn’t seem to be much information given us that we require in order to understand what’s going on. And as we later find out, it’s mostly bullshit anyway (as if anyone in the audience actually thought humanity was going to pick up sticks and move to one of Saturn’s moons to live).
*. We don’t need details because details are unimportant. Oblivion is a big-picture picture, an IMAX experience. The basic structure of the story would be easy to follow even with the sound on mute. Dystopic future Earth. Aliens in charge. Heroic human resistance. Blow up the Death Star. We all go home. You don’t need a script. And I certainly don’t think you need a movie that goes on for over two hours.
*. All you really need are a bunch of jaw-dropping effects and breathtaking scenery, which isn’t hard to do if you have enough money. Did you know they shot the scene of Jack on a precipice watering a plant in Iceland, and that the crew had to use helicopters to get themselves and their equipment to the location? Question: Why? I guess money was no object.
*. This also made me wonder how long Iceland has been a go-to location for these barren SF landscapes. It certainly came into its own around this time, providing the backdrop for Prometheus, which came out the year before Oblivion, and a chunk of Interstellar as well (the stuff on the ice planet). But here it doesn’t seem as essential.
*. The physical landscape is only slightly less familiar than the ruins of civilization. Of course Jack and Vika are stationed above the wreckage New York City, which has been mostly buried under dirt (the ice caps have melted, but the Tet is sucking the oceans dry). This means we get to visit all the usual SF tourist destinations. A ruined Yankee Stadium. A ruined New York Public Library. A ruined Empire State Building. A ruined Brooklyn Bridge. We even quickly fly past the torch from a ruined Statue of Liberty. “God damn you! God damn you all to hell!”

*. I don’t find the design elements all that interesting. Jack and Vika live in a boring Modernist palace in the sky. The Tet can let them live in luxury but can’t get them spare parts for the drones? Meanwhile, the Tet and its hydro stations are just floating inverted pyramids. The Bubble Ships are nothing special, and the drones just more bubbles. They also give the chase through the canyon even more of the effect of a giant pinball game. This may have been what they were going for but it doesn’t make it any better.
*. Why is the rebel hideout such a cavernous industrial site? To give the drones lots of open space to fly around in? I mean, the people don’t even have panic holes to escape to.
*. I don’t want to bash Tom Cruise. Who else could have played Jack in this movie? Of course that may be part of the problem with him. This is a Tom Cruise movie perhaps in the way that Mark Kermode found The Mummy to be, fatally, a Tom Cruise movie. The star defines the genre.
*. I do, however, want to quote some critical reactions to his performance, as he tends to bring out the best in critics and some of it may be relevant to another point I was thinking of. So here are a couple of samples with some of my own commentary.
*. David Edelstein: “After all of these years, he [Cruise] still indicates rather than feels, signaling thought by wrinkling his brow and squinting real hard and looking like a caveman encountering fire for the first time. He looks less like mankind’s savior than like a harbinger of devolution — the last stage before we’re back at lungfish.”
*. That’s funny because it’s kind of true. I also thought it struck a chord because of its vision of a world that will be taken over by millions of Tom Cruise clones, which is sort of like how we’re all going to turn into Johnny Depp at the end of Transcendence. The narcissism of celebrity is strong here.

*. Now here’s Wesley Morris: “Cruise is his reliable self. His determination to give us our money’s worth might represent the most intense and intensely ridiculous professional commitment in the history of the movies. It’s hard not to love a man who loves us as much as Cruise does. He just has no chemistry with anyone else.”
*. This is true. That Cruise really cares about these projects, that he believes in them, is clear listening to his DVD commentary with writer-director Joseph Kosinski. What is also true, however, is that he doesn’t play well with others.
*. Of course babes love Tom. Here he has Olga Kurylenko (a model) and Andrea Riseborough (a breathtaking nude silhouette) in conflict over his charms. But you never get the sense that he cares much about them. He’s too busy trying to figure himself out. And this made me consider the matter further. When has Cruise ever had chemistry with one of his female leads? I can’t say I really saw much of a spark with Kelly McGillis in Top Gun. With Rebecca De Mornay in Risky Business? We’re going back a while. And in all these examples it’s always the woman who has to do the most work. He seems weirdly asexual to me. The narcissism of celebrity is strong here as well.
*. The generic vapidity of the script is suggested by the fact that the studio considered using the film’s alternative title, which was Horizons. They went with Oblivion. I don’t see where either title means anything. I guess once your memory has been wiped you enter a kind of oblivion. But even that’s tenuous.

*. As I’ve said, I don’t think you even have to listen to any of the dialogue to understand what’s going on. Nobody says anything important. Nor does the premise make a lick of sense.
*. Example: Why does the Tet need all these human clones anyway? It can’t fix its own drones? It seems like they’re going through an awful lot of work for nothing. And even if they do need Jack, why bother with Vika? Is she just there to keep Jack company? Because otherwise an AI could do her job, better.
*. On the commentary track Kosinski cites the scene where Jack repairs the drone with some bubblegum (really) as demonstrating that the Tet needs the human ability to improvise, since drones can’t fix themselves. This is just too ridiculous for words.
*. Another problem with the script is its dependence on coincidence. How does Beech know that Jack will pick up the exact book he leaves for him? I didn’t even think he had left it for him until they said so on the commentary. I mean, the library is full of books. And how would he know Jack would turn to “Horatius,” and precisely stanza XXVII (of LXX)? And isn’t it lucky that Jack is reminded of the fact that Julia is his wife when they both just happen to be standing on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, where he proposed to her?
*. I guess the use of Macaulay’s poem is fitting. At least more fitting than dragging poor Dylan Thomas into Interstellar. But did we really need Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” to make an appearance? It seems reduced to kitsch here. As a footnote: At the end of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2001 a print of “Christina’s World” is hanging in the cheap hotel room Bowman is removed to after passing through the Star Gate. But it does not appear in Kubrick’s movie. Stanley knew better.
*. I’ve gone on longer about this movie than it deserves. It looks pretty, in a very conventional way. The story, however, flubs every chance at excitement or drama. I would have loved to have seen more of Melissa Leo’s Sally playing with Jack. Even as an avatar she makes a great villain. But canceling her out is Morgan Freeman playing pretty much the same role he always does. Doesn’t knowing he’s in this movie sort of ruin any surprise about what’s really going on?
*. Richard Corliss: “Six minutes or 60 years after seeing the movie, viewers are unlikely to remember it.” My time is up!

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