Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Gates of Oblivion

You know it's still early in 2013 when I'm having a hard time even recommending that you see one of the more action-oriented science fiction stories outside the Summer movie season. After being floored by the big screen visual wonders of director Joseph Kosinski's feature debut Tron: Legacy, getting to see his followup in the form of a post-apocalyptic tale like Oblivion ought to have been a guaranteed treat. After all, this wasn't just a random story, but one Kosinski had been attempting to make for years in homage to sci-fi movies from the seventies (even co-writing the screenplay with The Departed's William Monahan, Toy Story 3's Michael Arndt and Karl Gajdusek). Combining his love of the genre with his innate mastery of all things visual, the oddly-named Oblivion should have been the kind of mysterious, fun thrill ride that forced you to see it on the big screen. So why am I having such a hard time recommending it?

Yankee fandom will never die, it seems.
It's certainly not the concept that falters. Sixty years after aliens known as Scavs destroyed our Moon and most of the planet, the surviving remnants of humanity are now off-world, transported to the orbital space station known as the "Tet" in preparation of being transported to a new colony on Titan. Left on the planet are technician Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his communications officer Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), tasked with maintaining the security drones that protect operations that mine Earth's natural resources for use on our new home. While Victoria can't wait to leave, Jack is the curious type, always searching for new discoveries and dreading the coming time when he will have to leave what he considers his home. But a crashed shuttle pod with a human survivor raises all kinds of questions about their mission, especially when that survivor (Olga Kurylenko) seems to have some mysterious connection to Jack's missing past.

The Scientologists are invading!
The acting and special effects are both as strong as the concept they are wrapped around. Cruise of course no longer needs to stretch his abilities for his movies to be successful (so far), but here he actually displays more than his trademark charm, parsing a bit of genuine emotion for good measure as well. Of course, he's well within his action wheelhouse, and it's difficult to imagine the now-51 year-old slowing down anytime soon, and certainly not if he can keep putting forth good performances like the one he showcases here. His female leads struggle a little, not via lack of talent but more through lack of romantic chemistry with Cruise. Even if you can get past their age differences (both Kurylenko and Riseborough are almost twenty years Cruise's younger), their inability to connect on-screen with their lead actor only hampers their performances and the story. They still put together good efforts, albeit flawed ones. The cast is rounded out by solid and expected showings from Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo and Nikolaj Coster-Waldeau (who is having a very good 2013, himself), populating the mostly-lifeless Earth with enough personality to keep the audience invested.

And wait... it that Zoe Bell?
As for the effects and action, they're everything we've come to expect from Kosinski, whose Tron sequel was visually amazing despite the story's irregularities. Earth is a cratered wasteland, but the director adds depth to the surroundings via famous destroyed landmarks, gorgeous vistas and little slices of natural heaven. Unlike many end-of-the-world movies, he doesn't just coat everything in grey in post-production to add mood. You get the feeling that he's got an emotional attachment to his imagery, and that he really puts his whole heart into what you watching. It's also the biggest and best argument for seeing Oblivion on the big screen, if not necessarily in 3D or IMAX; these exquisite visuals simply may not translate when introduced to your too-small television screen, or underpowered DVD players (sorry, but at this point it's officially past time you upgraded to Blu-ray).

That's a lot of resource-harvesting action.
And you'll need those visuals to get past Oblivion's biggest flaw; the story is just not there. It's not that it's a bad tale, or even all that poorly-told. You'll genuinely be engaged by plot twists, progressive storytelling and a competent if overly-direct vision; Kosinski doesn't quite trust his audience yet, and so he plugs everything important into the center of the shot so that you can by no means miss so obvious or clever a moment. A bit of subtlety couldn't have hurt, but patience is often the game of veteran directors (and even they don't always get it right), and so his youthful inexperience isn't the detraction it perhaps could have been. Instead, Oblivion's biggest issue is that it brings absolutely nothing to the table. It might have started off as homage, but unlike JJ Abrams' Super 8 - which successfully paid respect to early Steven Spielberg without outright copying him - Kosinski cannot help but crib from his superiors, borrowing plot, themes and sequences from classics such as Wall-E, Moon, District 9, the Matrix Trilogy, 2001 and Independence Day, and that's just scraping the surface.

Soooo, you couldn't see this coming?
You won't find a better example of Hollywood hubris than that of a seemingly original tale that brings absolutely nothing new of note to show. How many sequels a year are we getting from the movie industry? How many remakes? At least we know what we're getting into when we buy a ticket to those. Oblivion is gorgeously designed, well-acted, and certainly cannot be called a waste of time should you decide to venture out and see it right now, not even by me. But there's just no REASON for it, sitting through over two hours of material you could cobble together from a home movie collection. It's a fine time suck if you really have nothing better to watch, but with Iron Man 3 just over the horizon and the true pantheon of summer action movies not far behind, soon you'll be able to do much better than this second-rate sci-fi flick, which won't likely be remembered come the year's end.

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