Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

Alternate Title:  The Wrath of Spock

One sentence synopsis:   Captain Kirk and his crew must save the Federation and Starfleet from a terrible adversary bent on destroying both.

WARNING: The following review contains spoilers. There is literally no way that I can discuss this movie at all without employing them. You have been warned.

Things Havoc liked:  J.J. Abrams' reboot of the original Star Trek back in 2009 was a goddamn revelation to me. Though the movie was hardly perfect (what was Eric Bana thinking?), it was miles beyond the sorts of remakes and reboots (Hulk, Transformers) that I had by then become accustomed to. Much of the reason for that was the casting. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto were James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock in the same sort of way that Robert Downey Jr. was Iron Man, encapsulating everything that made the characters who they were while simultaneously updating them for a new vision on the classic series. The result was one of the finest reboots I've ever seen, a hilarious action romp held back from classic status only by a lackluster villain, something the writers clearly decided they were going to look into this time round (more on him later). For the second installment, Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine reprise their roles with gusto, in both cases (particularly Quinto's) actually surpassing how on-point their performances were for these two iconic characters. Pine's Kirk is slightly more restrained, still cocksure and headstrong but less the brash, arrogant, kid he was when he took command back in the first film. The question of what lessons he has really learned and how suited he is to put them into practice forms a major element of the film's narrative, and are on full display here. Quinto's Spock meanwhile, has seemingly come full circle, mastering his human emotions to the point of being able to suppress them at will, he must now confront a situation wherein less-than-vulcan detachment may well be necessary in order for him to function. Whereas Kirk was my favorite character of the original movie, Spock actually wins my prize this time round, as Quinto embodies the character through a roller-coaster of states and circumstances, owning it to the point where I would gladly have watched a few hours more.

That said, Star Trek is an ensemble piece, and all the pieces must mesh to work. Everyone here remains as awesome as before, from Sulu getting his first taste of command, to Scotty's much-upsized role (still my favorite Simon Pegg performance) to Karl Urban's Bones' sardonic southern wit, to Uhura's moments of linguistic badassery. The standard cast is rounded out by a number of others, returning and new, including the ever-reliable Bruce Greenwood as Admiral Pike, Kirk's commander from the last film, and now a senior admiral at Starfleet whose task it is to beat sense into Kirk by any means necessary after another hijinx-laden stunt. Also playing an Admiral is Peter Weller (whose post-Robocop doctorate in renaissance art and architecture has served me well as a party anecdote over the years). Weller plays Admiral Marcus, a military-minded admiral in the vein of Star Trek VI's Admiral Cartwright, willing to bend the Federation's lofty standards of morality if necessary in order to safeguard it from clear and present dangers. I don't get to see enough of Peter Weller in general, and this movie makes me regret the lack all the more, as he doesn't play the standard thuggish military officer, but rather a man who could credibly come from the Federation, who simply sees it as his duty to protect the good thing that Earth and the rest of the UFP has.

But best of all among the non-returning stars is the ever-British Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays (a subject of much debate prior to the movie's appearance) Khan Noonien Singh, the great enemy of Captain Kirk from the original series and Star Trek II. Cumberbatch here is a presence of terrible dread, nothing like the vaguely-charming self-satisfied techno-barbarian that Ricardo Montalban portrayed so effectively before. In keeping with the new, sleeker vision of Stark Trek that these movies have embodied, this Khan is a cold, violent killer, pitiless and savage, while still retaining the brilliance and calculation of the Augments of old. Yet this Khan has motivations that are quite stark, and his explanations for the actions he takes have more than a ring of truth to them. The best villains are always those who never see themselves as villains, and Khan, for much of the film, rides that difficult line as to what his intentions actually are, and what the reactions of the rest of the cast should be relative to them. Though I've previously only ever seen Cumberbatch play such wonderfully British roles as Sherlock Holmes and MI6 agents (in 2011's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), here he shows no trace of English quaintness, presenting instead a terrible force, of direction unknown, fully capable of utterly destroying anything in his path.

Criticism was leveled at the first JJ Abrams Star Trek movie for its design, its "iPod chic" look and overuse of lens flares. The former there's not much to do about, if you don't like the look of the new Enterprise, then you will continue to not like it here. I do like it however, reflecting as it does a more recognizable future setting for the adventures of the Trek crew. It's not as though the various television Treks didn't change design, after all. As to the lens flare overload, this movie tones that element down considerably, releasing the full palate of visual colors (an opening sequence on a gorgeous planet of red jungle for instance) unfettered by the over-saturation that did, admittedly, mar the first film. Indeed Abrams seems to have replaced his lens flare obsession with a Firefly one, as the movie now makes full use of Firefly's famous effects focusing and spot-zoom shots, the ones that surprisingly few sci fi directors have picked up on since then. While I still did experience some of the "what the hell is going on here" problems I had in the first film (caused primarily by the sheer business of the ship-to-ship shots), everything here is considerably more cleaned up, and several of the sequences (particularly an early one involving the Enterprise under the ocean) are simply breathtaking, easily delivering the sense of awe and wonder that Star Trek is meant to embody.

Things Havoc disliked:  It was, of course, inevitable that a movie like this would be compared with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Arguably the best of the Trek movies (my personal favorite), and of course the only other one to star Khan himself, Star Trek II was always going to be a benchmark that this movie would have to aim for, whether they wanted it to or not. On the one hand, I do have to applaud the filmmakers for actually recognizing this fact in writing the movie, as opposed to pretending that Wrath of Khan never existed. On the other hand, however, it is a dangerous game to try and overtly compare yourself to the best film in a twelve-movie series. And when that comparison fails... oh boy...

I mentioned it before, but I'm serious this time. Spoilers. Those who have not seen the movie should skip ahead to the last paragraph before the final thoughts.

The decision to re-create the famous death sequences from Wrath of Khan was a bad one. Not that it's the actors' fault, for it isn't. Quinto, and particularly Pine do an incredible job in portraying a tremendously emotional moment. Kirk admitting his fear at the moment of death was an inspired idea, and Spock's visible pain as he watches his friend die helplessly beyond his grasp gives excellent context to the scenes to come. Yet in paralleling Wrath of Khan so carefully (especially with the famous line), the movie shattered my immersion in what was supposed to be the climactic scene, pulling me completely out of the film and punting me back into critic mode. And that's where the problems lie. Wrath of Khan was a sweeping epic tale of personal revenge, of hubris and failure, of humanity and friendship in the face of the inevitability of our own deaths. It was a slow, careful move, that resembled Das Boot more than Top Gun, a movie filled with literary and Shakespearean themes, that ultimately came down to a duel of wills between Khan and Kirk. This movie could never have matched the grand drama of Wrath of Khan, not with this runtime and cast and the responsibilities it had to all manner of other issues, and yet rather than standing out and trying to be its own film, it seeks to pretend it is the same as its predecessor.

There's also the question of pacing and foreshadowing. The movie is roughly two hours in length, but carries enough material to support another half hour if not more, and the result of compressing everything into this short of a runtime is that the entire movie feels like it's being played on fast forward. Dialogue is recited with great speed, action scenes are short and to the point, everyone seems to constantly be in a hurry to do six things at once. Granted, I prefer this method to the alternative option of cutting massive segments of the movie, but every blockbuster nowadays clocks in at 2:30 to 3:00. Was there really no way to squeeze another ten to fifteen minutes of runtime out of the producers? As to the foreshadowing, there's a difference between trying to respect the rules of establishment (Chekov's gun, etc...) and telegraphing everything that's going to happen in the movie, and sadly this movie does the latter in its last half hour or so. There was a discrete point about thirty minutes from the end where I knew exactly what was going to happen, in detail and in order, for the next twenty-five minutes, thanks to a series of clunky establishing scenes seeded throughout the movie up until that point. I was right on every single item, which left me sitting in the theater patiently waiting for the movie to catch up with me, not a situation you as a filmmaker ever want to find me in, especially when those twenty-five minutes include both your action crescendo and your tearjerking emotional climax.

Final thoughts:    All things considered though, the question with Star Trek Into Darkness (STID?) was really twofold: Is it a good movie? And is it good Trek? As a trekkie of some standing, I can safely report that the answer to both questions is 'yes'. Both thematically and through the performances of all of the actors involved, Into Darkness is a fine film, albeit not of the caliber that brought us the immortal Wrath of Khan. For all the missteps it makes in pacing, foreshadowing, and scene construction, the movie has the right heart and soul, the proper blend of madcap antics and human (and humanist) themes that make a good Star Trek movie (or hell, a good sci fi movie). Is it as good as the previous film? No. Is it going to convert people thrown off by the design choices (or whatever) of the previous film? Probably not. But is it a movie I enjoyed the hell out of, and would watch again? Hell yes.

A good heart and good performances can't always get you to greatness, but I'll be damned if they can't get me to smile.

Final Score:  7.5/10

Friday, May 17, 2013


Alternate Title:  Elegy for Saint Jack

One sentence synopsis:   Jackie Robinson and Branch Ricky shatter the color barrier in major league baseball.

Things Havoc liked:  Contrary to popular belief, Jackie Robinson was not the first black man to play professional, major league baseball. He was, however, the first one to do it in the modern era, bringing a sixty year period of baseball segregation to an end, and did so at a time wherein the risks of attempting such a thing were very real. By all accounts an unassuming man, Robinson broke the color barrier the only way anyone could, by playing lots of top-quality baseball, and his career remains the only positive accomplishment I am willing to lay at the feet of the Dodgers, then of Brooklyn, now of Los Angeles, who as rivals to my beloved Giants are axiomatically comprised of nothing but scum and dog-molesters, unfit to wear uniforms or swing bats.

Erm... sorry, where were we?

So yes, as a baseball fan of record, (see my Moneyball review for more details), I was interested in seeing 42, and finding out what it offered. As it turns out, what it offered in no small part was a hell of a cast. The main event of course is Robinson himself, played here by unknown (to me at least) Chadwick Boseman, who not only does a fine job but looks a spitting image of Robinson himself. Boseman's performance isn't the greatest in the film, but then his role is to do as Robinson himself did, and not react to things, not even when he desperately wants to. Co-starring (effectively) alongside Boseman is Harrison Ford, playing pioneering Dodgers president Branch Ricky, a man who simply wanted to torpedo the unwritten color barrier of baseball any way he could, and brought Robinson in to do just that. Dearly though I love Ford, I have always had a very hard time seeing anyone but Ford himself in his performances, with the exception of those so iconic that it's impossible to imagine anyone else (Indiana Jones, Han Solo, Jack Ryan). Here, well, he came close at least, employing a jowly growl of a voice as he glowers menacingly at anyone who dares to enter his office, be it his own staff or the commissioner of baseball itself. Yet Ford's is also not the best performance in the film. Most of the other roles go to recognizable character actors, uniformly on top of their game, particularly Law & Order's Christopher Meloni playing the Dodgers' womanizing manager Leo Durocher, a man with no patience for the racial hangups of his players, willing to fire anyone who refuses to play on the field with Robinson. Meanwhile, the games themselves are narrated by Dr. Cox himself, John McGinnley, who plays the legendary Dodgers play-by-play man Red Barber. Meloni's role is relatively small, but he is perfect in every scene, a man who simply cannot be bothered to either be or tolerate racists, as the sum total of his cares in the world are to win baseball games and make money. McGinnley meanwhile tones his usual manic screen presence waaaaaaay down to faithfully replicate Barber's laconic call style, one which defined an entire generation of sports broadcasters. Both of these performances are excellent, and yet neither one of them are the best performances in the movie.

No, the best performance in the film belongs to (of all people) Alan Tudyk, who plays Ben Chapman, manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, and one of the most virulent racists ever to set foot on a baseball diamond (yes, including Ty Cobb). Chapman's hatred for Robinson and everything he represented was legendary, even by the standards. He would stand on the field shrieking vile epithets at every at-bat, and ordered his pitchers to hit Robinson in the head as often as they dared. Tudyk, whom I've only ever seen play comedic or semi-serious roles, here transforms himself into something wholly new. Not only does he play a despicable scumbag with great vigor, but he even manages to capture the self-righteous justifications that allow him to behave in such a way (his reaction to an article condemning his vile racism is to declare "a Jew wrote that.") I've seen Tudyk in a number of roles since Firefly, not always to his credit, but never before have I seen him transform himself into a role this divergent from his traditional body of work.

Things Havoc disliked: There's a fine art to hagiography. You can't expect a movie like this to provide you with the same character experience that you might see in a wholly fictional story. This movie is not here to give us a full accounting of Jackie Robinson's life, it's here to tell us about a pivotal moment in the history of baseball. And that's fine, except that this movie goes completely overboard with the saccharine element.

Look, I'm not objecting to a sentimental film. Pixar's films are sentimental. Spielberg's (better) films are sentimental. There's nothing wrong with a sentimental film, indeed there's often much that's right, as a sentimental film can pierce the cynicism with which we go through our lives and touch us on a human level. Sentiment is one of the ways that film reminds us that it is an art form as well as a commercial enterprise, and thus has value in and of itself. 42 is not sentimental however. 42 is sappy, and sappy films are a completely different beast than sentimental ones. Sappy films include such scenes as when a little black boy prays aloud to God that Jackie Robinson get a hit so as to "show everyone that we can do it too". Sappy films involve sequences where Jackie's teammates walk over to him on the field and thank him for having the courage to "bring out the best in them". Sappy films focus on a home run he hit in the middle of the pennant race as though it was the most important single event in the history of time (did we forget that the world series also exists)?

Yes, I'm sure most of these events actually happened in some form (Pee Wee Reese putting his arm around Robinson during a Cincinnati game has been memorialized in a statue), but I seriously doubt they happened like this, with actors reciting unutterable dialogue while swelling violin music plays in the background and they stare off into the distance as though savoring the moment of history. However good your intentions are for a film, you simply cannot produce scenes wherein people speak in a manner nobody in the history of the world has ever spoken and expect the audience to buy it. No, not even if your subject matter is as "uplifting" (or "correct") as that of Jackie Robinson's career. Very few things are able to drive me out of my immersion in a film faster than hacky dialogue intended to induce diabetic comas, and this movie produces that exact effect more than once.

But as though that weren't enough, there's a specific moment in the film I have to call out. One of the many antagonists that Robinson faces among major leaguers is a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates named Fritz Ostermueller. In the film, Ostermueller is a violent racist who throws at Robinson's head and screams at him to get off the field, as black people (his term is less polite) do not belong in baseball. Nothing special relative to what else Robinson faces, yet unlike the various other racists Robinson encounters, this one is a complete distortion of the truth. The real Ostermueller never accosted Robinson, on or off the field. He was on the record multiple times as having supported the idea of Robinson and other black players joining the Major Leagues, and the infamous HBP (hit by pitch) that the movie claims was a racist assault, was actually an inside pitch that hit Robinson in the wrist, something that happened quite often, as Robinson had a tendency to crowd the plate against left-handed pitchers. It's one thing to get facts wrong in a movie. Every movie does this. But it's quite another to blacken a man's reputation by accusing him of being a vile racist when he was anything but. Ostermueller was no hall of famer, certainly. Few people have ever heard of him outside this movie. But does that make it right to arbitrarily re-assign his memory into that of a race-baiting hatemonger? Were there really not enough genuine villains that Robinson faced to fill two hours of screen time?

Final thoughts:    I wanted to like this film, I did, but I can only take so much in the way of sappy preaching on the saintliness of someone, genuine hero or otherwise, especially since the film seems to think that the heroic patina surrounding Robinson excuses a hatchet job on an undeserving player. 42 is not an unpleasant film nor is it a particularly bad one, but I walked out of it without any particular need to see it again. The sappiness quotient wasn't enough for me to condemn it the way I've condemned other sap-fests (Timothy Green, for instance), but it certainly was enough to let this one pass by. Given that Brian Helgeland, who wrote and directed this film, was previous to this employed on Salt and Ridley Scott's Robin Hood, I feel confident enough in pronouncing this movie to be a third strike.

But don't worry Helgeland. There's always next year.

Final Score:  5/10

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Iron Man 3

Alternate Title:  The Steps Without the Music

One sentence synopsis:   Tony Stark battles the shadowy terrorist mastermind known only as the Mandarin.

Things Havoc liked: Robert Downey Jr. is so good at playing Tony Stark that I'm getting tired of saying so. Never, in the history of characters with origins outside of the movies have I seen a pair as perfectly matched as Downey and Stark, and if there's anything that the up and down (but mostly up) history of the massive Avengers series has taught us, it's that Downey can play Stark in his sleep (and in this film, often does, albeit in reverse). It's possible I will never get tired of this Tony Stark, irreverent, playboyish, monomaniacal, thoughtless, brilliant, committed, delinquent, you all know what he's like. In Iron Man 3, the (oddly) fourth movie in which we get to spend an extended period of time with him, Robert Downey Jr. is no less entertaining to watch than he was in the other three. The film (wisely) leaves Stark out of the Iron Man armor for most of its run time, giving him plenty of time to simply be, act, and even fight as Tony Stark, the billionaire genius, and he manages to sell every single line, be it a throwaway one-liner or a surprisingly candid admission of his own fallibilities. Downey is Tony Stark. Period.

Iron Man has been through some chop insofar as the rest of its casts have gone, but they seem to have settled on a workable set. Gwyneth Paltrow's turn as Pepper Potts remains the only role I have ever been able to stand Gwyneth Paltrow in, and while her character is used here as the usual damsel in distress for a good portion of the runtime, the movie does manage to find ways to do several new things with her. Don Cheadle, reprising the role he took from Terence Howard in Iron Man 2 (a change for the better, then and now), has a surprisingly limited role as Colonel Rhodes/War Machine/SPOILER. His screen-time is limited by the requirements of the plot, but his interactions with Stark have just the right note of almost buddy-cop humor amidst all the chaos, as he brings a professionalism to the business of saving the world that Tony patently lacks.

But two of the bigger surprises to me were actually new characters to the series. One was Ben Kingsley, here playing the Mandarin, leader of the Ten Rings terrorist organization. Kingsley was a surprise, not insofar as he was good (for he always is), but insofar as where they go with the character. For a villain that always rode the line in the comics between racial stereotype and generic "evil league of evil" member, Mandarin here is taken in directions I, for one, absolutely did not expect. The investigation of his backstory and role in the film is, culminates, to me, in the single best sequence of the film, a sequence bereft of special effects or choreography, that simply explores a concept I don't believe we've seen in a comic book movie to date. The other surprise was eleven-year-old Ty Simpkins, who plays Harley, a boy that Stark encounters through a series of events too elaborate to relate here. I know most of you are already rolling your eyes at the very notion of Iron Man with a kid sidekick, but this one actually works through a combination of a very good child actor and excellent writing, some of it sardonic, some of it not, that elevates the scenes with the kid into some of the best in the film.

And yes, the writing, always a high point in Iron Man films, is still excellent, perhaps not quite as crisp as it was in the Avengers, but perfectly workable, with all the self-effacing human touches that the other films relied so heavily upon (the bit involving War Machine's security password was hilarious). The film's writer, Shane Black (of Lethal Weapon and the Long Kiss Goodnight), here sprinkles generous quantities of references, in-jokes, comedic asides, and other such craziness, all of which fit the tone of the perennially irreverent Marvel cinemaverse. Directing (also Black) is unobtrusive, with few obvious 3D-payoff shots (I saw the film in 2D) and effects that never serve to get in the way. Marvel and Disney know that this series is their bread and butter, and there are no corners cut to make the film as professional-grade as possible, and while none of the crew-work shines out as a particularly memorable example of the genre, the film is overall very well made.

Things Havoc disliked: *Sigh*

I wanted to love Iron Man 3, I really did. I'm on record as having loved every single previous run-up-to-the-Avengers film, to say nothing of the Avengers itself. I had misgivings about the third Iron Man, sure. Third-movie-curses are a real thing, guys (Godfather), especially in the Superhero genre (Spiderman, X-men, Superman, the original Batman series), and the materials for this film gave me the uneasy feeling that, for all Disney-Marvel's skill at producing high-quality work, we might be in for a fresh round.

Short answer: Shit...

Long Answer: What the hell happened to the plot of this movie?

So, yes, this is a superhero movie, and thus, I should not be surprised when the plot involves a genetically-modifying super-drug which can literally regenerate lost limbs in seconds and give people not only Wolverine-style healing factor but super-strength and the ability to superheat parts of their body enough to melt steel. We have to come up with credible antagonists for Tony Stark's traveling circus of one-man war-stoppers after all, and this will do in a pinch. But the plot of this movie left me wondering if I'd missed large sections of it. No explanation is ever offered as to why the Mandarin's henchmen, a group of formerly disabled US army veterans, have all joined up with the Mandarin to brutally murder civilians, women, and children, to kill Tony Stark, and to destroy the United States. No explanation is ever offered as to where the Mandarin gets his preposterous level of access, military hardware, and legions of well-placed traitors. I do not object necessarily to the notion that the Mandarin simply has these things, but in a film that tries to talk cogently about such topics as the aftermath of war and the contradictions of the War on Terror (more on this later), you can't just arbitrarily drop all question of motivation.

Part of the issue here is due to Guy Pearce, here playing Aldrich Killian, a well-connected Biotech magnate in the employ of the Mandarin. For one thing, I hate Guy Pearce. With the exception of LA Confidential, Animal Kingdom, and Memento, everything he's been in was either garbage, occasioned him acting like a moron, or both. There's an unwarranted smugness to every character he plays that just grates with me, and while he's a villain here, and grating smugness is not necessarily a bad quality, the fact remains that his character, a major one all things considered, has no motivation whatsoever. Other than literally the pettiest grudge I've ever seen in film, Killian does not have any reason at all (throwaway lines about "controlling the War on Terror" notwithstanding) to do what he does, and while I grant that grudges can be petty in reality, to ground a film like this in such an inconsequential "failing" of Tony Stark's (he literally brushes him off once at a cocktail party) robs the film of one of its strongest assets, the ability to make the central conflict a personal one. Superhero movies live and die on the personal conflict that goes on beneath the costumes and armor, and a villain this arbitrary scuppers everything you could do in that direction.

Not that the movie needs much help in scuppering things. Iron Man 3 hints constantly at interesting and cool ideas: Tony Stark dealing with the aftermath of his traumatic experiences in Avengers. The contradictions and sometimes artificial nature of the War on Terror. The nature of terrorism and of America's role in the world. Yet all the film does is hint at these topics, never pausing on any one of them long enough to actually explore anything. Tony suffers from panic attacks and symptoms of PTSD, something he tries to combat by throwing himself into his work. Yet beyond the simple fact that these things exist, nothing is done with them. We do not see how they inconvenience his life. We do not see how he works to overcome them. We do not see how he ultimately is able to triumph over this problem, as it is simply dropped without comment once the movie has established that it exists at all. The same is done with all of the other potentially interesting ideas that the movie has, as well as large portions of the cast. During the time that Tony pairs up with the aforementioned kid sidekick, the movie seems to be hinting towards one series of things for their relationship, and then rather than developing further or even subverting this expectation, simply drops the matter entirely. In this way, the film, which is very good at generating interest, proves itself even better at defusing it.

Final thoughts:    I don't want to give the wrong impression here. I didn't hate Iron Man 3. I didn't even dislike Iron Man 3. In certain ways, I can even say I liked the film, but given the exalted heights that my expectations had reached thanks to a string of awesome movies capped by a stupendous one, I must admit to a sense of almost crushing disappointment with the product I ultimately received here. It is, by one standard, fair to point out that my expectations were perhaps too high, that nothing could have satisfied me, and that my review is biased. But to take another viewpoint, if my expectations were high, it was because they had been set there. Disney and Marvel created a series of escalating masterpieces, all with the intention of bringing me in to see film after film. They established these expectations for themselves, and cannot now hide behind them when they fall short of the mark.

It is not bias to expect greatness from a series that has been great. And it is not fanboyishness to be disappointed when one does not receive it. Iron Man 3 is a movie worth watching. But it is not the one I wanted to see.

Final Score:  6/10

Thursday, May 2, 2013


Alternate Title:  Hail Xenu

One sentence synopsis:   Tom Cruise must uncover the truth about a terrible war against an alien race that has effectively destroyed Earth.

Things Havoc liked: I like Tom Cruise. I like him because he is good in almost every film he's in, even when the movie itself is nothing to write home about. I also like the sheer pace he manages to maintain in his career. Oblivion is the fourth major film in sixteen months for him, not all of which were masterpieces (MI4), but all of them enlivened by his performance. He's not the best actor in the world but he's a very good actor, and seems especially comfortable in these sorts of everyman/badass roles that he likes so much.

Cruise here plays Jack Reacher Harper, a mechanic assigned to repair automated defense drones following a catastrophic war in which Earth was left all-but uninhabitable. This is hardly the first post-apocalyptic Earth I've seen, but the design aesthetic for this one is better than most, due to a clever decision to depict the aliens as having simply destroyed the moon and then sat back and let the effects of tidal wave and earthquake do the work for them. As a result, rather than the customary shots of smoldering ruins and heaps of dust-covered rubble, this Earth looks like the aftermath of some enormous seismic upheaval. The obligatory ruined landmarks of Earth are not blown apart by lasers, but stand forlorn and abandoned among tidal flats or the worn, eroded, grass-covered remains of blast craters. Canyons are formed from the half-buried, vine-clad ruins of New York City, buried hundreds of feet deep in what looks to be ocean sand. Above all this fly the drones and the house that the drone repairmen inhabit, both looking like something from an Ipad commercial, and above that a tetrahedral space station ("the Tet"), used as a staging point for the evacuation of Earth's population to the Saturnian moon of Titan. The overall effect is a quiet, empty world, not grubby but vast and deserted, different enough from its fellows to distinguish it from the usual Roland Emmerich fare. This design distinction carries through to the soundtrack, an electro-symphonic orchestral score by French electronica band M83, a group I've never heard of before (wikipedia describes them as "shoegazers", whatever the hell that is), but will be following from now on. Their score is haunting and potent, pushing to the fore only in dramatic moments, but always memorable, succeeding where the famous Daft Punk score of the wretched Tron Legacy failed.

The plot is a mess, as all sci-fi plots are, but this one at least holds some water, and some of the more ludicrous notions brought up (Titan? Really?) are actually addressed in-plot. More important are the other actors, including the ever-reliable Morgan Freeman, whose tiny role is nonetheless fun to watch, as he plays the leader of a band of shadowy rebels still hidden on Earth (the previews spoil this much). A larger role goes to Cruise's co-worker Victoria, played by Andrea Riseborough, whose rejection of Cruise's invitations to see the various sights still left on Earth borders on the pathological, yet without ever giving away just what her role is in the devious goings-on within the film. More about the plot I cannot say, sadly, but I will leave you simply with the notion that jaded sci-fi viewer though I am, there were a few twists in this one that even I didn't see coming, a rare occurrence in this day and age and welcomed when it happens.

Things Havoc disliked: I try to turn my brain off for these kinds of movies, but when a film actually makes an effort to address the glaring faults in its own setup, then I usually turn it back on. And this time I wish I hadn't done that.

Yes, there's nitpicks to be had (would destroying the moon really do all that?), but there's always nitpicks. The issue is larger, more important questions, ones the movie draws attention to specifically. For one thing, the aliens in question here (the nature of which I cannot reveal), are apparently powerful enough to physically rip the moon apart, but have to rely on an invasion in order to conquer the planet and secure its natural resources? One defeated by humans with nuclear weapons? Shouldn't the act of destroying the moon have expended more energy than the aliens were liable to acquire domestically? And couldn't firepower of that sort be easily used to simply erase all life on the planet's surface? Questions like this, including some I can't talk about as they deal with plot reveals which would be spoiling, kept popping up as I watched the film, not constantly, but often enough to become annoying.

Equally annoying are certain traits of Julia's (Olga Kurylenko), a mysterious woman Cruise happens upon in a lifepod from an orbital spaceship nobody seems to have previously heard of. Kurylenko, last seen in Quantum of Solace isn't bad in the film, but her character is singularly unhelpful at unraveling what in the name of hell is going on, even when she could be and has no reason not to. Obviously this is done as a means of ratcheting up the mystery quotient, but unnecessary mystery isn't intriguing, it's infuriating. Similarly, the movie makes the mistake (as many movies do) of pretending that the audience has not seen the trailers for the film, thus drawing out certain mysteries whose resolutions are spoiled in the previews as though we were seriously wondering what was about to happen.

Final thoughts:    All that being said though, Oblivion was not what I expected it to be. An April release date for a sci fi extravaganza speaks to very low expectations on the part of the studios, and I read and heard many reviews warning me away from this film prior to seeing it. Yet overall, Oblivion is a reasonably well-done film, interesting when it needs to be, competently executed, shot and scored, and with lead actors that sell the material despite the demonstrable goofiness of several of its premises. Is it destined to be remembered as a shining jewel in the pantheon of science fiction films? No. But it's still a very solid, very creditable movie, whose design and score were enough to make it worth my while to see alone.

If this Doldrums season was worse than usual, and it was, then perhaps Oblivion, my last film of 2013's doldrums, is a sign that better things lie ahead.

Final Score:  6/10

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