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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