Friday, April 26, 2013

"Oblivion" (2013)

Starring Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko and Morgan Freeman
Written by Joseph Kosinski, William Monahan, Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt
Directed by Joseph Kosinski
Rated PG-13 - Violence, language, brief nudity
Running Time: 124 Minutes

In the year 2077, the Earth has been abandoned in the wake of a devastating war against an alien race. Though humanity was victorious, the cost of winning was great - civilization has been destroyed, and large swaths of the world are uninhabitable. The survivors were evacuated to a massive space station known as the Tet.

Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and Victoria Olsen (Andrea Riseborough) live in Tower 49, still on the surface, the last humans remaining on Earth. Their job is to monitor and maintain a series of massive machines converting the Earth's oceans into fuel for nuclear reactors that will allow the humans aboard the Tet to leave Earth behind once and for all and settle on Saturn's moon, Titan. Though the war is over, Jack still has to deal with remnant alien forces on the surface, who, of late, have been downing his drones and stealing their power supplies.

Things get weirder when the aliens manage to send a message into space, and soon enough a human ship crashes to the ground. There is a lone survivor: a young woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko), who somehow knows Jack's name. More confusing for Jack is why the drones attempted to kill her when she landed. Jack defies orders, and the pleading of his lover, Victoria, in order to get answers. What he finds is unbelievable: a secret colony of humans living underground in the remains of old New York City, led by Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman) who tells Jack an incredible tale that rock's Jack's life and beliefs to the core.

But now that Jack knows the truth about his existence, he can't simply go back to the life he knew. And the future of the human race will be placed squarely in his hands.

It's sometimes difficult to review a film whose goal is to be an homage to the seminal works of the past. At what point does the film stop being an homage and become a shameless, unoriginal ripoff? That's a difficult question for "Oblivion," since the director, Joseph Kosinski, who also directed "Tron: Legacy," has admitted that "Oblivion" is meant to honor some of the great science-fiction films.

But in doing so, doesn't "Oblivion" have to stand on its own, as well? Otherwise, what's the point? And that's the problem with "Oblivion" - it's not that it's bad, it's just that you've literally seen everything here before. The film is slickly produced, with lots of great effects work, a solid script and even good performances. But at best it never breaks free of that nagging feeling that you've been here before. And at worst, it often wears its influences openly, to the point where you can practically name what aspects of the film came from what genre classic.

"Oblivion," in the end, is essentially a big mash-up of films like "The Matrix," "Planet of the Apes," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and you're likely to spot more. With all that in mind, there's enjoyment to be had from "Oblivion." It is, firstly, a very good looking film. The effects are top-notch, as are the designs for all the future technology, the ruined Earth landscapes with whole cities swallowed whole. A drone assault on Beech's underground colony late in the film is full of nifty effects of humans being vaporized by enemy fire, as the camera swoops around the cramped, industrial underground. The various chases and shootouts all look pretty cool.

Performances are also solid; I may not be a fan of Tom Cruise in a celebrity gossip sense, but I've enjoyed many movies he's in. He's got a command of the screen that works, though I felt less impressed with Jack Harper than I was with Jack Reacher. But he works well with his co-stars, here Andrea Riseborough and Olga Kurylenko. Cruise does a solid job with being torn between them, for reasons which are made clear in the film that I won't spoil here. Morgan Freeman's screen time is limited, but he does what he can with it. When he describes the story of the initial alien invasion decades prior, when he was a young man, he delivers it tinged with horror and regret and it's a nice scene.

That said... I think I would have liked to have seen it integrated into the film's flashback structure (yes, there are flashbacks in this film). While it's nice to have Morgan Freeman delivering your exposition, it's still just exposition. There are other concepts explored here in flashback, but this one would have been terrifying, and I wanted to see it. In fact, the film's entire big "twist" can almost seem like an after-thought at times, or like an unspoken question you're desperate for someone to bring up. It's a concept the film should have explored more deeply, because I felt that not doing so robbed me of some of the emotional connection I might have with these characters. I also have one unanswered question, but...

"Oblivion" offers some good sci-fi thrills. It's main twist is intriguing, though I think it could have been explored better. The film can feel like if only it would shed its slavish attempts at honoring sci-fi films of the past and do its own thing, we might have something truly special on our hands. As it is, it's a solid, good-looking sci-fi thriller.