Friday, April 26, 2013

Oblivion - Theatrical Review

Release Date: April 19, 2013

'Oblivion' is a mish-mash of recycled ideas from other, much better films.

Review Vital Stats:  
Theater: AMC 30 in Orange
Time: 11:30 pm April 20, 2013   
Projector Type: Digital 2D (Dolby Atmos)
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime: 2 hr 5 min
Studio: Universal Pictures

Loves: Post apocalyptic future settings
Likes: Tom Cruise
Neutral: Visuals over substance
Hates: Having one question answered to only have two more unanswered questions pop up
This actor is not mentioned during this review because: knowing he/she is in the film is a HUGE SPOILER (Click at your own risk)

Nearly 60 years have passed since Earth was attacked by a race of aliens known only as the Scavengers. Mankind has won the war but has lost the planet in the process due to the nuclear fallout and the destruction of our moon. As the last remnants of humanity flee to the stars for salvation, it is up to the chosen few left  behind to guard the gigantic water processing factories using our planet's immense water supply as fuel to send the survivors to a new home. With only 2 weeks left before their mission is over, Jack (Tom Cruise) and his partner/lover Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), the two humans who volunteered to have their memories wiped and stay on watch over Earth, discover a crashed ship with only one survivor, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), who holds the secrets to the war and the aliens who attacked us.

Watching director Joseph Kosinski's new film "Oblivion" is a stark reminder that he knows how to make very pretty films with impactful and emotionally stirring soundtracks to complement those amazing visuals (which was the same case with his other film "Tron: Legacy"). However, another trait of his is also in full view which isn't so flattering, for all it's visual and auditory splendor, for all it's clever narrative twists and turns and for all it's attempts to infuse their characters with a soul, the entire film from beginning to end remains a soulless, cold and calculated experience with not one iota of an original idea or emotional resonance in its plot hole riddled post apocalyptic landscape.

"Oblivion" starts off extremely promising with a narration provided by Jack who tells the audience of what has transpired over the past 6 decades as we watch him got through his mundane daily tasks. His work consists of providing daily maintenance for both the gigantic water processing plants and some really nasty robot drones who patrol the immediate area on the lookout for any remaining alien Scavengers (called Scavs for short). We get glimpses of a world buried beneath the rubble of a war that claimed the planet and we see it through the eyes of a man who is spending his last days on Earth trying to rekindle his love for this world he knows only as it is, with only fragmented memories of the time before the invasion.

The ambiguity of these opening moments as we watch Jack and Victoria go through the motions raises a lot of questions though. Not so much intriguing questions, but more problematic questions regarding a number plot holes and inconsistencies which are only exacerbated with each new development that occurs. Most of these questions do find answers, but unfortunately those answers create even more questions that the film never feels the need to answer simply because there are no answers to them. They just are, and due to the large volume of unanswered questions, it becomes increasingly distracting as they begin to stack up.

Apologies if all of this is all sounding a bit cryptic, but there is a good reason for not going into too many details which even when hinted at could risk giving away too many of the surprises that get revealed later in the film (which the trailer did by revealing a certain actor who shall remain nameless during this review). But as much as these revelations undermine nearly everything that comes before them and is sadly the root cause of just about all the film's narrative hiccups, had there only been these issues to contend with, it would have been very easy to write them off and enjoy it for the escapist fun that it is trying so hard to be. However, there are much worse offenses the film commits that relegates it to just some cheap thrills with a very high budget.

Every story begins and ends with its characters. Sure, sometimes a greater, more epic scope can become a character in and of itself, but without an engaging lead character with whom the audience can relate to and identify with the whole affair becomes rather pointless and moot. "Oblivion" fails at delivering any character of which we can share their emotional journey with or ever truly get invested in. This issue becomes even more problematic when in conjunction with the narrative mess that is created later in the film. This isn't exactly the faults of the actors of whom all do a fine job, especially Tom Cruise who does all he can to inject as much humanity into a character that is essentially a blank slate, but more of a fault of the script itself.

Take for instance the relationship between Jack and Victoria, which is beautiful in its simplicity, but they are never given any real time to develop through the strangeness of their situation. Being these two people who were left on Earth alone, forced to wiped their memories and have forged a relationship out of pure necessity, it's intriguing and well established but never taken advantage of in any meaningful way. Instead we are privy to an admittedly rather jaw droppingly gorgeous sequence with the two of them swimming in a transparent pool miles up in the sky above a thunderstorm below. While visually stimulating, it does nothing to address the more interesting questions surrounding their situation. Then just when Julia is introduced into the mix it appears as though maybe things are going to start to become more interesting, that perhaps we are going to learn more about these people, it all gets thrown out the window in favor of more action oriented elements.

By the end it becomes nearly impossible to feel anything for any of these characters (not to mention the numerous cop outs that could have added more emotional weight to the film), especially the connection between Jack and Julia who neither Cruise nor Kurylenko share one shred of chemistry together. This is also another example of how that late reveal introduced compromises the characters. Jack, a character with clearly a lot of potential for exploration, is essentially sabotaged by some story conceits that relegate him to more of a plot device than a living breathing person. All great science-fiction has always depended on the relatability of their main protagonist and "Oblivion" sadly seems more inclined to rely on its twists and turns to keep the audience invested which becomes an even bigger problem when the majority of those twists and turns are very heavily borrowed from existing, and mostly much better, works of fiction.

For a seasoned Sci-Fi lover, watching "Oblivion" is akin to playing a really intense game of spot the influence. You name it, and it is most likely represented somewhere in here in some form. "2001: A Space Odyssey", "Independence Day", "Planet of the Apes", "Moon", "Star Wars", the list goes on and on. You may think by divulging these influences that you have a grasp on what "Oblivion" is about but trust in the fact that you most likely have no idea which components from those films appear in "Oblivion" and which context they appear in. But rest assured that when those moments happen, and they happen a lot, that you will identify them almost immediately.

Is it really such a bad thing to borrow (or steal) from other works? No, not at all. But where the problem lies for "Oblivion" is that is does nothing new or interesting with those borrowed ideas. Instead they are marched on screen plain as day and used to only progress on to the next reference to classic (or even modern) Sci-Fi. If perhaps the film would have found a new way to tinker with the many ideas it borrows then it wouldn't have been such a detriment and instead would have been a benefit. But as it stands now, "Oblivion" serves as a reminder of many other much better films that have explored such interesting ideas in a much more intriguing fashion which leaves you thinking of them instead of what's on screen in front of you.

Is "Oblivion" a bad film? Not at all. On a purely aesthetic level the film is immensely enjoyable. If you so happen to be lucky enough to see the film in an Atomos audio enabled theater you will be in for a real treat (the soundtrack by the music group M83 is quite mesmerizing). But visuals and audio can only take you so far when dealing with such an empty soul as this. While Kosinski is clearly skilled at making films that look and sound great, he should probably spend more time on the script next time around. "Oblivion" will likely dazzle most who see it but unlike the many classics it borrows from, it won't be remembered as fondly...if at all.





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