Oblivion

Oblivion is the sort of thing I really want to encourage. After the lukewarm reception of yet another reboot of a popular franchise (In this case, the pretty darn good 2010 film Tron: Legacy), the creative team behind it turned around and used the resulting mountain of moolah to finance a heady sci-fi original property that uses top-notch visual effects to explore deep themes of the self.

But why has this movie not made more of a splash? A year later, you’ll barely find anyone who even saw it the first time, much less remembers it. And I think the reason for this can be summed up in three simple words: Ambition exceeding ability.

Writer/Director Joseph Kosinski makes it clear in the movie that he’s seen every single major work of science fiction in the past fifty…scratch that, the past forty-six years, because there are elements of every single one in this movie. This is nice for sci-fi fans like myself, but this unfortunately means that this can never be listed among them because it has no real identity or memorable aspects of its own.

But that’s not the root of the problem. Oblivion is vaguely enjoyable to watch, with beautiful design and production values. But you can never really get invested in it, on either an “I love this” or an “I love making fun of this” level. It’s a film of mildness. Its mild ambition of a mild character study which mildly focuses on some mild themes is betrayed by its mild stupidity and a mild over-reliance on mild action. And as such, your reaction is probably going to be one of either mild enjoyment or mild disappointment.

We open with a monologue by our hero, Jack Harper. In keeping with this movie’s mild tone, he’s played by one of the mildest leading men of our time; Tom Cruise. I don’t have anything against any of his performances (Although I wish he would do more weird crap like the foul-mouthed producer from Tropic Thunder, instead of piling generic hero role onto generic hero role like he’s done for the past two decades), and in fact the casting works as an amusing meta-joke about how generically handsome and capable he is.

And he also lives inside an Apple commercial.

Anyway, Jack Harkness lays out the backstory: Decades ago humanity narrowly managed to avoid annihilation by a mysterious alien force, and only survived by scorching the planet and evacuating to a huge, low-polycount space station. They power this space station via huge unmanned generators, which need to be maintained and protected from roving bands of remaining aliens by a two person team – Jack Bauer and his loving wife/mission control, Victoria Britishley.  After two weeks (A phrase they repeat so often I’m reminded of the old lady disguise from Total Recall), Jack Ryan and Victoria will be able to rejoin the rest of humanity and have their wiped memories restored.

And that right there is your first obvious clue that something sinister and plot twist-y is going on. I’ll say that if this were a video game (which it sometimes feels like it’s trying desperately to be, as I’ll get to later) the addition of amnesia to the story would have slipped by relatively unnoticed, but in a movie it’s much more obvious in its foreshadowing of future revelations.

Now, because of the emphasis on these revelations, the first act of the movie doesn’t actually have a lot going on. After the huge exposition, Jack Reacher goes on a routine maintenance mission and finds out that one of the slick-looking machines has crashed in the ruins of the New York Public Library.

Whereupon he stumbles on the Ghostbusters…at least, I wish that’s what happens.

It’s no secret that New York-based disaster movies are a particular favorite of mine, so this got me excited. And to add to this, one of the few standout aspects of the movie is its direction. Every scene is staged perfectly to build dramatic tension and emotional investment, and the cinematography works perfectly in concert with the CGI to make a movie that looks simply transcendent.

Now, I’ll be ripping on the movie a lot as we get further into the plot, but I still like the movie because of these more general aspects – the parts are well cast and well acted, and the style and tone suit the film well throughout. I’d like to see Joseph Kosinski directing some other movie with a better screenwriter. As a lifelong Trekkie I wouldn’t even mind having him behind the camera for the next Star Trek movie (although I’m a bit skittish about who they have writing whatever they’ll call that movie). But, I’m getting off track here. Back to the story.

Anyway, at the ruined public library, there’s an action scene where Jack Shephard has to fix the  machine. It’s a predator drone designed to take out enemies unmanned, in a topical reference that’s never really followed up on. He’s attacked by a band of aliens (read: dudes in masks, though we’re apparently not supposed to know that yet), but the drone shoots them all just in time, leaving him to reflect when he finds an old book open to a quote that’s so obviously foreshadowing the narrative structure of the movie that it slips into unintentional comedy.

One of these days, I’d like the hero to find an important-looking inscription that ends up being “Enjoy Coca Cola” or something.

After this, Jack Sparrow gets shaken up and returns home. There we see that the only contact he and Victoria have with the world at large is a black-and-white video of a lady, who says very little other than “Follow the rules”, “be a good team”, and “God, can we just get this over with already, I’m obviously not real”. When he’s finished listening to those three phrases for the fourth or fifth time, he decides to take solace in his secret, surprisingly pristine post-apocalyptic man-cave, filled with relics of the destroyed world.

He takes a flower from this man-cave and gives it to Victoria. It wasn’t until I saw the flower that I made the connection to WALL-E, that other film focusing on two outcasts on an abandoned Earth. Since I already knew there were going to be some big twists, I guessed that Jack O’Neill and Victoria were actually robots. Was I right? Well, not exactly, but it’s exactly that dumb.

After this, Jack Torrance discovers that the “aliens” have used the broken drone to set up a radio beacon at the top of the Empire State Building (which is about a ten minute walk from the Public Library in real life, but is somewhere entirely different here). As he investigates, he gets black-and-white flashes of memory, where he’s kissing some lady on the building’s observation deck in a normal world. This is just the laziest way to do foreshadowing: A few incongruous images shoved into our faces, so a flashing neon sign saying “THIS WILL BE EXPLAINED LATER” wouldn’t be out of place. If you can’t organically work the foreshadowing into the narrative, you should stop and think whether this is a story or just a setup for a dramatic punchline. The problem with setups and punchlines is that when put together they’re called jokes, and no one’s paying fifteen clams to see a hundred-million-dollar, two-hour joke in theaters.

I think I should take this opportunity to talk about how plot twists should work. They can be an important part of your story, but you should take care that the twist doesn’t become the story’s whole reason for existing. A good twist can change the way you think about the structure of a narrative – like The Usual Suspects and the original Friday the 13th – but the former film was at heart a crime drama and the latter an atmospheric slasher movie. Oblivion is classified as science fiction, but other than that, it doesn’t have any real justification for its existence because of how heavily it depends on the twists.

Side note: As an internet humorist, I’m legally required to talk about M. Night Shyamalan after discussing this topic for as long as I have.

And right around now, those twists starts twisting: Jack Skellington tracks the signal he gets from the Empire State Building and discovers a crashed spaceship, with its crew in sleeping pods. One of his robot buddies tries to kill all the humans before he can stop it, and the only surviving crewmember of the spaceship is revealed to be the same lady from Jack Dawson‘s mysterious visions. She has a name, and of course it’s a reference to a classic work of science fiction, but she’s the space lady, and so Space Lady is her name.

When Victoria hears about Space Lady, she becomes jealous. This means that Jack O’Neill has to be discreet when he starts having a metaphorical, entirely loveless affair with Space Lady.Unfortunately, on one of these PG-rated trysts, he’s captured by the dudes in suits, who reveal themselves to be (gasp!) dudes in suits!

The dudes in suits are led by Morgan Freeman, which of course means that they’re the good guys. Jack Burton is still unconvinced, so follows Morgan’s advice (because what the hell else do you do when Morgan Freeman gives you advice?) and journeys to the supposedly radiation-filled Forbidden Zones.

Now, this is why I compare this movie to a video game. We have a generic main character who begins the story with amnesia, in a very small area with few people besides him. This small area is surrounded by breathtaking vistas, and is also his home base from where he takes a vehicle to go on combat and reconnaissance missions. These missions take place a relatively short distance from the hub. While there’s complete freedom of movement within the allotted zone, going beyond its borders results in repeated warnings on the heads-up display without any real signs of anything dangerous.

I appreciate games that solve this quandary by putting high-level enemies in areas you’re not supposed to access, like Crysis and this gigantic shark.

For those of you who aren’t wise in the way of the WASD, I could have been describing about half of all video games ever made.

Anyway, after plugging in his Game Genie and surfing off the coast of Cinnabar Island, things get even stranger for Jack Traven when he and Space Lady break through the meaningless barriers and discovers a man far off in the distance, who turns out to be himself (Yeah, as if the twists weren’t bad enough, now they’re stealing twists shot for shot from other, more popular movies). The two selves fight, in a particularly underwhelming sequence where they barely even bother trying to conceal their use of body doubles and camera angles to pretend there are two Tom Cruises. It’s been fifteen years since The Matrix’s countably infinite number of Hugo Weavings, Hollywood, why should we have to put up with this?

After this nonsense, our Jack manages to subdue the other Jack, but not before Space Lady gets shot. He decides the best course of action is to leave her in the hot, unprotected open for what appears to be several hours, as he steals the clone Jack’s clone plane, flies it to a clone mission hub and discovers a clone Victoria. He eventually gets back and administers some triage to Space Lady, after which they decide to return to Morgan Freeman for the answers he really should have given in the first place.

You should really stop and think about your decision to cast Morgan Freeman if his character never gets a giant exposition dump.

At Morgan’s hide out, he and Space Lady lay things out. Jack Paar was actually an astronaut, who was on a mission with Space Lady and Victoria to investigate an alien entity: The low-poly space station which Jack thinks is mission control. Jack was married to Space Lady, but Victoria had a crush on him. They also happened to be the only two people awake at the time when the aliens captured the ship. After discarding Space Lady and all the redshirts, the aliens cloned  Victoria and Jack Benny thousands of times, and used him to kill all the humans and take over the world…

…wait, let me stop there for a second so that sinks in: An army of brainwashed, evil Tom Cruises, taking over the world. This should have been the big, Matrix-style enemy of the film – instead, because Morgan Freeman is narrating all this, we never even get to see it. This is just a fundamental mistake. Since the humans-are-actually-aliens twist was foreshadowed by never showing the supposed humans before we found out, we should see the army of Tom Cruises to lend credence.

But we don’t get to see it, and as a result the rest of the movie just feels like a letdown. There’s a dumb action scene where the alien predator drones attack the resistance hideout, that goes on way too long. After that, Jack Nicholson and Space Lady have standard Terminator 1 pre-finale sex (as in, inevitably resulting in pregnancy – which is weird when you think about it, because most astronauts are sterile already, and I doubt decades of creepy alien cloning would have any beneficial effect on one’s ability to reproduce) before they go to confront the aliens in a trippy 2001-esque sequence. Unlike 2001, the movie can’t resist squeezing in another twist or two, which I won’t even bother going into here – there’s really nothing new I can say on the subject. Space Lady and her unborn baby survive, everyone else gets heroic deaths, arcs are resolved, themes are paid off, the credits roll, and everyone forgets everything they just watched.

Once more with feeling – I sorta like Oblivion. It’s an excellently presented movie that will entertain you in the moment…but as the hours go by, that entertainment feels more and more distant. The title just about says it all.

 

TWO THUMBS UP: The direction and cinematography

THUMBS UP: The visual style, the emotional underpinnings of the story

THUMBS DOWN: Morgan Freeman (nothing against him, just his overuse)

TWO THUMBS DOWN: Twisty twisty twistington

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