Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Oblivion (Movie Review)

After getting over my disappointed realization that I wasn't going to be watching an Elder Scrolls movie in a few months, the trailer for Oblivion, starring Tom Cruise, intrigued me and made me interested to see what would come of what looked to be the summer's first sci-fi blockbuster. Whether you're a fan of Cruise or not, he tends to be in geek genre movies that, at the very least, are not terrible, and often are well funded and solidly directed. (Legend, Interview With The Vampire, Minority Report, War Of The Worlds.)

Cruise plays Jack Harper, a technician tasked with taking care of the drones that patrol a devastated earth of the future. It is 50 years after a war with aliens who were defeated, but ruined our planet in the conflict. Most humans have relocated to an off-world colony. Jack and his mission partner, Victoria, are the last two humans still working on earth. The drones they repair are responsible for protecting the hydro-fusion plants that feed energy to the human colony. These plants are regularly attacked by remnants of the enemy alien race, called "Scavengers".

Due to the security issues involved in their work, and the potential to be captured and interrogated, Jack and his partner had their memories erased before beginning their five-year assignment. With only two weeks left before they can leave and join the rest of humanity on the colony, Jack has begun having troubling, vivid dreams, that cause him to ask questions of his partner and superiors that they would rather he didn't ask. Jack is convinced that they have forgotten vital information regarding the state of the world they live in, and he is increasingly determined to find answers, no matter how it may place his life at risk.

And that's just the first 30 minutes.

Oblivion has more than one interesting reveal (how many I won't spoil) that take the movie in a new direction. I found myself engaged throughout the entire experience, trying to get ahead of the script, never quite sure if I was right or not. I was never blown away by any of the reveals, as the film has a tendency to tip it's hand a little too early, but it still kept me guessing enough to demand my interest from beginning to end.

There are a few moments in the film that seem to be echoes of the Matrix trilogy. Repeated concepts or sequences that are modified but still recognizable. It's possible these moments were inspired by "the greatest trilogy to ever grace planet earth", but it may also simply be a case of there being "nothing new under the sun", as we humans can only come up with so many ideas that no one else will ever think up independent of us.

The pacing of the story is handled very well, and although there are a few moments of contrived tension, there are just as many great moments of suspense. Although this is not what I would call an "action sci-fi movie" in the truest sense, there are plenty of action scenes that are executed very well and that scratch the "action itch" effectively.

Tom Cruise gives another sympathetic performance that audiences will likely connect with, although I don't find Cruise as easy to sympathize with as the likes of Bruce Willis and Kurt Russell, who are also known for bringing vulnerability to their action roles.

Andrea Riseborough, as Victoria, brings a nice sense of intimacy to the relationship between Victoria and Jack. You sense that all is not well between them, but that she does genuinely care for him a great deal. Olga Kurylenko, on the other hand, plays alternate love interest Julia, and should have been the more sympathetic of the two female leads. Instead she felt like little more than a placeholder that can produce tears on cue. In the end, both women seemed to have been cast at least as much for their appearances as for their acting ability.

Morgan Freeman brings his wonderful "Morgan Freeman-ness" to his performance, which on its own is great. But his best moment is when he first lights a match to make his character's debut. My interest in him only evened out from there. He certainly didn't seem to be phoning it in, but I'd say he did far from give it everything he had. (In his defense, his character didn't have more than a single layer to work with.)

The visual effects are great in this movie. I always find CGI to be more enjoyable when it stays away from recreating living things and sticks to machines. And there are a lot of cool machines in this movie. The landscapes of the war torn earth are also very well inserted into the background, making me wonder how many of the backgrounds were practical. I could almost believe that this version of the world really exists somewhere.

A nod also has to be given to sound design, and the sounds of the drones in particular. Their deep, glitchy tones always sound alarming and threatening, as they should.

Oblivion is a solid production that could have been improved by better casting, more attention to character, and maybe two additional shocking reveals that change the direction of the movie.

In the last third of the film I noticed a couple of elements that might stimulate some worthwhile thought or conversation. I apologize in advance for my lack of specifics, as I want to avoid spoilers.
There is a bit of potential for anthropological thought in this flick. What makes us who we are? What makes us human? What specifically makes me who I am? Am I just a soft, wet machine of some kind, or is there anything non-physical that is vital to my being?

Near the very end of the film (in one of the strongest echoes of The Matrix Trilogy), our hero confronts a character that represents God in some way. Our hero lashes out and seeks to destroy his "god", outsmarting him in the end (which actually didn't make much sense and made the "god" character look a bit stupid, or at least inconsistently intelligent and perceptive). I've seen this kind of "hero kills god" beat in a number of video games of Asian origin. I'm not sure if this idea comes from Eastern myth, is inspired by atheism, both, or something else. But the idea of killing God is consistent with the somewhat naturalistic vibe this movie seems to carry. (Despite some odd talk of souls being "made out of love" near the end. Wha?)

I should be clear that all of these philosophical elements are fairly subtle and certainly not preachy. But they come to the surface just enough to provide food for thought or conversation if you're bent in that direction.

In the end, although it isn't truly exceptional in any one area of film making, Oblivion is a very enjoyable movie that genre fans shouldn't neglect seeing.

Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, brief strong language, and some sensuality/nudity

Quality: 8.5/10

Relevance: 8.0/10

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