Friday, April 19, 2013

The Cinema File #159: "Oblivion" Review

I recently reviewed the jukebox musical Rock Of Ages, a movie that I missed initially in theaters that from a quality standpoint might just be my biggest surprise from 2012. In that review I noted that Tom Cruise, an actor who I rarely dislike generally, turned in probably his best performance in a movie in quite some time. Admittedly, the last movie I'd seen him in prior to that was the somewhat underwhelming but still mildly satisfying Jack Reacher, but still, I was enamored. Anyway, I've just seen Cruise's latest film, the twisty, pseudo-political sci fi epic Oblivion, and while his character here is much more of a standard understated action hero, and the film as a whole has some minor problems, I think its safe to say that Maverick's track record still stands pretty strong.

Oblivion is the story of a maintenance man on a dead Earth rendered mostly uninhabitable after the moon was destroyed by alien invaders. His job is to repair a fleet of drones designed to hunt down the remaining aliens hiding on the planet, while what is left of humanity lives on an orbital space station. Or at least that's what we're meant to think at first, but as is often the case with sci fi movies involving memory manipulation and unreliable sources of information, the truth is much more complicated. I normally pride myself on my ability to keep synopses down to one sentence, but I couldn't here because the set up to this movie is pretty dense. It starts us out right in the thick of things and just starts piling on more intrigue until the final reveal of what's going on, and by the end, I was surprised by just how well it came together considering how convoluted it all was.

I described it as a pseudo political movie above because despite what I felt to be some fairly obvious and even heavy handed references to current events, I'm still not quite sure if the political undertones I noticed were intentional or not. You may have noticed the mention of drones before, and there is enough to this story to suggest at least to me that this use of that specific term to describe what become the main antagonists is a deliberate swipe at the debate over our nation's drone policy. The impersonality and anonymity of the use of drones, that you don't necessarily know who is controlling them, or those controlling them don't necessarily know who they are targeting, is central to the plot and themes of the film, which I enjoyed quite a bit. This kind of thing is what science fiction does best, and the issue is still fresh enough that it lends a greater sense of relevance to the rest of the story.

The problem is, this very interesting and relevant sci fi metaphor is eventually all but forgotten, lost in a barrage of twists and turns that are all very well constructed, but almost seem unnecessarily complex after about the fifth or sixth thing you have to learn to catch up. It's not that its even all that confusing, just much more layered than I was expecting, and maybe more than it has to be. Aliens and alien fighting drones would be enough for most movies, but here you get two or three other sci-fi staples on top of that, and if they weren't melded together so well, I might say it was overkill. I can't really go into too much detail without spoilers, and since I intend to give away one pretty big spoiler later on in this review, I'll only say something is brought up in the first few moments of the film that leaves you almost immediately with the suspicion that what we are seeing about the daily lives of our main characters is only the tip of a very big ice berg.

Okay, spoiler time, skip to the end if you don't want to hear me ruin the movie. Well, technically its not a spoiler unless you've seen the movie I'm about to reference, but the thing is, I can't not bring it up, because my biggest problem with Oblivion is that it basically steals a large section of its plot from another sci fi film I particularly enjoy, in such a way that I guessed almost right away, only to begin to doubt my suspicions briefly before they were instantly and bluntly confirmed with a fight scene. I won't be explicit just in case, but about half way through, just as I'm wondering if they are actually going to say anything about drones to wrap up that theme, I realize that the main reason this movie was made at all was because the writer saw the Duncan Jones film Moon and said, "You know, that's pretty good, but it would be better with more Tom Cruise and explosions in it." I want to condemn the film as a rip off, but then again when I first saw Moon, I also thought it would have been so much better with more Tom Cruise and explosions in it, so I can't really complain. 

Come to think of it, a lot of the movie is pretty derivative, but even as it takes a lot of elements from other movies and mashes them together, it does it so cleanly that I was never irritated by it while watching. The climax is visually sort of a weird cross between the ends of Independence Day and The Prestige, with a little bit of 2001: A Space Odyssey thrown in for good measure. I think this might be too much for some of your more high strung cinephiles, but for some reason it doesn't bother me as much as I would have thought. Maybe just the fact that so many disparate properties could be merged together so seamlessly is making me more forgiving. Plus, with the exception of the Kingslayer who is kind of wasted, the actors do a good job of selling the story, with Cruise alternating between grim and jovial with ease, Morgan Freeman doling out exposition the way only he can, and Melissa Leo making the friendliest of Southern accents chill you to the bone, not to mention two love interests that both feel genuine despite neither's existence being all that plausible.

Over all, Oblivion is a decent sci-fi romp with enough heady material to keep you engaged without being too somber or dark, and a tone that harkens back to some of the classics of the genre. The fact that it sometimes tips over the edge of homage into outright thievery is mitigated by the nearly pitch perfect execution that amounts to something of a balancing act with maybe just a few too many plates. Still, its got more substance than most big budget science fiction movies of late (I'm looking at you Total Recall!). It probably won't go down in history as a classic in its own right or anything, but its definitely worth the ticket price.

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