Friday, April 19, 2013

In Theaters: OBLIVION (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Joseph Kosinski.  Written by Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt.  Cast: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo, Zoe Bell.  (PG-13, 125 mins)

With his mega-budgeted 2010 directing debut TRON: LEGACY, Joseph Kosinski fashioned one of the best-looking films you'll ever see, a triumph of visual effects and production design that stood as a prime example of CGI done right, even if the story itself was muddled and the film itself released decades past the point of anyone really caring.  Kosinski's follow-up effort, OBLIVION, continues to show him as a style-over-substance guy, with its apocalyptic visuals, widescreen vistas and landscapes and its coldly clinical futuristic sets demonstrating a stunningly ominous post-nuke wasteland that you don't really see much on the big screen these days.  While this is mostly obviously accomplished via CGI, it's interesting to note that Kosinski's wildly ambitious sci-fi CGI worlds in TRON: LEGACY and OBLIVION feel more real and organic than most of the greenscreen CGI backgrounds you see in contemporary cinema set in the present day.  I spend a lot of time bitching about CGI, but its possibilities are limitless when used as part of the story and executed with diligence and care as opposed to existing only as a necessary time-saving and/or cost-cutting measure.  Say what you will about Kosinski's abilities as a storyteller, but props where they're due:  the guy's made two incredibly beautiful-looking films.  Count me as a fan...for now.

So yeah, the script?  Well, that could use some work.  Based on a graphic novel concept by Kosinski, OBLIVION is set in 2077, around the nuked ruins of the east coast.  In 2017, Earth was invaded by an alien race known as Scavengers, or "Scavs."  The Scavs were defeated in the resulting nuclear war, but the planet was left a desolate wasteland due to both the nuclear option and the Scavs blowing up the moon, throwing off Earth's gravity and atmosphere.  In the ensuing 60 years, humanity has migrated to the Saturn moon of Titan, with water from Earth's oceans extracted and filtered for fuel to provide sustenance.  Overseeing the extraction is "Tech 49" Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), stationed in a facility high above the ground where his communications assistant and significant other Vica (Andrea Riseborough) is in constant contact with their supervisor Sally (Melissa Leo), who's on the space station Tet, orbiting above the planet.  Jack and Vica have two weeks left in their contract before they're to be cycled out and relocated to Titan, but in the meantime, Jack spends his days surveying the ruins, looking for stray Scavs to be eliminated by drones that he periodically has to maintain and repair.

Jack doesn't tell Vica that he's plagued by recurring dreams where he's in NYC in 2017, a time when he couldn't possibly have been alive, and atop the Empire State Building proposing to a woman.  A space vessel crashes and Jack witnesses a drone killing the human survivors.  He rescues one, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), who he immediately recognizes as the woman from his dreams.  He takes her back to their base where it's revealed Julia has been in hypersleep since 2017 at the time of the initial Scav attack.  Jack's investigation into her story and his discovery of a band of renegade survivors led by Beech (Morgan Freeman) force him to question everything he thinks he knows about his assignment and himself.

The script by Karl Gajdusek (the barely-released Nic Cage/Nicole Kidman home-invasion dud TRESPASS) and Michael Arndt (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, and the upcoming STAR WARS EPISODE 7) takes its time setting up the story and there's quite a bit of opening exposition required to get the audience up to speed.  It's hard to discuss where the story goes once Freeman, GAME OF THRONES' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (as Beech's right-hand man), and an criminally-underutilized Zoe Bell (visible as another Beech follower but getting no dialogue) turn up about an hour in without divulging some serious spoilers.  But for that first hour, Kosinski lets the story unfold very much like a richly detailed novel.  Those expecting nonstop action might actually find the first hour a bit dry, but the world-building and visuals work together in ways that should please fans of hard sci-fi.  Once the twist is revealed (and most will probably see it coming), OBLIVION turns into a much more standard and predictable action/explosion movie, losing some steam and overstaying its welcome to some extent.  At 125 minutes, it could probably lose 15-20 minutes and maybe one or two endings.

The biggest detriment to the story itself is that it feels like Kosinski and the screenwriters just cobbled together some highlights of their favorite sci-fi classics old and new, as OBLIVION constantly straddles the fine line between homage and ripoff.  Even casual sci-fi fans will spot plot elements cribbed from films as varied as TOTAL RECALL, BLADE RUNNER, 12 MONKEYS, WALL-E, INDEPENDENCE DAY,  PLANET OF THE APES, LOGAN'S RUN, EQUILIBRIUM, and PREDATOR.  A battle sequence near the midway point is straight out of STAR WARS, and even the flying drones look and act like distant cousins of the ED-209 from ROBOCOP.  There's even ideas borrowed from more esoteric fare like SOLARIS and MOON.  Just as in the thoroughly enjoyable and underappreciated JACK REACHER from a few months back, Cruise is essentially Cruise throughout--he's fine but performance-wise, he's not really challenging himself very much here.  It's not quite the ego trip that many of Cruise's films turn out to be (he even shares the heroics with someone in the finale), perhaps because he's just an actor here and not a producer, largely leaving Kosinski to run the show even though the film has been unmistakably tailored for its star.

The strengths of OBLIVION lie in its visuals, the cinematography by LIFE OF PI Oscar-winner Claudio Miranda, and its largely synth-based score by M83 that grows more conventional as the film progresses.  Therefore, it's not quite as catchy as Daft Punk's soundtrack for TRON: LEGACY , but it's in the same ballpark.   Perhaps the biggest surprise of OBLIVION is that it wasn't shot in 3D.  It's one of the few films of late where the technology would've been justified, especially in that amazing first hour.  In the end, with its standard "Tom Cruise" performance from Cruise and its predictable and extremely derivative story, OBLIVION is little more than really sweet eye candy, but sometimes that's enough.  Though at some point, Kosinski will have to work from scripts with a little more substance and originality if he's to reach his full potential as a major genre filmmaker.  That is, unless he's content to be the next Paul W.S. Anderson.

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