Oblivion (2013)

Untitled-1I’m just going to go ahead and put it out there: Oblivion takes too long to say what it needs to say. It’s too segmented, and it references too many movies. It’s too confusing, and it’s too cliched. It’s a visually beautiful movie and its soundtrack is glorious, but at the end of the day, it’s nothing special. I might go out on a limb here and say that sixty years from now it will be considered a classic, but then who am I to tell?

There is also a twist to the story, but it’s not even close to being an effective one. It just brings the movie down even further. But here’s the premise: it is the year 2077. Earth has had its moon destroyed by an alien race — colloquially known as Scavengers — and has subsequently been invaded by them. The destruction of the moon has sent Earth’s tides into chaos, creating massive floods and toppling entire cities. Most of the planet is now a giant wasteland. Humans won the war, but the arid landscape has forced them to migrate to Titan. There is also a giant mission control station — called The Tet — that hovers just outside the atmosphere, and it’s responsible for the roles assigned to our stars, Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough.

They are “the mop up crew”, a team of overseers left on Earth, responsible for the maintenance of rigs and drones that keep Earth running. They are told that their tour is at an end, and that if they are an “effective team” they will soon be brought to Titan to join the rest of their people. This is a wonderful premise, and it got my attention immediately. I thought it was fresh and it had the potential to expand into a great saga. Cruise plays Jack Harper, the field agent who physically does inspections and checks. Riseborough plays Victoria, his partner responsible for communications and surveillance. Jack wants to remain on Earth because he still feels at home there, but Victoria can’t wait to finish their mission and return to her kind. You can automatically guess the kind of characters they are.

It’s never clear what kind of relationship Jack and Victoria have, but we are told through a series of flashbacks that Jack once had a lover (and she’s not Victoria). Spending every waking moment in the same residence, though, can have its effects, and when you’re willing to go skinny dipping with a co-worker, a flame has to be burning somewhere (yes, maybe on their dining table).

Now, it’s hard to write this review without giving anything away, because the bulk of the movie exists after the revelation of the twist. And after Ignatiy Vishnevetsky received harsh comments for giving the twist away in the first paragraph of his review, it might be a good idea to leave all that alone. What I can talk about though, is Oblivion’s production design and cinematography, both of which are superb. Darren Gilford could very well have been a Modernist architect, for the way he designs the spaces of Earth are quite possibly among the prettiest I’ve seen. The house among the clouds that Jack and Victoria share is simple, roomy, and designed with a considerable amount of taste and precision, as is the scout vessel that Jack pilots. It maneuvers like the Millennium Falcon, but it’s more agile and quicker around corners. It’s a house and a flying machine that I would love to own.

But Oblivion’s design is brought to life by Claudio Miranda’s cinematography, which is every bit as crisp and as elegant as Life Of Pi’s. The house I mentioned earlier is framed and lit to look like a cosy home, yet it has a character of its own; light streams in through the full windows, creating silhouettes and shadows. It changes with the time, taking on different personas as the sun disappears and reappears. Miranda also likes his symmetrical wide shots, and here we get a few, particularly during the skinny dipping scene. He also loves his focus, and he uses it to great effect here. Maybe a movie can be salvaged by its aesthetics.

Oblivion is directed by Joseph Kosinski, who also wrote the graphic novel on which it is based. He doesn’t have much directing experience, but he conceals it well by letting his veterans run the show. Cruise is definitely born to carry a gun. He’s been doing it his whole career, and now we just expect him to have one. But he’s also spent his career playing very conflicted — and slightly confused — characters, so there’s no question there as to his ability. Morgan Freeman, too, certainly knows how to adapt to the situation, but his character, more than anything, is heavily underutilized. In fact, most of Oblivion’s secondary characters are underutilized. They are lost amidst the movie’s meandering narrative and stretched out running time.

It is a movie that is essentially composed of fragments from Wall-EMoon, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. There is nothing really genuine about its story, neither are its narrative elements anything to ogle at. Its mundanity is lifted slightly by good technique and design, and by M83’s pumping musical score. But even they can’t really save Kosinski’s apocalyptic vision of twists, turns, and clones (oh no! Spoiler alert).

Best Moment | There is no best moment.

Worst Moment | I can’t really say it, because that would mean giving up the twist. But yes, there’s one particular line that almost made me laugh despite its attempts to be perfectly serious.

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