Thursday, 11 April 2013
Film: Oblivion (2013)
I thoroughly enjoyed this neat sci-fi from the director of Tron: Legacy, Joseph Kosinski. It looks gorgeous, has some clever concepts, a literate script with one or two genuinely surprising twists, an emotional heft and a great central performance from Tom Cruise. In many ways it reminded me of the classic sci-fi movies of the 1970s.
In the 2170s, the Earth has survived a war with an alien aggressor but at the cost of the planet's viability. The alien threat blew up the moon causing massive natural disasters which decimated the population and landscape. Humanity has fled to Saturn's moon Titan leaving only a mop up crew of people who monitor the hydro extracting machines that send power to keep a huge orbiting structure going and to run and service a fleet of droids that protect the power sources from the Scavs: remnants of the alien horde. Jack Harper and Victoria (Cruise and Andrea Riseborough) are a team who also share a relationship. Jack travels in his flying skimmer servicing the droids while Victoria is his eyes and ears at their base. Both report to Sally (Melissa Leo) who is on the space station. When a spacecraft crash lands, bringing back some astronauts in suspended animation from a space mission 60 years earlier, Jack investigates and, to his surprise, sees the face of a woman he has been dreaming about, in a past before the war that he couldn't have experienced. When the droids try to kill these astronauts, Harper saves the girl, Julia (former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko), and then falls in with the leader of the Scavs, Malcolm, played by Morgan Freeman. Jack now has to come to terms with the fact that nothing he knows is true and that the war is far from over...
Post apocalyptic movies are nothing new with many a film maker pitching up in the desert to film the end of humanity. What makes this latest dystopia so engaging are the stunning locations which, aided by tasteful CGI, really give the impression of our world ravaged. The building of an outdoor set of the top few floors of the Empire State Building in the middle of a hauntingly beautiful yet bleak vista makes for an arresting and convincing image while also being crucial as a key point in Jack's impossible memories of a relationship with Julia 60 years previously. If you're going to make a movie of this type, you might as well borrow from the best and there's more than a brief nod to the original Planet of the Apes in the look and feel of Oblivion (look out for a blink and you miss it appearance of the Statue of Liberty's torch). There also seems to be a sly nod to Pixar's Wall-E with Harper's job and the little plant he keeps.
In story terms, there's the bigger influence of The Matrix, in terms of Harper realising the world is not what he thinks it is and in being guided by the wise black man with the deep voice. There's also the droids hunting down survivors which recalls the main plot of the second and third Matrix movies. But while we can see the DNA of other sci-fi works in Oblivion, it's in the way that the creators riff on these elements that gives Oblivion an originality and freshness which means it can hold its own in the company it emulates. One great twist, midway through (which I won't spoil, relax!) takes what you think you knew and totally throws it out of the window. It's good that, in a movie like this, where you think you know where everything is going, that the rug can still so successfully be pulled out from under you but that the twist is clever and organic and leads the film into an interesting new direction.
While I admired some of the technical aspects of Tron Legacy, I also found it rather clumsy; here, freed from the constraints of kick-starting a franchise, Kosinski proves himself to be a lyrical director, able to frame a beautiful shot and to make extensive CGI sequences involving and exciting. The main set piece, where Cruise is chased in his insect like skimmer by a phalanx of dangerous flying droids, is well realised and convincing. The droids themselves - large round spheres, with huge guns - are menacing, evoking the Daleks in their destructive ability, and provided with some excellent sound effects that make them seem even more formidable. A sequence where three of the droids go on a rampage, swooping and destroying over several floors is brutal yet beautifully realised through sweeping camera movements.
Tom Cruise has an affinity for sci-fi and can normally be guaranteed to pick a decent script when he delves back into it. Always a committed actor, here he seems even more so putting in an excellent, nuanced performance. Less superheroic than his traditional leading man roles, Cruise is convincing as an everyman who finds his world view crumbling. I've not enjoyed a performance so much from Cruise in years and he is really, really good in this. In support, Kurylenko's Julia is less developed, existing as a catalyst more than a character. Riseborough, as Jack's partner and lover is really good though: sexy, controlling and vulnerable, she makes Victoria come to life and you feel for her as her world tumbles around her too. The use of the phrase that Sally constantly poses "are you an effective team?" represents their relationship and the moment when Victoria gives a different response is moving and sad.
Oblivion is a really good sci-fi film and one that is satisfying both intellectually and emotionally. If you came out of Prometheus feeling cheated then perhaps this could be the film that restores your faith that big concept story led science fiction is alive and well. Highly recommended.
GK Rating: ****