Oblivion (2013)

I'm one of Tron: Legacy's biggest apologists. I saw the movie as a feature-length music video. I think its soundtrack is Daft Punk's strongest album. The visuals are sharp and pretty enough to keep the eye amused, and the storyline was largely incidental. Sure, it didn't have a single memorable line of dialogue. Sure, Michael Sheen was clearly acting in a completely different movie from everybody else in the production. And any kind of serious science fiction statement it was ever trying to make - the grand themes of science, medicine and religion promised in the trailer - were clearly quelled by Disney for fear of being remotely controversial, which is to say, thought-provoking. And yet every movie is the work of many hands, and it's statistically improbable that none of those hands will have any skill. Tron: Legacy clearly had a lot of love put into it. My particular highlight is the computer interfaces seen in the real world, used by Cillian Murphy's character to stop the hack at Encom in the beginning, and then the huge, ancient Solaris box that Garrett Hedlund's character discovers. While the actors are just poking imaginary buttons, you can see realistic prompts and command histories. While it's not entirely clear what Clu is trying to accomplish by driving his aircraft carrier thing at the exit to the Grid, the score pumps it up to something that's close to gripping. The movie was like a cake made entirely out of icing: far from filling, but icing is still nice, right?

I was ambivalent about Oblivion, even on the basis of its trailer, until two things happened. I discovered that the score was by fellow French electronic band M83, and I discovered that it had the same director, Joseph Kosinski. I went in with broadly similar expectations: a feast for the eyes and ears, with a relatively light plot tying matters together. As long as the movie didn't actively insult my intelligence, I'd be happy.

Oblivion borrows heavily from many sources of science fiction: Moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Half-Life 2, Portal, Rendezvous With Rama, Wall-E, Planet Of The Apes, Blade Runner, Independence Day. In fact, if you take all of those works and lay them out, you'll cover Oblivion almost completely. This should not be construed as criticism; the comparison, in most cases, is favourable. Filmed largely in unspoilt black wilderness in Iceland, it takes place on an Earth which has been invaded and successfully blasted into oblivion by aliens known as Scavs. Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough form a two-person team whose job is to repair the drones whose job is to defend the vast water-powered offshore fusion reactors whose job is to supply power and resources to the Tet, a gigantic orbiting space station where the rest of humanity lives.

All of this is revealed in an opening narration by Cruise's character, whose first name, in accordance with US film industry regulations, is Jack. Right out of the gate, Jack Harper's narration gives us some hesitation. Defend the reactors from what, exactly? Why, from the few remaining Scavs on Earth. But didn't humanity win? Well, perhaps not entirely. In what sense did humanity "win", anyway, given that there's nothing left of its world but the Washington Monument? These inconsistencies are not accidents, but Jack and his teammate/lover Victoria accept their scenario unquestioningly. After the standard science fiction day-in-the-life tour of Jack Harper's world, his cool little white aircraft, his improbably dust-free ultra-modern glass home in the clouds, and his comparably sterile relationship, a standard science fiction kick-off-the-adventure event happens: a antique human spaceship crash-lands, containing a woman (Olga Kurylenko) whom Jack recognises from his vivid recurring dreams.

Much of the movie from this point onwards can be predicted easily, but I urge you not to be that person. I singled out Blade Runner as an inspiration because Oblivion, similarly, is a movie which works in terms of some fairly broad concepts, using long dialogue-free sequences to let the concepts breathe and to let the audience soak up some atmosphere. It would be easy for you to instead use this time to start jumping to conclusions about what's going to happen next, which plainly isn't the intention. Themes are artificial intelligence, fate/predestination, identity, warfare and religion. This time around, they actually do get more than lip service paid. Some interesting messages come out, which I'll cover after the jump.

There are points of weakness. Although the technology, gadgetry and architecture are impressive and nifty and sweet, "colourful" is not a word that can be applied. There's an excessive reliance on the old teal and orange palette, particularly in indoor/underground scenes, with plain white often replacing teal, just to make things even less interesting to look at. It's almost the photographic negative of Tron: Legacy (which was orange/teal/black where this movie is teal/orange/white). There's a smattering of action sequences: they look good enough. They pass the time. The dialogue serves, but still isn't in the same league as "quotable". Many of the characters, I would call sparse, seemingly only existing to join dots up without embellishment. But another way to describe them might be "elegant". It's a reasonably simple story, all things considered. Perhaps additional complexity would have just felt arbitrary.

The score is not a point of weakness. M83, like Daft Punk before them, have created something not entirely like their usual fare, but risen to the new challenge with confidence and capability. Pretty enormous events transpire in the final act of this movie, and M83's soundtrack amplifies these events to an extent which, as I say, rather flips the score/movie relationship around, and makes it the movie which is playing catch-up in the emotional stakes, trying to construct a story momentous enough to fit a work of music that was pre-existing. Their final track, played over the closing credits and also titled "Oblivion", could be the best thing they've ever recorded.

Oblivion is better than Tron: Legacy in almost every respect, is a step forward for Kosinski and, as big-budget widesceen blockbuster sci-fi goes, is not immediately forgettable, which in my book makes it great. There is something good here. This is a recommendation.



Oblivion has two messages that I can see. One of them (relating to warfare) is quite amusing: if you find that your home has been invaded and destroyed by a vast, faceless, technologically advanced civilisation who wants to plunder your natural resources but honestly couldn't care less if you live or die - a civilisation which defends its property using unmanned drones and cookie-cutter soldiers raised on a diet of disinformation, such as "the war is over" and "we won" - then the best way to fight back is using guerilla warfare tactics and - I kid you not - suicide bombing. Yeah, I'm saying that this is a movie in which Morgan Freeman plays Osama bin Laden. I mean, I could be wrong. But then, why don't the invaders just harvest hydrogen from a nearby gas giant instead of stealing perfectly good water? Oh, right: because they're lazy jerks who don't care enough about ecology to develop something better than what they've got. IT'S A METAPHOR.

The other message relates to religion. Jack Harper is a mindless adherent to a religion which withstands no scrutiny. He dutifully follows the instructions of his priest/prophet, Victoria, who in turn relays those instructions from their shared God, Sally, to whom Jack himself is never permitted to speak directly.

Until the very end of the movie, that is. Hence my belief that the other message is: if you meet God, kill her.