Oblivion: Ground Control to Major Tom

by admin April 19, 2013 8:00 am
Oblivion: Ground Control to Major Tom

Two movies into his feature filmmaking career, Joseph Kosinski has yet to establish a signature visual style or set of themes, but between TRON: Legacy and now Oblivion, he has provided us with a pretty good idea of what his dream house would look like. Trained as an architect before moving over into movies, Kosinski lavishes attention on the designs of his various worlds and has an obvious affection for structures that sport clean, sharp lines, have lots of open space (with plenty of glass windows) and are bathed in a harsh white light -- think Bauhaus meets a Williamsburg rave. Actually, your best reference point is probably the hotel room from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a movie that's stylistic impact on Oblivion is profound and all-encompassing. It takes brass balls to ape the various environments and props from Stanley Kubrick's seminal science-fiction favorite and act like it ain't no thang, but Kosinski goes about his extended homage with an obvious confidence that stems from his design background. And the results are there on screen: Oblivion looks fantastic, immersing audiences to a distant, post-apocalyptic future that's more authentic than most movies of its type. I like to imagine that Kosinski had his own Monolith positioned just next to the camera throughout the shoot, which he could occasionally reach over and touch for inspiration.

As a director, Kosinski is a great production designer. But as a dramatist? Not so much. Just as TRON: Legacy ground to a screeching halt whenever the digital avatars populating the Grid put down their cool-as-hell Frisbees identity discs and opened their mouths, Oblivion is built on an ultra-thin narrative foundation that collapses the minute the audience is asked to care about the characters, rather than the world surrounding them. It's tempting to forgive the movie its numerous shortcomings simply because it's attempting to build its own sci-fi universe, rather than appropriating or recycling one from an old video game, television show or movie. (Technically, Oblivion is adapted from a comic book, but the comic was also created and penned by Kosinski and never actually published.) But when you stand back and really look at it, Oblivion isn't that much more original than the new Star Trek series or the Alien prequel, Prometheus. It may not be a direct remake of 2001, but boy does it borrow plenty of design and story elements from that movie, as well as from such other sci-fi features as Moon, Wall-E and even Zardoz.

Oblivion begins promisingly enough, with a day-in-the-life introduction of Jack Harper (Tom Cruise, once again bringing his disconcertingly focused intensity to the role), the last man on the planet formerly known as Earth. The year is 2077, some 60 years after an invading alien army blew up the moon, resulting in a nuclear retaliation that -- combined with the aforementioned lunar problems -- rendered Earth uninhabitable. What few survivors there were boarded rocket ships bound for Saturn's moon, Titan, which is where Jack and his companion Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) will be headed after they finish their two-person clean-up mission, harvesting natural resources to transport to the new human colony and fixing the weaponized drones that pick off the remaining aliens, known as "Scavengers." The duo resides in a glass shoebox in the sky, which Jack departs from every morning by climbing into his aircraft and plunging to the ruined, desolate planet below. And after toiling at the "office" all day, he flies back into the clouds where Victoria -- who has spent the day tracking his movements and checking in with their boss (Melissa Leo) back at headquarters -- is waiting for him with dinner and maybe, just maybe, some late-night nookie.

Leaving aside some extraneous, overly expository voiceover narration that feels like a last-minute addition after somebody -- maybe Kosinski or, more likely, the studio -- got cold feet, Oblivion's first act is a model of great sci-fi filmmaking. The unhurried pace, minimal dialogue and close attention to the little details of this formerly-familiar, now-alien environment serves to draw the audience into Oblivion's future world and make us eager to learn the mysteries at its center. Because clearly something's fishy about the current status quo; even Jack senses it, what with the dreams (or are they scraps of memory?) that float through his mind from times past in which he's laughing and cuddling with a beautiful woman (Olga Kurylenko, perfectly typecast as a literal dream girl). Again, Kosinski commendably introduces clues slowly and always through Jack's eyes; we're in step with him, rather than one step ahead. The turning point comes when that woman turns up planetside in the flesh, setting off a chain of events that, in theory, no one will see coming. Unless, of course, you're an avid and experienced sci-fi fan in which case you will absolutely see each event coming, probably five to ten minutes before it actually happens.

Now it's eminently possible for a sci-fi yarn to be both wholly predictable and wholly enjoyable. But that yarn has to have more snap and verve than the limp rag we wind up getting here. Once the set-up is out of the way, it becomes all too clear that Kosinski has constructed a one-story house with no second or third level, either narratively or thematically. Getting into specifics would obviously require an intensive level of spoilers, so I'll just say that much of the fault lies in his attempts to ground the spectacle in a character-based story in which two of the characters -- both of whom are female, sadly -- are complete ciphers. Now, one could make the case that many of the humans in 2001 aren't especially complex either, mostly playing second fiddle to a very mission-oriented A.I.-enabled computer. But one of the central ideas that Kubrick and his collaborator, Arthur C. Clarke, were chasing after in that film is the evolution of consciousness through the eras, from apes to man to computers to, in the end, star babies. Oblivion doesn't have the same richness to it; though it aspires to explore questions of identity and its impact on matters of the human heart, it gives these topics a surface-level treatment at best as Kosinski hangs them on a love triangle that lacks any emotional resonance. (Collapsing two sides of this triangle into the same person would have resulted in a far more interesting narrative.)

It's almost as if Kosinski senses his own film's lack of substance, because the second half of Oblivion is all over the place, as the director abandons the careful, deliberate rhythms of the previous hour for a grab bag of chaotic and narratively unnecessary action sequences (you know those action-heavy teaser playing on the teevee? Much of that footage comes from the end of the movie, as the first act is mostly devoid of explosions), unconvincing romantic beats and not just one, but two climaxes. It all plays like vamping on Kosinski's part, an attempt to placate a studio more interested in a Tom Cruise sci-fi blockbuster than a 2001 spiritual sequel, as well as cover up the shakiness of the movie's foundation. At this point, there's no question that Kosinski designs beautiful-looking movies; they just don't stand up to closer inspection.

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