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Oblivion (IMAX) (2013)

April 20, 2013

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written by: Joseph Kosinski, William Monahan, Karl Gajdusek & Michael Arndt

produced by: Joseph Kosinski, Peter Chernin, Ryan Kavanaugh, Dylan Clark & Barry Levine

directed by: Joseph Kosinski

rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence, brief strong language and some sensuality/nudity)

runtime: 124 min. 

U.S. release date: April 18, 2013

 

The trailers for “Oblivion” made the movie look like a live-action “WALL*E”. At least that’s what resonated after repeated exposure to it, but thankfully that’s not what the filmmakers were going for here. Some viewers may be frustrated that they’re not watching an action-packed thrill ride and are instead given something that accentuates a tone of suspense and revelation, while exploring character identity and behavior. Granted, there’s an inevitable familiarity to past science fiction films here, but there’s also an attempt at something a bit more high-minded and intellectually challenging. The key word is: attempt.

More on that later, but first, it must be said that “Oblivion” is a visual delight to be behold on the big-screen, especially for sci-fi fans. The movie is filled with strikingly designed images of barren landscapes and expansive skies filled with hundreds of stars and colors, the likes of which we’ve never scene before on-screen. What we see and hear in “Oblivion” is captivating to our senses and almost makes us forget the moments of deja vu and convoluted storytelling.

It’s the year 2077 and Earth is unrecognizable. Sixty years ago there was an alien invasion which caused a nuclear war that poisoned the planet. The moon was destroyed, which prompted massive earthquakes and hurricanes, leaving the planet uninhabitable at the time. Human survivors evacuated, reestablishing themselves on Saturn’s moon, Titan. An orbiting corporation now monitors Earth, extracting its natural resources with the hopes of one day establishing it as a place that humanity can return to.

 

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Assigned to maintain the immense “Hydro-Rigs” is Commander Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), a mechanic who lives with communications officer Victoria Olsen (Andrea Riseborough, “Disconnect”) miles above the surface. As co-workers and lovers, they are the last couple on Earth and commit to being an “effective team”, reporting to officer Sally (Melissa Leo, working a Southern drawl) with updates on the planet’s progress. Jack does the physical work, flying his bubble ship over what was once New York City (it’s always New York City), making sure the weaponized drones that ward of the alien Scavengers (called Scavs), while Victoria monitors from above.

It’s both idyllic and uneventful, so then why does something not feel right for Jack? Why is he having these vivid dreams that feel like memories, of a connection to a mysterious woman that he meets high atop the Empire State Building?

More questions come when a vessel falls from the sky, crashing to the surface.  Jack manages to recover one sole survivor, Julia (Olga Kurlyenko, “To the Wonder”), the same woman from his dreams. Before he can make any sense of it all, Jack is apprehended and dragged away by what he thinks are Scavs. Jack’s world is upended when he learns he’s been captured by humans, led by Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman, hang on, it’s a cameo role), who’ve survived underground for years. This new development leaves Jack thoroughly confused as he tries to figure out who Julia is, how to explain all this to Victoria and Sally and – most importantly, who or what is his place in the world?

 

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Okay, with that last part, I make it sound more deep than it actually is, but that’s what writers William Monahan, Karl Gajdusek, Michael Arndt and Joseph Kosinski (who also directs, from his unpublished graphic novel) are going for. They inject enough excitement after the first hour, like high-speed chases (at times reminding us that Cruise was once Maverick) above the planet’s surface and shoot-outs with Scavs, which will satisfy those coming into “a Tom Cruise movie” with certain expectations. But, like “WALL*E”, it’s the first hour that really intrigues. It really doesn’t take much either.

Just discovering this future Earth as Cruise makes his rounds as the hypnotic electro-beats supplied by M83 is gratifying enough. The modern architecture of Jack and Victoria’s home in the clouds is aesthetically pleasing and all the hi-tech sci-fi gadgets are cool, but it all feels quite antiseptic and cold, detached even. Yes, something’s not right for these characters, but there’s also something that prevents viewers from connecting to them as well.

Maybe it is that coldness or maybe it’s the superfluous scenes that play out, like Riseborough going for an evening skinny dip and predictably pulling a full-clothed Cruise into the pool. Hmmm…..or that scene at the end where Cruise drops a needless F-Bomb (the only time he swears), both of which likely earned the movie its rating. Neither scenes were necessary, done for style and coolness, but they unfortunately stand out.

Another element that’s hard not to notice in “Oblivion” is the cast. Cruise must keep a Lazarus Pit in his Scientology cave – he just doesn’t age. The guy is 50 and it doesn’t show, still running  (even if it’s on a treadmill) and jumping in just about every movie. Kosinski surrounds the actor with two attractive female co-stars here, a 31 year-old (Riseborough) and a 33 year-old (Kurlyenko), while someone more his age, the 52 year-old Leo remains off-world. Is that such a big deal? Not really. It’s what we expect from Hollywood. It would make for a more unique film though if they changed that up somehow. Just an observation albeit it one that took me out of the film as I tried to make sense of what the screenplay was serving as the movie went on.

A couple other recognizable actors turn up as survivors, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (“Mama“) as Beech’s right hand man and stunt woman-turned-actor Zoe Bell (“Death Proof”) with zero lines.

 

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I’m not the only one who left the screening confused about certain plot details. There were twists that were predictable, but to fully comprehend certain glossed-over explanations required a bit more discussion than expected. Maybe a second viewing with a “knowing what I now know” lens might help, but I can’t see myself finding out anytime soon.

What I can appreciate is how much Kosinski truly loves this genre. “Oblivion” is only the second film from the writer/producer/director and it’s also the second science fiction film, with his last one being the hit sequel “TRON: Legacy” a couple years back. Like that film, “Oblivion” has a sharp style and technology to it. It’s set in a more tangible, lived-in world though, filmed in specific Icelandic and American locations that are quite breathtaking. Considering how amazing his films look, I’d be content seeing Kasinski continue making sci-fi or fantasy films, it would just be nice if he allowed someone else to take over writing credits or at least narrow it down to him and one other writer – four can make the final product suffer.

One aspect Kosinski absolutely nails is the sound and vision of the picture. He filmed it in 4k, which utilizes a true IMAX screen to its maximum potential, filling out the screen in wondrous ways. The crystal-clear images were filmed with Sony’s CineAlta F65 camera and mixed in Dolby Atmos surround sound. So, paying extra for IMAX is absolutely worth it for this one.

Regardless of my qualms with the script, “Oblivion” remains a large-scale sci-fi film that tries to harken the thinking man’s sci-fi of the 70s and 80s. It’s an almost great film, that could easily have been much worse. The second half may not be as intriguing as the first, but I still respect it for aiming for a “Twilight Zone” vibe. Since solid science fiction films are a rarity each year, I’d recommend it for providing something that will get an audience to think a bit, even it does leave them kind of frustrated.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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