Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Oblivion (2013) – Review

Review: Oblivion is a thrilling sci-fi action film with impressive visuals, but a weak plot. The film is about Earth in the wake of a devastating war leaving it no longer habitable for humans. Most of humanity has been relocated off-world. Jack and Victoria, however, remain. They are a two-person cleanup crew, in charge of drone maintenance – the drones protect larger machines charged with extracting Earth’s remaining resources from the holdout Scavs (the Aliens that attacked Earth). Victoria cannot wait for their mission to be over so that they can join the others, but Jack is less enthusiastic. He has a feeling he cannot shake: “If we won the war, why do we have to leave?” Their mission is close to completion when a transport vessel crashes in their sector. Jack discovers a survivor, Julia, who changes everything.

Oblivion and last year’s Prometheus fit in the same category: both are visually excellent and are compelling cinematic experiences, but when their plots are held up to more in depth scrutiny things get a bit wobbly (though, Oblivion is not quite as convoluted as Prometheus).

Director (and co-writer) Joseph Kosinski certainly has a handle on visual storytelling and creating engaging and thrilling action sequences. The film’s best attributes are its stunning visuals and exciting action. Kosinski’s broad narrative arc is not bad either. The film is structured as an amnesia mystery of sorts with Jack playing the detective trying to discover why he feels in a way contrary to what he knows about his life. This kind of narrative, especially with a charismatic lead, draws the audience in – and this is true of Oblivion and Jack. His character’s internal narrative is enough to pull the audience into the narrative, and Kosinski gives the viewer just enough character moments to form a connection. Plus, the film’s first act mostly consisting of a typical day in Jack’s life is very engaging. The supporting characters are not quite as strong or developed, but the audience is given just enough to understand them (which, at a minimum, is all they really need). Kosinski also keeps the narrative moving, which is also a key component to this film working (despite its weak plot).

Basically, Kosinski has made a film that is superficially entertaining: it looks great, has a strong action component, and has characters the audience understands. It accomplishes, more or less, what it needs to be to meet the expectations of its intended audience (though, that is not a high standard to strive for). Underneath all the flash, it is, however, not a great film. While the broad narrative arc is fine, the detailed plot is full of holes and contradictions (the need for a happy ending, for example, is so strong that in order to have one the film must sacrifice one of its most important character attributes and plot points: why is this Jack Harper different). Much like Prometheus, examining the actions of characters and the plot with even a little amount of reason seems to call into question many of the film’s most important moments, which dampens the experience a bit in the aftermath. But, again, in the moment, the film is very compelling and entertaining.

Along with the fun action set pieces and enthralling cinematography and production design, Oblivion also features some interesting themes. Kosinski plays with the idea of what makes us human. For Jack, there is just this instinctual feeling that there is something missing in his life, which causes him to go out and look for it (this is his principle character trait that puts in motion the whole narrative). While with Victoria, she clings to the idea of getting back to the rest of the population off-world. She eagerly is looking forward to it. She is also seemingly much more protective of Jack than he is of himself or her. These traits drive who they are and the decisions they make. Meanwhile, the drones actually are treated like characters (to some extent) as well (much like R2-D2 they beep and boop eliciting an emotional inference from the audience), but they are purely directed by their mission prompts, protocols, and commands. The film has sort of a subconscious discussion of human versus machine, emotion versus command. It is interesting because the characters and the audience want to treat the machines as human-like characters, and Kosinski toys with this (through the emoting sounds the drone’s make), when really they do absolutely nothing (in terms of their actions) to indicate they are making decisions emotionally (like humans).

Also, getting back to Jack feeling like Earth is his home and not really wanting to leave while Victoria cannot wait to join the others, Kosinski subtly asks what makes a place home. Again, it comes down to an emotional feeling. Victoria is not developed enough to know why she wants to join the others so much, but one can infer that she craves a sense of community, that it is home for her, a place where she feels safe. For Jack, he has a deeper emotional connection to Earth, specifically the ramshackle house by a lake that he has fashioned for himself as sort of a retreat from his mission. He feels at home there and thus does not want to leave it.

These two themes (among others) play into why Oblivion works on a broad level. The audience subconsciously picks up on these themes and connects to them, along with liking the characters and being entertained by the action. Humanizing the machines allows to audience to accept them as heroes and/or villains, and understanding what the characters consider home and safe allows the audience to link with them on a deeper level, which again pulls them further into the narrative – they now have a stake in the characters and the outcome.

All in all, Oblivion is in many ways both a good film and a weak film. Aesthetically it is very impressive. It engages the audience throughout (which is more than most films seem to do). And yet, the supporting characters are not developed enough (specifically Julia) and the plot seems to be questionable in certain places when overanalyzed, holding it back from being a great sci-fi action mystery.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Joseph Kosinski’s first film TRON: Legacy was visually stunning, but fairly weak in all its other components. With Oblivion, he has again delivered a film that is visually marvelous, however this time he also made an entertaining film that has a good lead character and a decent narrative (though, as discussed in the review, the script could have been stronger). While he has yet to make a great film, he has the talent to do so, given the right script.

M83’s Anthony Gonzalez and Joseph Trapanese compose a good score for the film, filled with ominous tones that create a post-Earth sci-fi atmosphere for the film. Their score fits the tone of the film very well. Claudio Miranda’s cinematography is brilliant (he is probably in the top ten D.P.s working right now, he just continues to produces phenomenal digital photography), as is Darren Gilford’s production design. Their work creates such a stylishly interesting and lush world. The juxtaposition between Jack and Victoria’s clean modular (sci-fi chic) living space and the barren wasteland of Earth is quite striking. Jack’s secret valley (that reminded me of the secret hidden valley in The Land Before Time) cottage by the lake is also great (the piece of drift wood on the fireplace mantle looks like Serenity, right?), especially when put against the wasteland he patrols and the emotionally void tower he is stationed in (though, honestly, I would love to have it as my house – the views alone are killer).

The performances seemingly take a backseat to the exciting action and wonderful visuals, and to some extent this is true due to most the supporting characters not being given much to do, but the lead role still requires a strong enough performance to pull the audience into the narrative or nothing else would work. Tom Cruise plays Jack with his typical mix of charm, vulnerability, and toughness. He creates a protagonist who is likable and believable – the audience wants to see him win. Andrea Riseborough is good as Victoria. While the character is a little underwritten, she brings a lot to the performance making her character flawed and vulnerable, allowing the audience to empathize. Olga Kuryenko has the difficult role of playing a character in Julia that has almost zero character development – she merely exists as a plot point. Yet, she does enough to make it work. Morgan Freeman and especially Melissa Leo are good in small supporting roles, both delivering their dialog with a wonderful zing.

Summary & score: Oblivion works as a big fun action sci-fi mystery popcorn blockbuster, but not so much as a hard sci-fi drama. Manage your expectations accordingly. 7/10

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