By Bret Dorman
Imagine every sci-fi flick combined to form one mega movie starring the most mega movie star, Tom Cruise. Sounds like it should be awesome, if not a tad bit overwhelming, right? While that is true, I can’t help but find some of the more reflective and “meditative” moments downright boring. For how much ground the movie covers, including copious twists and turns handled pretty well, the movie still contains large chunks where nothing happens.
I was just hoping for a fun ride. While I did get one, I got much more than I bargained for. I also got a super serious pseudo philosophical sci-fi exploration of man, robot, and more; as well as a ridiculous B-movie with troubling pacing issues that also manages to be one of the most gorgeous movies of the year (so far).The Story: Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are the last two people on Earth after a nuclear war with an alien race. They fix robots and guard giant machines to help protect the human race, which is on some spaceship. But Jack has his doubts and soon finds himself on a journey of Earth, and self, exploration that may end up in him saving ALL OF MANKIND!!! Also, he wears a baseball cap sometimes.
If you’ve seen trailers/commercials for Oblivion then you’ve already seen about half the twists and turns. Since this movie is very heavily influenced by a bunch of sci-fi things including but not limited to 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Jetsons, Moon, I, Robot, Galaxy Quest, Star Wars, Blade Runner, Wall-E, Dredd, and The Terminator; its safe to say any big twist you can see coming from a mile away while all the minor twists you can see from either a mile or a few feet away. Nothing should be too surprising. Still, I’ll assume you know nothing until I hit Spoilers! and then I’ll go into all the pros and cons of this crazy story.
My problem with the characters can be summed up in Jack Harper’s semi-enthusiastic retelling of a “classic” Super Bowl game while he fixes a drone in a semi-demolished football stadium.
(Side Note: This is SUPER nitpicky and doesn’t lower my enjoyment of the movie the way some other things do, but the movie has a weird thing with its newly established ground level rules. All of NYC and its glorious skyscrapers are now just one big land mass, except for the Empire State Building which sticks out (btw the ESB is SUPER tall). The George Washington Bridge is also now partially IN the ground. The Washington Monuments is mostly buried as well. But some football stadium is conveniently only kind of covered in dirt? Meh… I’ll allow it…)Jack recaps the last play of the game, but neglects to name the two teams or any of the key players involved. Seeing as this is 1) Sci-fi and 2) The future, I’m okay with making up teams and players (see: The Dark Knight Rises/Gotham Rogues). But instead we get a bunch of fake no names in the most cliched sports story of ALL TIME. Down by one touchdown, quarterback fumbles, picks up his own fumble, throws a hail mary blindly into the endzone and a THIRD STRING ROOKIE WIDE RECEIVER LEAPS UP FOR A ONE HANDED GRAB and wins the game. Insert imaginary crowd cheering as Jack spikes an imaginary ball. What?! By utilizing the most generic ‘hoo-rah’ sports moments with completely non-existent characters, the writers set up a perfect metaphor for the rest of the movie; cliche, pulling for the heartstrings without actually earning any of its moments, and poorly drawn characters.
(Another Side Note: The stadium shows that it belongs to the team that won the Super Bowl that year. That means that the team that won the Super Bowl also played in its home stadium. This has NEVER happened. Super Bowl stadiums are picked out at the beginning of the year. No team has ever played a Super Bowl in its own stadium let alone won the big game in its hometown. I get they were going for convenience, but to write one little line acknowledging this could have upped the imaginary stakes…)
At the same time, I love the look of this movie. Everything from the cinematography to the visuals to the character design/wardrobe to the vehicles, weapons, and locations. Even if the movie misses with the broad strokes, it gets the finer points down like a pro. It’s like a Seurat painting, only instead of all of the tiny dots adding up to this:
They add up to this:
(Side Note: I googled “Guy who painted with dots” to get Seurat’s name. Thanks Google for making me look smart!)
My biggest problem with Oblivion is the pacing. Like with Evil Dead, I take issue with the overall serious (a.k.a. bland) tone the movie goes for. What makes this even more frustrating is how much ground is covered by the movie. Essentially, there is a twist at least every 15 minutes. However, in between each big moment that adds up to one crazy ride, we have to reset all the energy and drain the entire movie of its momentum. Luckily, M83’s score can instantly bring us back into the proper mindset and Tom Cruise’s action-oriented acting still makes everything exciting. To me, Oblivion is constantly at tug-of-war with itself between really frustrating and really cool/fun, but regardless, I never felt the overwhelming philosophical and emotionally heartwarming message it clearly strives for in the end.
Okay, lets go over what happens at around what time mark:
0min – Jack Harper lays out the ‘backstory’
15-20min – The second downed Drone’s distress call is a fake. Woah!
30min – One of the water sucker uppers blows up. Woah!
40min – The shuttle full of people lands. Woah!
1hr – Jack is captured and finds out Scavs are people! Woah! (predictable even not watching trailers for sure, but still fun.)
1hr 5min – Jack and Julia are married! What?!
1hr 10min – Mission Control kills Victoria with a giant awesome robo-assassin drone. Crazy! (as soon as Victoria said “Not an effective team” and the building went auto control I thought “wouldn’t it be cool if they just ‘re-booted’ a Jack Harper and they had to fight?” … oh how little did I know…)
1hr 20min – CLONE JACK! YES!!! (As soon as the bubble jet landed I cried out “Please let that be another Tom Cruise!!!” Side Note: I first saw the movie with just me and one coworker after hours at the theater I work at, making jokes like how the Flight Recorder looks like the Ghost Trap in Ghostbusters.)
1hr 40min – Drones attack Rebels.
1hr 45?50?min – Flashback of entering The Tet.
1hr 50?55?min – Enter Tet.
What I don’t like is that after every little twist and turn, the movie resets back down to Jack staring at some thing, whether it be the night sky, some lady, a book, a drone, a plant, or a bobble head. This movie isn’t about cause and effect, its about wandering around and extreme coincidences. It feels like a video game. Get to Point A, accomplish task/fight bad guys, watch a cutscene, repeat. Even the visual displays of the computers and vehicles are designed to help Jack find his way around the “world map”, er, I mean, desolate landscape…In a way, Tom Cruise is the perfect actor for this role. Jack is a man who is brainwashed looking for his personal identity/purpose in a world where he is the most important person that everyone wants on their side. Yeah. First off, Jack openly states right at the beginning that he has had “memory wipes” but doesn’t seem to understand that that means people were in his brain messing around and could be lying to him. However, as mentioned before, Cruise is also terrific at acting through action. His escape from the Scavs (the big leap), the way he puts his knee down then twists around as he drops into the library to begin with, the way he flips his gun onto his back, the entire escape pod jettison sequence; those are all prime examples of Cruise at his best. Whether he is shouting lines like “WHO, ARE YOU?!” or murmuring “Fuck you, Sally.” Cruise can deliver the goods out of nowhere since the script is a tad muddled and clunky, especially around the romance parts. Victoria exists to keep Cruise distracted and Julia exists to keep Cruise focused, but either way he’s better on his own.
All of the characters are designed extremely well, including the Predator-esque Scavs and their more anime-esque rebel alter egos. Even in comparison to Badass Morgan Freeman (who gets minimal screen time), the Drones really steal the show. Their cold presence, HAL-esque leer, all seeing scanners, and awesomely intimidating sound design make them formidable baddies. The shot of the uber-Drone (the one that kills Victoria and attacks Jack) as it enters the house through the curtain on fire is perhaps the best of the movie. Sally being nothing more than a giant super space computer leads to questions like “Where did Sally come from?” but I guess the point is that technology is bad no matter what planet you’re on and you should blow it all up.
In the end, Jack #49 sacrifices himself and saves the world. He leaves his wife and baby (what?!) behind and then Jack #52 comes by. This is really creepy. Although it could have been more creepy if after the girl asks “Who is that?” Julia responded with a smile, “Your father.” The real question is how many other Jack’s are out there? Presumably at least 50 others. Are all of those Jack’s going to intuitively find the secluded hideaway and want to play cabin/house with some strange memory lady and a kid that genetically speaking is theirs…? The movie kills its main character then brings him back (in a way) to give us the satisfying self sacrificial saving the world ending and happy ending together. And while its cool at face value, leaves a lot of unintentional “mind bending” questions unresolved.The end credits allude to the fact this is based on a Grpahic Novel story by director Joseph Kosinski. While it turns out that Graphic Novel is yet to (and may never) be released, I can’t help but feel this movie could have been better if it were longer or shorter. In the Graphic Novel inspired case, a longer movie might help us establish some of the more serious tones without having to rush through the dialogue and make it extremely generic. Like a Michael Mann movie, Oblivion knows what emotions it wants to get and why they should try to get them when they do, but it approaches the characters very clinically (like a robot making clones!). It is okay to have long pauses where nothing happens as long as it helps the overall tone. Very little actually happens in the first hour of Once Upon A Time In The West but its still extremely riveting and well done. I’d love to see a longer version that cuts out some of the dialogue and just lets the movie settle when it needs to settle and not rush through all its crazy plot points.
On the other hand, I’d LOVE to see a Crank style mega short 1hr 30min version that cuts out all the slow parts and embellishes on the B-movie vibe and celebrates its own insanity. Instead of a movie with odd ebbs and flows of surprising moments and contemplative ones, we get an insane movie that chucks an already giant snowball down a hill and watches it become bigger and bigger. Unfortunately the movie goes for the middle ground, which is always more boring than either of the two extremes. Fortunately, its still a fun movie made up of enough tiny moments that make it fun for one go around.
In Conclusion, the biggest thing I find frustrating about Oblivion is its rewatchability factor, or lack of it. The movie is a mash up masterpiece of everything you could want in a popcorn sci-fi flick, except it has bigger aspirations on its mind. The dialogue is too one the nose to be deeply philosophical but the imagery is gorgeous and might stick with you. In the end, while I am split down the middle, I reward the movie a “worth seeing” for getting the smallest details right and aiming for the moon, even if it did blow the moon up.
Final Grade: B
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