Ben Buckingham brings a fresh perspective to the Tom Cruise-helmed science-fiction film Oblivion. Read his articulate and in-depth opinion after the jump.
Director, co-writer & producer Joesph Kosinski previously brought us deep into a supposedly empty computerised world, shown to be teeming with ‘life’ and ideas, in Tron: Legacy. With his sophomore effort, he places us evocatively within a world once overburdened with life, now empty. Or very near to empty. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and Victoria Olsen (Andrea Riseborough) are stationed on the dying Earth, tasked with maintaining the drone fleet that protects gargantuan reactors sucking up the last of the oceans for energy processing. We are told their memory has been wiped, a compulsory order from the powers that be. Sixty years earlier an alien invasion destroyed the moon & plunged the planet into an ecological maelström from which it has never recovered. Humans won the war but, having lost home base, have now fled to the distant moon Titan and await the precious energy harvest. All except for mission control, Sally (Melissa Leo), floating in near-orbit aboard The Tet, an ominous triangular monolith in the sky. Of course there is a ‘but’ and an ‘all is not as it seems’.
For better or worse, this is most definitely a Second Film, those strange eclectic beasts that stalk the moors after a début success. Kosinski’s execution is excellent, with stunning cinematography and enough breathtaking wonders to make it worth your dime. He is a genre director to watch, and he has certainly proven his action chops. However, there is an immaturity to his handling of themes and structure. Kosinski’s fingerprints are all over this film (he even wrote the unpublished graphic novel on which it is based, a curious note), to the point of over-investment. This is clearly a work of devotion. Unfortunately, the difficult second film is often the spoilt child of cinema, burdened with all the hopes and dreams of a lifetime and the desire to get them on screen before the cheque writers say no. Still, better to have a film that aims for too much than a film which aims for too little.
In attempting to check every box on the sci-fi checklist, Oblivion fails to entirely focus and nail its point home with the earth-shaking power of masterful sci-fi. Even those without an extensive knowledge of science fiction will most likely figure out what the mystery is, or at least part of it. However, this isn’t sci-fi determined to boggle the mind with puzzles, even as it plays its cards close to its chest. This is grand old dame sci-fi, operatic and amped up to 11 with a scope that only Iceland and IMAX can properly represent. While Kosinski has admitted to Oblivion‘s significant debt to seventies sci-fi, it owes an equal debt to the likes of Homer, with numerous references to the epics and ideals of the ancient world, and Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Lays Of Ancient Rome here gets re-injected into culture for some poetic significance.
The sampling stretches across eras, from literature to cinema, and unfortunately it does give the film a slightly tired, ‘been here before’ vibe. However, I cannot slam it for this as I do not believe it to be laziness or lack of imagination on the part of the writers. The themes of the film match a consistent fear represented to a dizzying degree in our contemporary culture: the fear that knowledge may be our greatest strength and yet our Achilles heel, allowing us to disappear into a destructive delusion based on absolute trust. The narratives we are telling ourselves appear to be stuck in a nightmare groove, wherein we spin stories about the horrors that await us in a future governed by technology and inhumanity. I cannot help but support cultural products that suggest we should ask more questions about the glass houses we live in (literally in the case of Oblivion; there’s more than one sweet abode to drool over).
It came as no surprise to me that Kosinski has an academic background in architecture. His two films have been obsessed with space, shape, and the world of objects. In Oblivion, the drones have a powerful and terrifying presence, rightly so, and it is perhaps one of the films failings that it does not make more of this aspect (admittedly, I would happily just listen in rapture to the noises they make). There is a hint of a kind of object-intelligence to them, but along with a few other uncanny elements, this hint is allowed to float away on the breeze.
The film is most engaging when it invests life into its landscapes and machines, adeptly following the ‘show don’t tell’ rule. Too often it allows itself to be bogged down in narrative twists that drag the film out to an unnecessary degree, and fails to allow its bold aesthetics and soaring score to speak for this silent world. There are a few too many superfluous elements to this film. However, while they do hold it back, they do not entirely eclipse its strengths, and there is much to enjoy about this film. Strong performances and bizarre love triangles make for engaging emotional spectacle, entertaining without being too distracting from the meat and potatoes: ideas and what ifs. Cruise’s performance draws us into this world, easily carrying us along as he attempts to unravel his own personal mysteries. One particular character reveal caught me off guard, and cleverly opens up the film to a wealth of intriguing possibilities. Even as the film goes for too much, it does somehow all click together and flow with a gentle ease that can perhaps be taken for granted in our hyperactive media culture.
As a bold work of classical science fiction it is exceptionally crafted, with a truly 21 st century eye for awe and terror. A flashback reveal in the final stages is wonderfully handled, as the film preps us for an intriguing aesthetic amalgamation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hellraiser II: Helbound & Independence Day. We have seen this before, but that’s okay, like taking a different path on an old, favourite walking track. Despite a certain coldness in its demeanour, I still found myself engaged and enjoying. It’s the kind of film you may find yourself doubting, and then re-watching once a year on a rainy Sunday afternoon. It has a charm and a humanity, a quality lacking from far too much big budget sci-fi nowadays. Kosinski has aimed for seventies sci-fi, in all its humanity-adoring and rickety mythologising glory, and he may well have hit the mark. Oblivion is as uneven and patchy as many of the sci-fi films of yore, and yet I still find great pleasure and intelligence in them, and I still found much to enjoy here.
By Ben Buckingham