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Non-Review Review: Oblivion

Director Joseph Kosinski wears his science-fiction interests on his sleeve. Tron: Legacy was obviously an update of an eighties science-fiction cult classic, and Oblivion feels like another form of pulpy homage. At its best, Oblivion feels like a spiritual successor to those wonderful cult science-fiction movies of the seventies and eighties, by way of classic version of The Outer Limits. Oblivion isn’t the strongest piece of science-fiction I’ve seen this year, nor the most ambitious, nor the most intelligent.

The movie is full of twists and turns, but few that any genre aficionado will fail to see coming. Instead, the movie largely works because it feels like an affectionate homage to those old-school post-apocalyptic pulpy sci-fi adventures. It’s cinematic nostalgia, but it’s lovingly crafted and skilfully rendered. Kosinski might not be the best storyteller working in the business, but he has a wonderful eye and keen sense of how to construct a beautiful scene.

On top (what remains of) the world...

On top (what remains of) the world…

Thinking about it, Oblivion shouldn’t really hold together. It doesn’t really have characters so much as it has plot functions. Each of the characters plays a fairly conventional and rigidly-defined role within the narrative, and it’s easy enough to predict certain twists in the narrative based on the pieces in play at a particular moment. The characters seem to exist t advance the plot, which exists for Kosinski to homage and update the conventions of the kind of cult science-fiction classics you don’t really see any more.

A lot of Oblivion would flow smoother if the characters simply talked candidly to one another, but those sorts of logical conversations would undermine certain twists or developments. So characters don’t share vital information with one another, even though it would be a lot easier for everybody involved if they did. “If I told you,” one character informs our lead, Jack Harper, after a shock revelation, “you would have thought I was crazy.” It’s hardly water-tight, but it’s efficient. Despite the presence of Tom Cruise and the fact that the film has a relatively tight core cast, Oblivion is not a character-driven film.

Cruisin' for a bruisin'...

Cruisin’ for a bruisin’…

If you stop too long to think about any of the plot twists and revelations, you (like Jack Harper) start to ask questions that the film won’t necessarily answer. The trick is in distracting and misdirecting the audience so that these problems don’t become major flaws. And, to a large extent, Kosinski succeeds. I’m one of the few who genuinely loved the director’s work on Tron: Legacy. I can understand the argument that Kosinski favours style over substance, but Oblivion is a movie that really hinges on that style. It’s a very conscious throwback to a very particular type of film, and it succeeds on those terms.

Kosinski is very clearly trying to construct a modern film in the style of Logan’s Run or even the classic Rollerball. You can see a lot of that in the movie’s aesthetic. Despite being set in the distant future, the production design almost feels retro. Jack Harper spends most of the movie running around in a white jumpsuit that is only rendered slightly off-grey by all the dust. He waves around what looks like a slightly more stylish super-scope. A large portion at the start of the film is dedicated to introducing Harper’s various gadgets and gizmos, including a dirt bike that looks like somebody just stuck some white blocks on it.

Droning on...

Droning on…

It’s very much in the spirit of those sorts of seventies science-fiction films, only updated for the present day. It goes without saying that the special effects are fantastic, and Kosinski has a keen eye for how to shoot that production design to make it look as lovely as possible. He doesn’t clutter the film with lens flare or needless 3D. Instead, plays with light and shadow, framing shots around the sleek and stylish special effects that have all been lovingly rendered. The techniques that Kosinski uses are all state of the art, but the approach is nostalgic.

Kosinski might not make the best use of his supporting cast – Andrea Riseborough and Olga Kurylenko are both under-used – but he does know how to work the spectacle. There is a nice effective sequence where Jack encounters another human survivor that is handled quite impressively, including a number of skilfully constructed shots. In the modern age of digital special effects, we’re probably far too cynical to wonder “how did they do that?”, but it’s nice to see some special effects work that really feels well-crafted and artfully-used, rather than just using them functionally.

He's tied down to his job...

He’s tied down to his job…

Even the movie’s plot feels like an attempt to channel a classic sort of science-fiction. I won’t offer too much by way of a summary – the film twists and turns so fast that even a basic plot synopsis would give away some spoilers. None of the individual twists are breathtaking or game-changing, but the way the story is constructed makes it feel like a sixties science-fiction anthology story brought to life with the best possible production values.

Things are constantly in flux, constantly moving, constantly shifting. Again, those well-versed in the conventions and storytelling tricks of science-fiction will spot several of those reveals as they approach, but the individual surprises aren’t the point. Kosinski seems to be attempting to evoke the feeling of something like The Outer Limits, a pulpy science-fiction story where the viewer is never entirely certain of anything. It’s not about the end result.

Jacked up and ready for trouble...

Jacked up and ready for trouble…

The plot itself – delivered by Tom Cruise in a lengthy opening monologue and repeated through exposition several times over the course of the film – feels almost incidental. It’s the kind of pulpy set-up you’d read in an old science-fiction magazine, or catch on a late broadcast on some strange channel. The difference here is the execution. The craft gone into Oblivion is superb, and it creates a sense of what directors like Franklin J. Schaffner would have done with this sort of budget and this sort technical know-how, much truer than many of the misguided remakes or reimaginings of those cult classics.

Cruise also deserves a great deal of credit for helping to hold the film together. Cruise is a solidly reliable leading man. At his best, he can produce a truly spell-binding performance – like in Collateral. At his worst, his charisma is enough to anchor a film. Jack Harper never feels fully three-dimensional. He gets some speeches and some quirks and some hobbies, but Harper never really seems like he’s a fully-functioning character. Cruise’s performance does a lot to develop Harper, and demonstrates how effective Cruise is as a lead actor. After all, he carries a lot of the film almost solo, and Cruise is the guy who has to convince us to invest in this story.

He's going for the high score...

He’s going for the high score…

I really liked Oblivion. It’s a fun science-fiction throwback, one stunningly well-made, and one crafted with a deep and abiding love for the genre. It’s not revolutionary, and it probably works better as a love letter to a particular style of classic film than as a story in its own right. That said, Kosinski’s enthusiasm for the material is contagious and his technical sense of craft is always entertaining.

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4 Responses

  1. Definitely a well made film and agree that Tom Cruise holds the film together remarkably well. No matter how bat-shit crazy his personal life might appear to be, he’s a very solid leading man.

    Despite this, I just felt like the film was lacking. It needed more. More depth.

    • I can understand that. I liked it a lot for what it was, and that included being pretty shallow. It’s not great science-fiction, but I think it’s sort of pulpy. I can imagine reading this syndicated in a trashy fifties magazine, or seeing it in black and white on The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. And I really liked that aspect of it.

  2. I must have liked it more than you. I loved the use of the Icelandic landscapes and the contrast with the greenery of his hideaway. I disagree with your comment about Andrea Riseborough – I did not think she was underused. Beautiful to look at and I really enjoyed the story and the use of the drones I guess you would call them. However I must admit that Morgan Freeman was a little “hammy”.

    • I actually didn’t hate Oblivion. Maybe I’ve just softened since my original watch. I didn’t mean “big budget Outer Limits episode” in a bad way.

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