Tuesday, April 23, 2013
I took the afternoon off Friday, and in the mood for a film I went to the first afternoon showing of Oblivion, one of my most anticipated films of the year since I first saw the initial trailers a few months ago. People, this movie did NOT disappoint -- I absolutely LOVED it. LOVED IT!! Epic, twisty, romantic, and GORGEOUS, with a very human heart at the core of its bleak dystopian storyline, Oblivion is one of the best science fiction films I've seen in -- well, I don't know how long! :)
The year is 2077, sixty years after alien Scavengers (or "Scavs" as they're called throughout the film) destroyed the moon, unleashing a wave of devastating earthquakes and tsunamis that left the planet devastated. The survivors left alive fled to one of Saturn's moons (now called Titan) and Tet, a space outpost which oversees the activities of technicians like Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) stationed on Earth, tasked with overseeing the extraction of the planet's remaining resources for use on humanity's new Saturn-moon home. Jack and Victoria's main purpose is to protect the machines that extract the planet's seawater from Scav attacks, and to maintain the fleet of weaponized drones, programmed to eradicate any remaining hostile alien resistance.
Jack is a drone repairman, who leaves his station home, hundreds -- if not thousands -- of feet above the Earth's surface each day to repair Scav damage to the drones from the night before. Victoria, the team's communications officer (as well as Jack's lover), remains behind to monitor his work via and relay their progress to Sally (Melissa Leo), their contact on Tet with the creepily sugar-sweet southern accent. With only two weeks left in their assignment before the promised evacuation to Titan, Victoria is excited and eager that nothing go amiss, anxious to keep their superiors impressed with their effectiveness as a team. Jack, however, is strangely reluctant to leave the devastated planet, carrying within a secret that he's loathe to share even with Victoria -- he's haunted by dreams of Earth, of a pre-war New York City, and of the face of a woman he doesn't know yet finds himself inextricably drawn to imagine every time he closes his eyes.
One day, a routine drone repair mission goes horribly wrong. Following a drone signal into a sinkhole -- which turns out to be the remnants of a library -- Jack is cornered by a cleverly-executed Scavs trap and nearly captured. His close call with the Scavs causes Jack to start to question everything he's assumed about his enemy and their goals as regards his work. After the unthinkable happens and the Scavs succeed in destroying one of the water collection stations under Jack and Victoria's care, he discovers a Scav signal beacon using the spire of the Empire State Building to send a signal into space. He destroys their device, but not before it does its work, bringing an orbiting spaceship crashing to Earth -- a spaceship containing hibernation pods holding humans, one of whom is a woman with the face that's haunted Jack's dreams -- a woman who knows his name.
Jack is horrified when the drones attack the helpless pods, managing to save only one -- his mystery woman, who turns out to be an astronaut named Julia (Olga Kurylenko) who's been in stasis for sixty years. When he defies Victoria's wishes and takes Julia back to the crash site to retrieve the ship's black box recorder, they're captured by a group of Scavs -- and the enemy turns out to be the last thing Jack ever suspected. The Scavs he's been taught to hate are fellow humans, survivors of the war led by an old soldier named Beech (Morgan Freeman). Beech pushes Jack to look beyond the boundaries of the life he's been living -- the work, the off-limits, allegedly radiation-poisoned areas of Earth -- and see the truth about Sally and the Tet -- that there are no aliens, and that everything Jack thought he knew about the war was a lie.
I'm going to pause my recap of the film there, because for me part of the joy in this film experience was in watching the twists and turns of the plot unfold. But seeing as I have never been what one could call a spoiler-free blog, I'll save a few points that I can't resist addressing until the end of this post. :)
The world of this film, the look, is just amazingly rendered on-screen. The post-apocalyptic scenes of Earth, battered nearly beyond recognition, are made all the more eerie by the glimpses Jack encounters in his daily work of the life that existed before the invasion -- remnants of the Brooklyn Bridge, the crumbled stone facade of a library, etc. The most striking is perhaps the top portion of the remnants of the Empire State Building, at least eighty-percent of the structure buried under rubble, with only the battered remainder of the iconic observation deck and the spire still in view. The familiar, half-hidden by the rubble of a ravaged planet, is at once both frightening and eerily captivating.
The clean, sharp lines of Jack and Victoria's outpost home, all silver and glass and chrome (nicely reflected in Victoria's costuming choices -- where Jack gets dirty and worn in his work on-planet, Victoria remains freakishly perfect, smartly dressed and coiffed, almost eerily reminiscent of the Stepford Wives. As the film progresses there is an eerie sense of inevitability in all of Jack and Victoria's interactions -- every time he questions something about their life or work, she knows just the right word or action to take to refocus Jack's attention, dismissing his questions.
While Jack's station is all clean, sharp lines, the rubble of the portion of the planet they're tasked with overseeing stands in stark contrast to the clean lines of their base -- it's a harsh, inhuman environment, until Jack uncovers more and more of the fragmented rubble of a once-vibrant civilization, especially books. Books are, of course, not the only detritus of humanity that Jack covertly collects during his drone-repair missions, but as a bibliophile myself they are the most meaningful -- records of one of humanity's most precious gifts, imagination, free-thinking. Jack collects his treasures and brings them to his secret woodland hideaway, a pocket of Earth filled with forest and lakes. It is unclear if this is simply a corner of the world that missed the apocalyptic conflict that destroyed most of humanity, or if it is the Earth gradually being re-born -- but either way, the beauty of Jack's hideaway in contrast to the desolation overseen by the drones speaks to the wild vibrancy of pre-war life, a life that stands in stark contrast to Jack and Victoria's very scripted relationship and work.
I've seen some reviews of Oblivion arguing that it's too derivative, the elements that make up the story have all been done before -- or that it's sexist, focusing on Jack's transformation and heroic journey a the expense of the film's two female characters. To address the first point, if previously explored plot elements or sci-fi tropes are presented to me in a new, fresh, glossy package -- I love the twist. To address the second point -- I tend to accept the characters in this film at face value, and this is very simply Jack's story. I don't think he's heroic at the expense of the female characters -- if anything, Victoria is tragically a victim, through no fault of her own, while Julia exhibits a quiet strength that I find in no way diminishes her vis-a-vis Jack's more "flashy" heroics, and Jack's determined attempts to do right by both of the women in his life are arguably admirable. In sum, if I'm taking a simplistic view I'm willing to give the film many subsequent viewings to change my mind. :)
Here's where things are going to get a little spoiler-y. Prompted by Beech's veiled hints that there is more than meets the eye to Jack's work, he and Julia risk an excursion into one of the off-limits radiation zones -- only to discover that there is no radiation, and most shockingly, Jack has a double -- Tech 52, performing the identical drone-repair tasks. This is where things get really interesting in my view, as Jack #1, also known as Tech 49, not only has to process that his work is a lie and his memories of a pre-war life with Julia are real -- but that he is a clone, something that should not be. Everything the Scav survivors believe, everything within Tech 42's slowly reawakening humanity argue that a clone is more machine than human, a pale copy of its source DNA.
And this is what I loved about Oblivion -- it's suggestion that what makes humans human -- free choice, the ability to love, to think -- is a spark that the machine that resides in the Tet, that seeks to strip Earth of its resources, can never truly extinguish. Simplistic? Sure...but Jack is a likeable character here, and I thoroughly enjoyed the world of the film and the way in which Jack's awakening, his sacrifice, unfolds on-screen.
Here Cruise is very much in his element as the man versus the "system," if you will -- and like him or loathe him (and I used to count myself in the latter camp, for some reason I will never understand, as the Mission: Impossible movies are just plain awesome), I have to give him props for turning in a performance that felt both moving and authentic. And I loved seeing Kurylenko on-screen again -- her role here is admittedly a small one, but it's pivotal to the storyline, and I'd argue her character here is a step up from her appearance as Camille in Quantum of Solace (although Camille is admittedly one of the stronger heroines in the Bond series).
Also, since I don't watch Game of Thrones I've apparently been missing out on this incredibly gorgeous Danish guy named Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, playing Beech's second-in-command Sykes. I thought about posting a picture of Nikolaj actually in this film, but then I googled him and came up with this, so you're welcome:
This is only director Joseph Kosinski's second film, but seeing as Oblivion is based on his original, never-published graphic novel concept, if this guy ever directs anything besides Tron films in the future (sorry, I just have no interest in going THERE) I'm definitely interested -- I think he's got a fantastic imagination, and the world-building he oversees in this film is just superbly done. And the score, people, THE SCORE! The music is just GORGEOUS -- sweeping and romantic and tension-filled by turns, it's become a new favorite.
Oblivion happily lived up to all of my expectations and was a thoroughly entertaining, occasionally thought-provoking, GORGEOUS piece of cinematic science fiction. I can't wait to revisit it.