Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Review - Oblivion (2013)

Oblivion (2013) is the second film by Joseph Kosinski, following his 2010 directorial debut Tron: Legacy. Like all films, Oblivion is the product of many artists working in unison, but this movie is very much Kosinski's child in stark ways that actually parallel its plot in the end. Kosinski conceived of the world of Oblivion and originally wrote it as an unpublished comic book before writing the screenplay for the film version. In addition to writing the film, he produced, directed, and designed its architecture. In many ways, Oblivion is a film about Kosinski as much as it's a film about survival and the Power of Love on post apocalyptic Earth.

Almost all of the film is shown from the point of view of its lead character, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), and features few other characters for him to interact with. Jack is one of the last humans on Earth after the planet was wrecked by an alien presence, working tirelessly to repair defense drones that protect the last of Earth's water supply as it's siphoned by huge machines with the intention of taking it elsewhere to supply a new colony. Harper's daily routine is almost completely mechanical, making him little different from the drones he maintains. Andrea Riseborough plays Victoria Olsen, Jack's partner and only human contact. Together, the two of them maintain the last remnants of their society on the orders of Sally (Melissa Leo), stationed on the Tet, a massive space ship in orbit around Earth.

Jack's world is turned upside down when he discovers the cryogenically frozen body of  Julia (Olga Kurylenko), a woman whose face he's been seeing in visions and memories that he knows can't be true given the current state of Earth. Jack and Victoria wake Julia and slowly begin to realize that something is wrong, leading to an investigation that unveils the truth behind the alien war and the Scavengers, a group led by Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman). Something is obviously amiss from the second we see Jack's first visions, and it's enjoyable to watch the truth unfold, even if it does so with a few too many long, long monologues (the film opens with an unnecessary world building monologue on par with the needless opening narration of 1998's Dark City.)

Oblivion alternates between the quiet, meditative sci-fi of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, with long, beautiful shots of its world and the more action-packed sci-fi of Star Wars, with cartoony laser battles that do little to complement the rest of the film. It's a film that serves as a tribute to the great works of sci-fi of the last 50 or so years, but does so without regard for the fact that it's kind of hard to reconcile having both 2001 and Star Wars in the same film. There are visual references to Planet of the Apes (a shot of the downed Statue of Liberty), Star Wars' Death Star trench run (as Jack evades rogue drones in a canyon), and Predator (the outfits of the Scavengers.) There are thematic and plot references to the plot of 2009's Moon and HAL of 2001. Jack collecting remnants of the old civilization and carrying with him a small sapling is a connection to 2008's WALL-E, and further cements his character's role as being yet another drone, even if he has his own hopes and dreams.

Its discontinuity in genre is Oblivion's biggest weakness. Equal time is spent paying homage to contemplative films and to action films,but without the finesse to really make it work. Oblivion is far stronger when it focuses on the quiet, more human moments; its action scenes are almost entirely dull, in spite of gorgeous special effects and sound design. I understand that it's all part of Kosinski's love letter to sci-fi and that he's trying to give something that appeals to a wider audience more interested in a summer blockbuster, but I feel that the film really hampers itself by trying to be everything at once. When it's good, it's fantastic; when it's not, it's very dull.

Overall, Oblivion is an uneven film with some flawless landscape shots, nice art design, great sound, and an interesting but messy plot. For sci-fi movie fans, digging through the homages and visual references can be almost a separate experience entirely in addition to just watching the movie. If you really enjoy the quieter scenes and not the actions scenes, or vice versa, it can be a tough film to get into, but I feel the good outweighs the bad and there's a lot of interesting subtext to look through that helps me (mostly) ignore how dreadful some of the action sequences are.

From this point on, I will be discussing major plot points. Don't read any further if you want to go into the film unspoiled.

Kosinski and Sally

Jack Harper carries flashes of memories that he knows don't fit in with the world as he knows it. After spending time with Julia, who still has all of her memories but is apprehensive of Jack and Victoria at first, Jack learns that everything he knows about the current conditions on Earth are a lie. The Scavengers are not the remnants of an alien invasion force; they're the last surviving bands of free humans, hunted to near extinction by the Tet, which is actually a giant mechanical lifeform that travels through space absorbing the resources of planets. Sixty years ago, Jack, Victoria, Julia, and other members of the spaceship Odyssey encountered the Tet near Jupiter (both the name of Jack's ship and the giant black god machine being blunt references to 2001.) Jack and Victoria were taken aboard while the rest of the crew, still in cryogenic sleep, was jettisoned towards Earth, where they would spend the next six decades in orbit.

The Tet is an unknowable alien intellect whose intelligence is left purposefully vague. Whether it's a malicious invading force or simply a huge, hungry animal is ultimately unimportant to its role. The Tet's unique ability is that it's essentially a living factory, able to produce endless supplies of a variety of drones, both mechanical and organic, as we learn once we see pods containing thousands of duplicate Jacks and Victorias. It uses the machine drones and its numerous Jack and Victoria drones to maintain its resource collectors and to eliminate any threats to its feeding. The Tet assimilates the personality of NASA mission controller Sally through reading and absorbing Jack's flight computer. It uses this false persona to communicate with Jack and Victoria, though it may not even fully understand the words and tones it uses. The fact that the Tet gives Jack and Victoria a lonely but loving life together shows that it isn't an entirely malevolent being. It annihilated the human race, but at the same time shows care in keeping its children happy and healthy, whether out of guilt or misplaced affection.

Jack and Victoria are controlled by carefully constructed memories, as the Tet takes bits and pieces of what it found on board their ship and uses them to assemble a history, a romance, and their everyday life. In this sense, what Tet/Sally is doing as a character is essentially the same as what Kosinski is doing as the film's writer/director/producer. Both take remnants of information from the last sixty years and construct a new world around it; as the Tet creates the reality that Jack and Victoria inhabit, so Kosinski creates their fiction. It's no coincidence that a film stuffed to the brim with references and situational similarities to older films has an antagonist that uses a very similar technique to manipulate its world. Kosinski doesn't do this as an attack on the genre, but rather as a caution against becoming lost in memory/nostalgia, as a commentary on the Author as God and the flaws that such a concept inherently carries, and as a way of subtly making a film about making a film. It's no coincidence that Tom Cruise, a man with a loud, sometimes grating Hollywood personality, is cast in the role of a mass produced action hero who looks his director in the eye and says, "fuck you, Sally" as one of his final lines.

In Oblivion is the joy and sorrow of making a film and a deconstruction of its genre akin to Cabin in the Woods' deconstruction of horror films. How successful it is, and whether building a film as an essay rather than focusing on telling a story that stands on its own, is certainly debatable. Cabin in the Woods is certainly the more enjoyable film, but I still really enjoy what Kosinski tried to do here, in spite of its shortcomings. Oblivion stands better when approached as a deconstruction rather than as a straight story, and that's definitely easy to find unappealing.

HAL and Sally

With a singular red eye and black body, the Tet immediately calls to mind the image of 2001's HAL 9000. In both films, the hero takes apart the AI from within, though 2001's David Bowman uses less drastic measures than Jack Harper. The interior of the Tet is filled with fetal copies of Jack and Victoria in yet another visual callback to 2001, this time in reference to the Star Child at the end of the film. There's also the fact that HAL and the first syllable of Sally rhyme.

Why Kosinski chose to use the Tet and the Sally AI as a sort of ultra HAL is one of the more curious decisions in the film. While Victoria has a working relationship with the Sally AI, it's nowhere near as complex as the relationship David has with HAL. Both HAL and the Tet focus primarily on self survival with a curiosity about human nature that goes hand in hand with cruelty. Perhaps Kosinski uses the HAL imagery for his God Machine as a way of acknowledging 2001 as in many ways the birth of modern sci-fi in film. What could be a more appropriate overlord for a world littered with the collective memories of the sci-fi film canon?

Whatever it is that happens at the end of 2001, David's contact with the monolith above Jupiter causes an evolution into a new form of life, grotesque and unknowable. It's possible that Oblivion represents what would have occurred had HAL lived to see the arrival at Jupiter rather than David. Rather than a giant space baby observing the cosmos, we have a HAL lookalike which has grown and evolved into its own self-sufficient lifeform, a massive abnormality that represents the ultimate evolution of the AI as a living being. In a way, Oblivion as a story is an alternate history telling following the events of 2001.

The War on Terror

Aside from all of its fixation on the sci-fi canon, there's a strong political undercurrent to Oblivion that doesn't really amount to much, but has some fascinating elements. Kosinski is not blunt about his politics here, but it's hard to not look at some of the film's basic plot elements as a commentary on America's War on Terror.

Jack Harper is an active participant in war, as he repairs weapons that seek and destroy the Scavengers and potential threats to the Tet's system of controls. He doesn't even realize what a big part he plays in this war; he simply thinks his drone buddies are defending themselves from hostile alien invaders. He helps the drones maintain pumps that drain the Earth of its resources while mostly keeping a safe distance from the brutality of the violence below. Unlike many sci-fi film heroes in man vs. alien situations, Jack doesn't show active disdain for the Scavengers, but treats them as another part of the daily grind. He's an all-American working man, complacent in his government's (in this case the Tet's) warmongering.

The fact that the drones target desert dwelling groups plays into the War on Terror imagery. Victoria watches violence unfold from her command tower, completely detached, while Jack lets the drones deal with the unpleasant business. Once he finally sits down and talks to them, he learns that the Enemy Other he's heard so much about is no different from himself (at least at a base biological level) and that the true evil is the totalitarian presence enforcing its will on the people. To stop this evil, Jack literally becomes a suicide bomber and blows up the Tet, crippling the seat of power.

I don't think Kosinski's intention was to say "suicide bombers are the real heroes," but rather that in a climate in which death from above strikes targets indiscriminately (Jack sees the drones murder the cryogenically frozen crew of the Odyssey, sans Julia) such actions may inevitably arise. Though Jack's final actions ultimately save his world, they're base, desperate actions. There's no easy answer as to how to deal with the Tet, so Jack takes the only course he can think of, even if it's horribly self destructive. While the images here are interesting, Kosinski doesn't do enough with them to say anything truly profound.


My single biggest disappointment, aside from the boring action scenes, is that Oblivion presents some interesting questions about memory and identity and proceeds to do almost nothing with them. Jack learns that he's a clone and encounters another copy of himself (which he promptly tries to strangle out of revulsion instead of communicate with) but never stops for very long to think about his own nature, or the nature of the man he was grown from. Some thought is given to this topic in conversation with Jack and Julia, but not as much as the topic deserves.

The question of love is addressed in a completely mechanical way. Once Jack's memories of Julia as his wife return, he immediately returns to loving her at the expense of Victoria. There's no effort put into questioning whether he still loved (or ever loved) Victoria, or whether he could love both women equally; after all, he's spent years growing closer and closer to Victoria, not knowing Julia existed. To move on from her so offhandedly is cold in a way that Jack doesn't appear to be in any other scenes.

I understand that the film's love triangle is not a focal point of its storytelling, but I think this is a missed opportunity. Jack's memories of his old life returning should not cancel out everything he's learned and felt in the last few years with Victoria. His decision should be harder and more complex than a simple "Julia was my wife, I will return to Julia." He treats the problem as a machine would, approaching it as an if/then statement rather than a complexly emotional situation. I feel that Kosinski, in viewing his film's world much as the Tet views Oblivion's Earth, allows his film to become too emotionally detached to the point that it sacrifices some real potential. That's not to say that there's no emotional value; there's a lovely scene in which Jack and Julia reunite over A Whiter Shade of Pale. It's just that there's so much more that could have been explored more deeply if time had allowed and if time hadn't been wasted on an excruciatingly bad Scavengers vs. Drones showdown.

Oblivion has its problems, from the action to its emotional coldness (which isn't always a bad thing in sci-fi at all, but is when you're trying to portray a romance) to the fact that it really doesn't stand that well on its own if you're not versed in some of the bigger works of sci-fi, but I appreciate what Kosinski has done here and enjoy how thoroughly this film feels like a passion project, wrinkles and all. If nothing else, he has an amazing eye for visuals. I'm looking forward to seeing what he does next, though I think he needs to work to find additional writers more in tune with his concepts.

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