25 April 2013

First Impressions: Oblivion

Last week I predicted that Oblivion (2013) would be a sort of OK film, but would not have the kind of cultural impact where kids wear "Tech 49" ironically on T-Shirts twenty years from now. After viewing the movie and letting it digest for a few days, I won't retract that statement, but I came close. And that should be an indicator of how good Oblivion really is.

Let's get a few things clear off the bat. "Good" is fairly relative. Here there be SPOILERS to follow - let's make this a discussion of the film rather than a review - It's an incredibly derivative movie, at times borrowing elements from Moon (2009), Independence Day (1996), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Terminator: Rise of the Machines (2003), Total Recall (1990), Wall-E (2008), The Matrix (1999), and Spaceballs (1987). However, even though it mashes together this bizarre conglomeration of elements it does spin a few tropes around, contain some genuine surprises, and in general does a nice job with what it rips off while looking gorgeous doing it. Perhaps it would be best to recount the plot via the rip-offs.
That perfect "oh shit!" moment

Ironic enough, the film's most original aspects come from its initial controlling idea. Think Wall-E starring Tom Cruise with a bit more sex and less garbage. Cruise and his partner are effectively the last people on earth cleaning up the nuclear mess made by the humans themselves in a desperate attempt to counter a hostile alien invasion. Some of the nasty buggers are still running around causing problems for drones and big cleaning machines.

There's a lot of well-placed mystery here, which raises many questions which actually end with a lot of payoff (something Prometheus [2012] could learn from...). Tom is the inquisitive type, driven by dreams of former Bond Girl Olga Kurylenko and a soft spot for books, the great outdoors, and Led Zeppelin (there's been a ton of Zep on film lately - I'm wondering if they made director Joseph Kosinski go back and re-edit where the needle drops on the record player like they did for Argo [2012]). Eventually curiosity gets the better of him, and he's captured by aliens while investigating a crashed orbiting ship full of humans and (WTF) Olga herself. Ooh doggy!

Here's where the Total Recall (1990) parts come in - Tom obviously has met Olga in a past life, but he's had his memory wiped prior to starting his current 5-year mission. It also becomes apparent via some handy Morgan Freeman-driven exposition, that Tom was once a pretty bad dude but now, thanks to an exotic woman, he's back on the side of the good guys.

From here the flick goes really really crazy. When fighting off drones and forced into what is labeled a "radioactive zone" Tom Cruise finds himself face to face with none other than...Tom Cruise. They fight, but in the end, the Tom Cruise with the Yankees Cap beats the Tom Cruise wearing an Ascot. Of course he does. From there the Moon vibes start really settling in. It almost seems really apparent that Kosinski checked out Duncan Jones' underrated 2009 film and then scarfed on the really cool twist at the end. Because Oblivion is slightly obtuse in describing the actual events, I'll recount them here:

In 2017, Planet Earth was visited by a weird floating object called the Tet. We sent our best astronaut (Tom Cruise) and his team, including his wife (Olga Kurylenko), and co-pilot (Andrea Riseborough) to check them out, but they got stuck in a tractor beam. Feeling a sense of dread, Tom ejected the pod with his wife and crew in status, which orbited around earth for like 60 years. Then, the Tet (otherwise known as HAL. Not even really inspired by, just straight up HAL from 2001) cloned a huge Tom Cruise army that attacked the world and then built lots of drones to keep humanity subjugated while the Tet made these huge machines to suck up our oceans ("You're gonna be in trouble cuz they gonna steal your air!").

Let that penultimate fact set in for a bit. Yes, aliens came and cloned a Tom Cruise army. Not for nothing, that shit would be damn formidable. And charming. Moving on-

After humanity had its ass kicked, the Tet kept a few of the Toms around for basic upkeep while the drones demolished everything else. I suppose they studied the little guy, and understanding that humans worked better when they think they're fighting for humanity (Oh! The Matrix!), concocted this little scheme where they used a reproduced image of NASA's flight director (Melissa Leo) and a wacky story about nuclear war and a colony of remaining humans on Saturn's moon, Titan, to keep all the Tom Cruises in check. One of the more clever means of doing this was restricting each Tom to certain areas surrounded by "radioactive zones," which in fact, contained other Tom Cruises doing the exact same thing. Whether or not they all of their own little baseball cap or ascot I don't know.
What a gorgeous wasteland. You got a quarter?

So by the end all the machines go nuts and turn on Tom in his own house (and they look exactly like this dude in Terminator: Rise of the Machines), and he escapes to the secret lair of Morgan Freeman, where they've been storing all of humanity's art and crap. What's cool is that this actually elucidates some of the other inconsistent questions in the film. It's really unbelievable throughout that Tom and his rag-tag gang could  have fended off the "Scavengers," as they call the Aliens, with 2017 technology, and then suddenly be capable of setting up a colony on Titan, within you know...a few months, as well as huge planet-cleaning machinery, and incredibly advanced drone and weapon technology, especially after a world-devastating war. As it turns out, yes, this is all unbelievable because that's all alien (although to be precise, there are actually no aliens in this film, just a single intelligent computer and its Tom Cruise Army), and the humans living underground are exactly as crappy and scrappy as they should be, using 2017-level assault rifles and Morse code to get their shit done. That's the kind of fighting and living that would have made a film like Terminator: Salvation (2009) more believable - instead of prancing around in tents where everyone can see, humans must wear radar-reflecting armor at all times and burrow underground lest they be blown to hell.

So lastly, we have an ending very similar to Independence Day. Actually, it is exactly like Independence Day. Tom Cruise flies a nuclear weapon up to the big mothership by exploiting the intergalactic being's trust, and is then able to detonate it, which causes all of the other drones to immediately malfunction. There is some cool ribs on that formula, though, such as opening up a pod that was supposed to contain Olga Kurylenko and instead seeing a gleeful Morgan Freeman face pop out, letting Tom Cruise scream "FUCK YOU!" to a giant computer and then ka-blamo!

By the end, in similar vein to The Dark Knight Rises, the film ends up having its cake and eating it too. Tom Cruise Clone 49 blows himself up in a heroic self-sacrifice. Yet he still gets the girl in the form of another clone, Tom Cruise 52, who finds his blushing bride hanging out in the woods three years later. It may be kind of hokey but it's a satisfying way to end things. Besides, there must be at least 50 other Tom Cruise Clones running around somewhere who could be very confused after they just saw Melissa Leo explode. There's plenty of room for a sequel to rip of Wrath of Khan (1982) or The 6th Day (2000) or whatever.

So all in all, the film looks great, and is actually fairly interesting, if not really built and re-mixed from many other sci-fi films. The soundtrack is also pretty great, even though it seems as if M83 totally ripped off Daft Punk's score from Kosinski's other mediocre blockbuster, Tron: Legacy (2010). It really did just feel like the Tron soundtrack was playing throughout this whole thing, which while not necessarily original, did fit the film. All in all, it's decent, though somehow not original enough to earn that T-shirt acclaim, which is also bizarre, considering it's one of the only big-budgeted non-sequels we're gonna get. At least until Pacific Rim (2013) and Elysium (2013).

Happy summer!

What did you think of Oblivion?

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