May 17, 2013

OBLIVION Is Big, Beautiful And Uninspired

"How can a man die better / then facing fearful odds / for the ashes of his fathers / and the temples of his Gods."
As soon as the credits started to roll on Oblivion, I turned to my friend Jeff and said, "You know, one of these days someone's going to give Joseph Kosinski a decent script, and he's gonna make a hell of a movie."

I'm a big fan of the original Tron, so I was pretty excited at the prospect of a sequel with old man Jeff Bridges.  Kosinski was handed the reigns to Tron: Legacy and it turned out...disappointing.  But you have to admit it's a very good looking movie.  Most of the problems stem not from Kosinski's visuals, but from a script that's lackluster at best and a leading man who looked uncomfortable in his own skin.  (Garrett Hedlund looks far more compelling in smaller budget stuff like On The Road and Inside Llewyn Davies, so maybe he should just steer clear of franchise studio pictures.)

Pretty much all the credit/blame for Oblivion goes directly to Kosinski, as it's almost entirely his creation.  He wrote the graphic novels which served as the treatment for this film, and he wrote the script along with talented guys like Michael Arndt and Karl Gajdusek.  Also, I will fully admit that I just plain love Tom Cruise.  Yeah, in real life the guy might be absolutely batshit crazy, but I could care less so long as he keeps giving us entertaining performances.  And whatever you may think of him personally, you simply cannot accuse him of ever phoning it in for a paycheck.  Whenever he's on screen, Cruise absolutely throws himself into the role 1012% (that's a precise calculation) so that even his less successful films can usually boast solid work from the actor.  One of my favorite single Cruise moments is at the end of Mission: Impossible III, when he's running along the banks of a river in China to save his wife and the guy is just HAULING ASS.  Most actors will pace themselves in a scene like that, because they know they're gonna have to do multiple takes from multiple angles so they can stitch the shots together to create excitement and tension.  But here it's just one long tracking shot and Cruise doesn't break stride for even a second.  In a way, that one shot tells you everything you need to know about Cruise.

I'll say this much for Oblivion: it's a fucking gorgeous film.  Watching this movie in anything other than IMAX (2D!) is almost a disservice to the film itself, if that's any indication.  Kosinski specializes in breathtaking imagery of tremendous depth and scale, so it really does behoove you to watch this as large and as crisp as humanly possible.  (This is the opposite of an airplane movie, although I have no doubt that it will be appearing on JetBlue before long.)  Kosinski strikes me as more of a technical, George Lucas-y director than an emotional, Steven Speilberg-y director; that is to say that he seems more interested in experimenting with the look and feel of his movies than he is in crafting memorable characters and stories.  Put another way, he's so in love with building worlds that he neglects the people in them.  Here's a taste of what I'm talking about.  Above the post-apocalyptic scenery, both lush and desolate, is the Sky Tower.  It's a glass-encased home on a dizzying spindle where Jack Harper and Victoria (Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough, respectively) live and work to maintain a series of drones and generators which provide power to the last human colony on Titan.  Normally the stunning views from such a location would be achieved digitally and the actors would be performing on a large green screen stage, but Kosinksi decided to go in a much cooler, old-school direction:

I love everything about that set-up.  It's so smart in a number of different ways.  Also, I want to live there.

That being said, the story and the characters both just sort of lay there flat.  Since I'm behind the curve here (I expect the film will be out of theaters sometime in the next two weeks) I'm not gonna run through the story and it's various reveals, but most reviews have already pointed out that the plot borrows liberally from numerous other/better sci-fi films like Moon, Wall-E, and Beneath The Planet Of The Apes.  To be honest, that didn't bother me so much; sci-fi is constantly drawing ideas and stories from the same communal well.  Sure it would have been nice if Kosinksi could have taken all those familiar elements and elevated them in some way, or put his own spin on them.  But when it's all said and done, it doesn't feel like lazy storytelling, just uninspired.  Besides, these are the kinds of concepts I always enjoy watching, even if they're inadequately explored.  Time travel is inherently cool, so pretty much any movie involving time travel instantly becomes interesting to me.  (There's no time travel here, it's just an example.)

By now it's clear that Oblivion is not a movie that's going to set the world on fire, but I think it's entertaining enough.  Cruise isn't amazing, but that's the fault of the script, not his performance.  Andrea Riseborough gives a lovely, fragile performance as Cruise's partner, especially when Olga Kurylenko's mystery woman shows up.  Morgan Freeman gets a cool wardrobe and a cigar, while Melissa Leo and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau are both squandered talents.  Also, Zoe Bell may or may not have been silently standing around the entire time, but I didn't notice her until three minutes before the movie ended.  It's Kurylenko that truly feels like the weak link here.  She feels like she's following in the footsteps of Thandie Newton, an actress who's never given a performance I've enjoyed.  Granted Kurylenko is better here than she was in Quantum Of Solace, but not by much.  I've got Martin McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths queued up to watch tonight and I'm hoping to catch up with Terrence Malick's To The Wonder as well.  If neither of those guys can coax a convincing performance out of her, I think that's probably game, set, match.

And let's be honest: it's nice to see a big budget, (visually) ambitious sci-fi movie that's not based on a pre-existing property.  Those are the movies that always stretch the boundaries of our imagination, and these days such efforts feel few and far between.

At least we still have Elysium to look forward to.

Title: Oblivion
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Tom Cruise, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Zoe Bell
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: IMAX (Jordan's - Reading)

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