Friday, January 24, 2014

Film Friday: Oblivion (2013)

Oblivion was considered a bomb, though it did well overseas. It was also derided by the critics as a knock-off and kind of thin. So I had pretty low expectations going in. I’m not sure how much having low expectations helped, but I actually found that I enjoyed Oblivion, though it was very slow. That said, however, I have no desire to see it again, and therein lies the problem.

I’m going to go light on the spoilers because what makes this film work is the steady stream of discovery. Without that, this film is pretty worthless. So here’s the plot in a nutshell: Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is Tech 49. He lives in a house in the clouds with Victoria, his partner and lover, and his job is to protect and maintain drones which protect these massive machines that are sucking up the oceans and turning them into electric power, which gets shipped to the humans living on Titan.
The reason humanity has moved to Titan is because of a war. The year is 2077 and 60 years prior an alien race known as the Scavengers attacked the Earth to steal our resources. When they invaded, they initially destroyed the moon, causing massive earthquakes which up-ended the Earth, destroyed our cities, and nearly wiped out humanity. Then their troops landed. The humans were losing so they fired off nuclear weapons. Those weapons made most of the planet uninhabitable, but they succeeded in winning the war. Jack’s job now is to protect the machines producing the power from the last few Scavengers left.

The story begins with Jack fixing a drone and giving us a long series of visuals about the destroyed Earth. We are shown various destroyed landmarks, like the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and the Pentagon. We also see that the scavengers are no match for Jack, and certainly not for the drones.
At this point, you can probably already tell where this is going, and that is the problem. Had this film been made in the 1950s, Oblivion would be considered pure genius. People would talk about it in the same way they talk about 2001. But it wasn’t. It was made last year. And since the 1950s, this premise has been done to death, and then some. In fact, I think every other episode of The Outer Limits in the 1990s started this way. And from those episodes, we know that things are not as they seem. Indeed, we know that Tom is really working for the bad guys and just doesn’t know it.

Is that what’s happening here? Well, yeah, but there are several more interesting twists I won’t tell you about, like who/what Tom really is and what role Tom had in the initial invasion of Earth. Again, neither point is original, but their inclusion feels surprising enough here that it’s worth not revealing in this review.

As films go, this one wasn’t dull, despite the very thin story. The film is beautiful, even if we are talking about yet another apocalyptic film. There is a lot of tension in the film, coming primarily from the use of space. Specifically, there is a constant sense that Tom lacks the ability to monitor the world around him to ensure that he’s safe whenever he steps out of his helicopter spaceship (a bubble ship). This was very well done to keep you anxious throughout.
The film is good too at dripping out a continuous stream of clues. (Skip this paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers.) For example, we get Tom having a dream involving a woman. That’s the first sign that something is amiss with Tom, especially as we are told they had their memories wiped for some reason. Who is this woman and what does she mean? And why wipe memories at all? Doesn't that seem suspicious? Interestingly, this dream also shows Tom in New York City before the invasion, which shouldn’t be possible if the invasion happened 60 years ago. So something is already wrong with the story. Then there’s the radiation zones. Radiation doesn’t sit, it travels. So the idea of radiation borders doesn’t make a lot of sense and should tell us that something is amiss with the radiation zones that are meant to keep Tom out of other areas. Then you have the drones, which act like they want to kill Tom. This foreshadows the idea that the drones are hostile to humans... which makes no sense if they were built by humans. Then Tom saves the woman who is his real wife, but again, how could they be the same age if she had been asleep for 60 years.
These clues and the way Morgan Freeman tells Tom to figure things out for himself rather than just telling him what he needs to know keep the movie interesting and keep you excited about solving the puzzle of what is going on. That is more than enough to make this a worthwhile film to watch. It is interesting.

But it also makes the movie worthless in terms of re-watchability. This movie depends entirely on the mystery it builds and the suspense in each individual scene... will they get him or not. And once you know the answer to the mystery and once you know when he’s in danger and when he isn’t, there just isn’t anything left in the film that you want to watch a second time. The story doesn’t resolve itself in a rousing way to make you stand up and cheer, so you can’t revisit the feeling of triumph. The romance is pro-forma and cold, so you can’t fall in love all over again. The film isn’t funny, the dialog isn’t beautiful or surprising. The action scenes aren’t spectacular. The world they create is sparse and uninteresting and not the sort of world that sparks fantasies. All you have is a mystery, a mystery that vanishes once you’ve seen the film.
For a movie like this to stand out after the flood of poor science fiction that pillaged ideas like this and made them all feel derivative, the film needs a second act. It needs Tom to stumble upon a second world to explore, where the story could become more than “wasteland Tom learns the truth.” Or it needs some strong emotional story in which Tom struggles against himself to realize what it means to be human and to do the right thing against real odds – face the impossible choice. Even revealing the past through some sort of flashback story would have helped. It needed something.

So here’s the thing. Nothing about this film is original. In fact, it’s horribly derivative. Nothing about this film is deep or memorable. The film isn’t an enjoyable story that you want to see again, it doesn’t present a world that will pull you in and make you want more, and it doesn’t have characters that you care about. But what it does have going for it is an interesting mystery about what exactly happened. In that regard, I definitely recommend seeing this film... just don’t buy the disc.

39 comments:

shawn said...

I liked it. First decent post apocalyptic flick I've seen in a long while. Effects and scenery are just gorgeous. I think all the actors did a fine job and the story is pretty straight forward, unlike say Cloud Atlas which was fairly convoluted and took a while to get interesting.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, I liked it enough as I watched it to recommend it, but I don't plan to watch it again.

In terms of being the first decent post apocalyptic film in a long time, that's true. They turn out so many of those now and they generally stink. This one presented a strangely beautiful world that made sense. That's unusual.

tryanmax said...

Hopefully this doesn't spoil it for those who don't want a spoiling, but Moon was a much better film.

AndrewPrice said...

Spoiler Alert

tryanmax, Agreed. And I can't believe I missed that! LOL! It's the same film!

Rustbelt said...

Post-apocalyptic films aren't generally my cup of tea, since they're often depressing. (And I'd be willing to bet the domain of more than a few misanthropic directors eager to give Ed Wood-style speeches on the dangers of human civilization and excess.) And, no, I haven't seen this one either.

On the rewatchability, Andrew, your review reminds me a lot of 'Speed.' I still consider one of the best action films of the 90's. However, even then, almost everyone I knew considered it a film you could only watch once. That film relied on shock factor. And once it was gone, it was gone.
It definitely sounds like the lack of characters and characterization hurt this one. I've often felt that, no matter how much a film relies on mystery or suspense, if it has great characters, I'll want to see it again. (Such is the case for me in regarding "Firefox" and "Big Trouble in Little China." I know what's going, but the characters are so good and the films so much fun that it's worth going back.)

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, I'm starting to tire of apocalyptic films as well. They are depressing and too often there seems to be a sadism in them that I find repulsive. So I've started to skip more and more of those unless they really offer something special.

I agree completely on films being hurt by lack of story and character. The films with the highest re-watchability are films where you truly come to enjoy the characters. That is what keeps you coming back -- wanting to spend time with the characters. When you don't have that, then you have a problem. And when your story depends on shock or suspense to be interesting, then the film gets really dull after you've seen it once.

This is that kind of film. I can't care about any of the characters. There are no moments where I feel any emotional connection or like I learned something or was given something to contemplate. The story isn't fun to watch either, nor does it otherwise resonate. What sells this film is simple suspense and mystery, and once that's gone, there's nothing left to make you want to see it again.

Even Agatha Christie films were more about the journey than the result, but this one is purely about the result.

Rustbelt said...

On that note, Andrew, is there a specific reason (without spoilers), for humans choosing Titan as their new home? Why not Mars?
(Warning: going slightly off track here.)
I only started thinking because I had a professor in college (an astronomy class) who gave an interesting lecture on space travel. Basically, he said it's a question of if, not when, we're going to Mars. And he wasn't talking about colonizing with cities under glass domes. He talked about the possibilities of chemically altering the atmosphere, changing the makeup to make it breathable and produce a quasi-greenhouse effect- thus trapping heat and making the surface habitable for humans. In other words, he predicted the full terraforming of Mars.
Titan, on the other hand, is an interesting choice. Saturn's largest moon is the only moon with an atmosphere. It's also been found have lakes with seashores, deserts with sand dunes, and (possible) underground oceans. (Not to mention that- depending on Saturn's rotational position- summers last a few Earth years.) That being said, the liquid in question is methane, the same gas that fills the atmosphere. BTW, due to a reverse greenhouse effect, surface temperature has been measured around -290 F. Brrr...
Now, with all this in mind, this could be excellent putty in a talented storyteller's hands. Why move so far from Earth? -and to a generally uninhabitable planetoid? Wouldn't seeing the surface features of Titan remind humans of Earth, but at the same time destroy their spirits since those features offer death instead of pleasure? Are humans punishing themselves, or willing to take drastic measures to hide from something? Also, 'Oblivion's idea of humans needing supplies on Earth to survive on Titan is highly plausible and begs the question- why move to a planetoid lacking the necessary means for humans to survive?

Okay, I think I overthought that one. Maybe that would make for an interesting subplot in a film like this. Just something to add a little meat to the story.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt,

Let me answer this in parts.

No Spoiler

They don't say.

Big Spoilers

Forget Titan, it's a MacGuffin. At no point do they ever explain why Titan, nor do you see anyone on Titan, nor does anyone explain what life is like on Titan. All you are told is that they built a huge space station ("the Tet") which hovers in orbit and acts as the last command post for the people (2 of them) left on earth who are protecting the machines making the energy. When their tour of duty is up, they will go to the space station and then everyone will zip off to Titan to join the others.

Even Bigger Spoilers

No one lives on Titan. The reason they picked Titan is because Tom was originally going to investigate Titan when the Tet arrived and Tom and his crew were redirected to go investigate what the Tet was. So it seems (but is never said) that the Tet picked Titan for the supposed base of humanity because Tom had Titan on his mind and would believe that it was a likely destination for humanity after the war. But nothing Tom "knows" is true, and Titan is just another lie.

I hope that helps. :)

Rustbelt said...

Ah, nuts. And the idea had such rich possibilities. Sounds like the filmmakers just picked a moon out of a hat. How about Io? Volcanoes and all!

Seriously, though, thanks for the info, Andrew.

AndrewPrice said...

You're welcome. Nuts is right. This is a film with a lot of potential that really ultimately fails for lack of trying for the deep ball. What you are talking about would have fit perfectly into that missing second act I talk about in the review. What they've put on screen is fine, it just isn't enough... it needs something more to take it to the next level.

Tennessee Jed said...

I have this on my DVR, courtesy of Direct T.V.'s last freebie weekend promotion. Thanks to your review, I'll delete it. Too many good books to read and films to explore to waste time on one that is slow and derivative. I fully understand how "the expectation" effect impacts our perception of enjoyment, I would no longer benefit from it, and will concentrate on back seasons of George Gently, Foyle's War, or Longmire instead.

tryanmax said...

T-Jed, if it isn't too late to stop you, I wouldn't delete it just yet. If narrative is all you are interested in, then by all means delete it. However, if you are interested in some very beautifully rendered locations and landscapes, this is worth viewing. While the story isn't worth a second pass, I'm happy to have seen it.

Kit said...

"Then there’s the radiation zones. Radiation doesn’t sit, it travels. So the idea of radiation borders doesn’t make a lot of sense and should tell us that something is amiss with the radiation zones that are meant to keep Tom out of other areas."

A lot of movies do that, accuracy be damned.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I think it's worth seeing once if you're into this kind of film. It held my attention and I was interested in the film. It just didn't leave you with anything once the film stopped.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, For being desolate, the film is very beautiful. I was impressed with the images and how real things felt.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I can understand over time that something like a city will be considered toxic because everything in it is radioactive, even if there isn't radiation in the air anymore. But the idea of the air being full of radiation clouds that then respect borders is kind of silly. There's a big difference.

LL said...

I enjoyed the film, and I'm not a big Cruise fan. I suspend disbelief when I go to sci-fi and try not to think too deeply, accepting what they film makers or authors present as "real" for the scenario that they present. Oblivion was ok (7 out of a possible 10 to me) in doing that.

Anthony said...

Interesting write-up. I thought this was Scientology based crap like Battlefield Earth so I steered clear, but I'll give it a shot next time it pops up on HBO.

AndrewPrice said...

LL, I enjoyed the film when I watched it and I didn't have any problems suspending my disbelief. It held my interest, even if it was a little slow and the story felt stripped... no extras at all. It just didn't offer me any reason to want to see it a second time. Knowing the answers now, I see nothing in the film that attracts me back to it.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, I didn't really see any Scientology in it, but then I'm not an expert. It struck me as very straight forward, standard science fiction. And even though I don't really want to see it again, I do recommend seeing it. I did enjoy it the first time.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, more than lacking a second act (which I agree would have helped) what this film needs is a sense of "what would you do?" in this situation, rather than simply presenting what this one guy did. I'm not sure how you achieve that, if it's in the acting, the writing, the pacing, or the cinematography, but Oblivion felt more like a documentary than literature.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, That's a great point. At no point does the film ever really give you a chance to ask what you would do. In fact, you are never presented with any choices at all... things just happen without thought.

spoilers

To give an example, when 49 meets 52, they don't talk. 49 doesn't try to explain to 52 what is going on or reason with him. They just draw guns and then fight it out. 49 knocks him out and then does his thing. There is no moment where either needs to struggle with what is happening or what to do next.

He then goes up to the house and meets 52-Becca and again never really does anything to try to win her over and give her a choice. He just says, "Come with me." She says no and he leaves. There's no moment for the audience to struggle with the options.

Similarly, the moment Tom realizes he's on the wrong team, he jumps ship. There's no debate. There's no question either that he's on the wrong team. In the Outer Limits shows at least the guy never knew what was true and what wasn't and he struggled with his conscience about what he should really be doing. Tom never has to struggle. First, he doesn't know, then he does, and he acts accordingly both times... no doubt. Even when he goes to blow up the Tet, there's no risk, no sense of loss, no moment of anything other than... "this is the next thing I need to do according to the plot." Heck, they even give his wife 52 Tom (and a child from 49 Tom) as a consolation prize to take away even the remotest sense of loss.

Each of those points would have been great to give the audience something to struggle with, but we don't get that.

KRS said...

I have to confess that I have a thing for both apocalyptic and post apocalyptic movies - particularly PAs that have a very few players. It started when I was a kid and I saw Miss Liberty's arm at the end of Planet of the Apes. It must be my inner archeologist that renders me a sucker for almost any vision of the ruins of our civilization. It's both the scenery and the PA world-building that fascinates me. Since you've described the scenery so positively, Andrew, this is one for me.

That said, like you, I'm not above criticizing these things. I was fascinated with the visual world of The Road, but it was a horrible mess of a movie that I will never, ever watch again. The Book of Eli world was pretty much a Road Warrior trope, but the aspects of the world building - the lack of the books, the power of the book Eli has, etc., was terrific.

Unfortunately they blew it with a poor ending. I would have had Claudia read Romans 12:19 to Carnegie, "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. I shall repay."

I never get tired of these movies. That's either a testament to my optimism and patience, or it's a clue that there is something very, very wrong with me.

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, That is an awesome shot.... "Damn you all to hell!!" What a great moment in film!

I used to love these films, but I'm losing my interest in them. I suspect it's a bit of being tired of seeing everything destroyed and the fact that so many of these are now just awash in generic tropes. I think the zombie movies in particular are wearing me down -- no originality. (That said, I am enjoying Helix on the Sci-Fi Channel).

In terms of this one, the scenery is breathtaking. This is a beautiful movie. The landscapes are awesome. The tech images are gorgeous. And the ruins are fantastic. They didn't overdo it, and they make great use of landmarks. Starting the film in a football stadium (second picture from top) where the last Super Bowl was played as Tom describes the game and you watch nervously to see if he's going to get attacked was a fantastic start too because it really connects you to the future in a way that simply seeing destruction normally doesn't -- it puts life in the lifeless.

The problems really come much later when you realize the film was ultimately rather uninteresting. The mystery is good, the tension is good and the images are great, but the story is very, very thin and the characters are pure cardboard. I do recommend it though, as it is enjoyable, but it isn't the kind of film that sticks with you or makes you want to see it again. It could have been, but it's not.

AndrewPrice said...

FYI, Blogger is having some problems today. I recommend copying your comments to the clipboard (control C) before you hit publish just in case they vanish.

tryanmax said...

One thing that sets Oblivion apart from other post-apoc films is how far past the apocalypse it is set. In most post-apoc films, you either have tons of ruins scattered everywhere as if the destruction finished yesterday, or you are so far removed from the apocalypse that it's a footnote. Oblivion takes place at a point where nature has come back quite a bit, but the ruins are still there in a way that I imagine the ruins of Greece and Rome must have appeared just before the Renaissance.

AndrewPrice said...

Agreed. Most of these films just wreck up some buildings and maybe toss a couple plants into one of them. This film is different. And they chose a great time period to do that by putting it right at the point where this does look like an ancient civilization that has been lost and buried -- and it helps that they use the earthquake and tsunami explanations to blur the amount of time taken so you can't criticize their choices. That part of the film is truly well done.

ScottDS said...

I thought this movie was okay, but it's probably a testament to your review that, as I write this, I don't even remember enough of it to provide an accurate criticism! (Agreed - excellent art direction and FX.)

Maybe one of the ingredients in making a successful mystery is creating fun characters that you'd want to revisit, even knowing the conclusion. There are a couple of great Trek mystery episodes (like "Clues") that I still enjoy, despite knowing the outcome. I just like watching those usually-unflappable characters puzzled for once!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think that having enjoyable characters is key to the success of any story, really. It's characters that interest people and draw them in. You can make a decent film without great characters, but I don't think you can make a great story without great characters.

T-Rav said...

Oh good, I'm not the only one watching Helix. Any more, I feel embarrassed to say I'm watching something that's "SciFi Original Programming."

I just kind of skipped over Oblivion when I saw it on HBO. It didn't really interest me when I saw it advertised; it seemed like generic "post-apocalyptic guy finds out the truth about X, Y, and Z." But I might give it a shot next time it's on.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I am enjoying Helix, but I wonder how long it can run. It's going to get dull pretty quickly unless there's some really cool second act coming up.

And yeah, most Sci-Fi Original Programming is garbage.

Kit said...

Andrew, T-Rav,

Its not "Sci-Fi Original Programming", its "Syfy Original Programming". Remember?

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, No it's not. I refuse to ratify their stupidity.

El Gordo said...

How weird - I saw this yesterday, literally as you were posting your review.

I liked it! True, it is not nearly as original or visionary as it thinks it is. But it is a rare attempt to tell a real, adult sci fi story and I appreciate that.

Also, I guess I´m in the minority here, but I think Cruise is an excellent leading man. He may deserve the ridicule he´s getting but he does have a rare screen presence. I saw Jack Reacher and MI4 in the last couple of months and he can just carry such a movie in a way few can. Even if his vanity shines through occasionally.

(Spoilers coming up)

I think some of the flaws pointed out here are the result of conscious choice. For example, there is something cold and weird about his relationship with Vika from the beginning. She seems vaguely robotic and even threatening at one point (some good acting here). It makes sense in that they are both like blank slates with no past and they were "not meant for each other" in the way Jack and Julia were. It may remove some dramatic possibilities but for good or bad, at least it is intentional.

I think the finale is disappointing. It is too reminiscent of Independence Day, the Tet is uninteresting and you never find out much about its nature. There is really no reason why it should let them into the "inner sanctum" at all. As Andrew said, there is not much sense of drama, loss or sacrifice. If we had seen a hint of the horrible things it must have done to the original Jack and Vika, we would have cared a lot more.

There are plot holes but these aren´t worse than in other movies that critics loved, like Gravity. For example, the Tet provides drones and other gear that were obviously manufactured for service on Earth but it can´t put a few communications satellites into orbit so it stays in contact 24/7? All this high tech flying stuff isn´t lightning proof? And of course, a clone would not have any residual memories from the donor of its DNA. Then again, I have never seen a sci fi movie that can´t be taken apart on that level.

Whatever happened to the other Jacks and Vikas that had to be out there? The movie just forgot about them. That one really bugged me. I wanted leftover Vika to end up with the warrior guy aka Jaime Lannister.

El Gordo said...

I don´t know where I heard it but some guys were having fun with the way this movie was probably pitched to Tom Cruise. It went something like this:

Writer: "Your character is in every scene. And in the middle of the movie, he meets his clone, so you fight yourself on screen. And then they go into this giant spaceship and there are thousands of Tom Cruise clones. And you get to make the ultimate sacrifice for humankind, but you come back to help repopulate earth with the fruits of your loins"

Cruise: "Interesting. Tell me more."

AndrewPrice said...

El Gordo,

But it is a rare attempt to tell a real, adult sci fi story and I appreciate that.

I agree completely with this sentiment. In fact, I almost wrote that in my review!! I appreciated that a lot.

On Cruise, I'm actually a fan. I like the guy. I think he has amazing screen presence and he manages to take movies up a notch or two just with his acting. So I'm with you on that.

Spoilers

I thought the ending was entirely unsatisfying. First, you learn nothing you didn't already know. Secondly, you really don't get a strong resolution -- there's no "an humanity rose and rebuilt" moment. Third, there's no drama or sense of loss. You know Cruise will pull it off and you don't really care if he dies. Then you get the other clone to give him right back to you.

Fourth, I didn't believe for a minute that the Tet would be stupid enough to do any of this. What does it care about "the survivor"? And how could it not scan the presence of the bomb? Or why would it trust Tom enough not to keep a drone on him, ready to blast him if he moved an inch out of line? It felt like the Tet suddenly became ultra-stupid. They even had a good set up, where he could have said they wrapped the bomb in stealth technology, but they didn't do that. So you're left with the Tet essentially knowing Tom is coming to kill it and then pretending it got caught with its epants down.

Agreed about the plot holes.

AndrewPrice said...

LOL! Nice way to pitch the film to a total egotist!

El Gordo said...

There is some explanation why the Tet would be interested in the survivor. As Jack tells her, "We will be a more efficient team". The idea (not very explicit in the movie) is that the teams break down after while because Jack is asking questions and having dreams of the past and Vika is the opposite - she does not want to know. That is why they get recalled after a few years, and it makes sense that this team is a the end of their tour (lifespan) when Jack would be most "skeptical". A pairing of Jack and Julia might be more stable. But it does not explain why the Tet acts carelessly. Besides, the status quo worked for 60 years, no? And I only got all this because I listened to the commentary :-)

Still, it´s nice to hear that they did do some thinking about the characters.

AndrewPrice said...

El Gordo, Yeah, that's the probably the reason, but it strikes me that this still makes the Tet out as super stupid. It has to know that Tom is off the reservation at this point, so it extends far too much trust. Maybe if they made the machine out as hubristic first it would have helped and added a line about "you can't harm me."

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