Saturday, April 20, 2013

Pretty/Boring: OBLIVION

There’s a certain baseline amount of pleasure that can be found in watching a film from a director with the imagination to design striking shots and the knowledge of how to move the camera in interesting ways. Director Joseph Kosinski is just such a director. He doesn’t just think in shots; he thinks in sequences. There’s an architectural sleekness to the way he devises cinematic imagery. This is especially true of his debut film, 2010’s Tron: Legacy, a film that in some hands might’ve played as hopelessly retro fan service, but was instead enlivened by a sense of popcorn poetry in the pounding Daft Punk score and the crisp electric neon cool of each and every frame. It’s perhaps the most underappreciated directorial debut in recent memory, simply for the way he smuggled artistry into a big budget behemoth of a film. I wish I could say the same for his follow up effort, Oblivion. It’s also a sci-fi film with lots of surface cool, but, unlike the Tron sequel, that’s where it stops. This is a film that can’t quite coast on surface charms alone. There’s just not enough there there.

It starts promisingly enough with a tantalizing set up. Many decades into the future, many years after an alien race blew up the moon and invaded Earth before getting nuked by humans in return, two humans (Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough) patrol the decimated planet. They’re waiting for their mission’s expiration date, at which point they can leave the irradiated wasteland behind and join the human colony that’s been forming on a moon elsewhere in the solar system. The two workers sit in a glass apartment in the sky, the woman overseeing day-to-day operations, the man flying a transparent bubble on wings out into the field to repair heavily armed drones. Their commander (Melissa Leo) checks in with them each morning, beaming her image onto their computer screens from her station in a massive triangular satellite high above them, orbiting outside the atmosphere. This is all slick stuff imbued with great mystery, but it soon becomes clear that the more that is found out, the less there’s reason to care.

Kosinski’s too good to make a movie that looks bad. Appropriately, Oblivion has gleaming technology and effects situated effortlessly in gorgeous shots of craggy windswept landscapes dotted with buried landmarks of humans past. But pretty sights can’t cover up a plot that starts moderately intriguing and then quickly grows inert before twisting itself around to routine genre muddling. It’s a film of portentous signifiers without anything signified, empty symbols chasing narrative cliché. You’d think in this day and age a movie about humans repairing largely autonomous drones without a clear memory of why they’re doing it could get more resonance that this film manages.

The script by Kosinski with Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt is a thin, familiar sci-fi narrative in which Things Are Not As They Seem. Cruise, for this is nothing if not a Tom Cruise picture, is the one who slowly solves the mystery. He dreams of a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) and is wary of scavengers that catch and pick apart the drones. Eventually, he’ll meet a few of them, leading to Morgan Freeman having a great entrance, intoning poetry from the shadows before lighting a match that illuminates his face. But instead of deepening the mystery, it is simply prolonged. Each new character and each new bit of information in this would-be mindbender reveals how little is actually on the film’s mind. At one point Riseborough, responding to Cruise’s increasingly questioning demeanor, says, “We’re not supposed to remember, remember?”

Ah, but Cruise wants to remember. Like WALL-E, he’s collecting scraps of junk and little treasures, fascinated by the life humans left behind. It’s this hoarding curiosity that leads him to gather scraps of clues and divine their true purpose. Similarly, an audience with any knowledge of sci-fi films, both junk and treasures, of years past will be able to figure out the film’s every move. Maybe you’ve seen WALL-E, Silent Running or Planet of the Apes and maybe even its first sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Maybe you’ve watched the massive classic 2001: A Space Odyssey and the recent indie Moon. Drawing bits and pieces from these films and many more, Kosinski and his collaborators make a beautiful emptiness that combines old themes in new ways that ring hollow, leaving so little to grab onto that it grows boring well before the credits roll, each new development registering with me with a thud and a shrug instead of the intended jolt and surprise. 

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