Cas Harlow is visually stunned
Movies & TV review
492013 is looking to be a great year for sci-fi.
Hit by bursts of excellence over the last few years (modern classics like Moon and Inception; compelling original concepts like Looper and Cloud Atlas), and propelled forward even in spite of the more disappointing big guns - like the notorious Prometheus - this year looks to be bigger than ever before.
Guillermo del Toro's epic Pacific Rim - alien monsters versus giant robots; Neill "District 9" Blomkamp's Elysium - starring Matt Damon; J.J. Abrams' hugely anticipated Star Trek sequel; even Will Smith's After Earth. And then there's Alfonso "Children of Men" Cuaran's Gravity, with George Clooney, which could easily end up being the best of them all. Those are some pretty big hitters.
Back when I put together a list of the 10 movies that I was most looking forward to this year I inadvertently found that the dominant genre was sci-fi. And what was at the number 3 spot of this list? A little film called Oblivion.
If you don’t know anything about Oblivion – have managed to avoid the more revealing trailers and promotional material – then I strongly recommend you book yourself some tickets and go see it on the biggest screen you can find. It’s a stylish, at-times stunning movie, with strong performances driven by another dedicated offering from Tom Cruise; interesting, atypical characters; a suitably twisty old-school sci-fi story that pays tribute to sci-fi classics of old; gorgeous cinematography and impressive, well-integrated visual effects; and epic blockbuster action.
M83’s evocative score is fantastic, and the directorial style – from Joe Kosinski, the same guy who gave us the amazing experience that was Tron: Legacy – is flashy in all the right places, without ever detracting from the reasonably mature substance behind it. It’s often tense, brimming with quality action sequences, and reliant upon a decent sci-fi backbone forged from Kosinski’s own unpublished graphic novel premise.
So beyond this largely spoiler-free review you should avoid any further publicity before you see the film. You shouldn’t need any further persuasion: at worst, you’re going to thoroughly enjoy the experience; at best, you’ll walk out thinking it’s one of the best sci-fi blockbusters in years.
“60 years ago, Earth was attacked. We won the war, but they destroyed half the planet. Everyone’s been evacuated. Nothing human remains. We’re here for drone repair. We’re the ‘mop-up crew’.”
The story follows Jack Harper who, along with his partner and communications officer Victoria, patrols the skies of a post-apocalyptic future-world. All human survivors from The War have left the ruined planet to wait on a gigantic space-ship which is prepped to take them to Titan, Saturn’s Moon.
All that’s left behind are a number of giant rigs which are tapping the Earth’s natural resources and energy for the journey, and a few dozen attack drones which scout the skies protecting these rigs from remnants of the Alien race who attacked Earth – the Scavs. Jack’s job is to fix any damaged drones so that they can keep the rigs safe.
On patrol one day, Jack investigates an object which has crashed, brought down by the Scavs. What he finds is far more than he could have ever expected.
“Only two more weeks, Jack, and we can finally leave and join the others. Please, don’t take any chances.”
Back in 2005, when Tron: Legacy was barely into pre-production, and when the name Joseph Kosinski was all-but unknown to the general populace, this architecture professor moved to Los Angeles and wrote an illustrated novella – Oblivion – telling the story of a post-apocalyptic Earth where a drone repair worker discovers a secret that threatens to change his entire view of the world. Using the dozens of large, wide-format images in the book to pitch the story to film studios, he eventually sold the premise to Disney, who would go on to offer him the directorial handle on Tron: Legacy.
After Tron: Legacy proved to be a massive commercial success, Kosinski’s next project was to be the film adaptation of said novel, Oblivion, but unfortunately it simply could not be morphed into a PG production – as required under the Disney mantle – and the rights were eventually sold on to Universal, who financed a $120 Million PG-13 adaptation, with Tom Cruise in the lead.
Kosinski himself has called this a very personal project; one which he intended to work as something of a tribute to all the classic sci-fi movies he watched when he was a kid, which arguably inspired many of his ideas now. From Silent Running to The Omega Man; 2001 to The Twilight Zone TV series, the parallels are evident throughout – borne out even by the promotional campaign. Of course many will probably regard this is as more of a rip-off, seeing nothing which has not previously been explored in everything from Cruise’s own Minority Report to the fantastic Moon; from Clooney’s Solaris remake to The Omega Man’s own successor, Will Smith’s I Am Legend. Hell, some even think of Oblivion as little more than Cruise’s take on The Matrix. It’s a shame that this is all people see of this movie.
Perhaps it’s short-sightedness. After all, the reason why Oblivion is so reminiscent of all of these recent sci-fi outings is purely because it is such an earnest love-letter to all those classics of old – the classics which have been reworked and remade into those self-same films. After all, where would Moon be without Silent Running? (And for those who want to get down to semantics, Oblivion was written several years before Moon even came into existence)
Rather than see it as a replicant, it is far better to view the film as the loving homage to sci-fi classics that it was truly meant to be; as Kosinski’s modern updating on those age-old themes of love and loss, personal identity and ultimate redemption; a quintessential lonely-man tale which draws in elements from all those greats – elements which would make everybody from Kubrick to Asimov proud. Sure, it seems unlikely that it will be looked back on with the same fondness and marvel, but if it falls short of this, it still gets credit for aiming so high.
“If there is a soul, it is made from the love that we share.”
Certainly Kosinski also deserves high praise for his vision – but I guess nobody is particularly surprised about that after Tron: Legacy. Those who perpetually deride Legacy seem at once capable of seeing the audiovisual majesty of the piece, whilst also dismissing it as having nothing to do with the movie itself. I vehemently disagree. Surely a movie which provides such a stunning experience should be celebrated for that, rather than criticised for the supposed shortcomings of its story? Well, even for those who disagree, thankfully Oblivion is far more than just style-over-substance, providing a welcome measure of both.
Visually it is no less stunning than Legacy, however; an almost day-for-night flip of the Tron sequel’s inky-black-backed neon drag-strips, here positing the vast reaches of Iceland as a stand-in for the US’s now-post-apocalyptic East Coast. The cool-but-bleak panorama is open and expansive; interrupted only by the occasional outcrop and half-demolished US landmark. Claudio Miranda, who recently won the Oscar for Best Cinematography with his work on Life of Pi, and who previously worked with Kosinski on beautifully lensing Tron: Legacy, does a fantastic job here, but it’s arguably Kosinski who still deserves the credit in this regard.
Borrowing techniques from the master himself – Kubrick – Kosinski did something a little different this time around: he shot key sequences using an advanced form of background-projection, an updating of the very methods that Kubrick used to bring 2001 to life. Fans will likely not be able to tell the difference between this and high-level CG, but it means that the slightly distracting green-screen side-effects, which can sometimes threaten to pull you out of a movie, are kept to an absolute minimum here. For the scenes where it was possible, Kosinski shot ‘on location’, with practical sets; but for key set-pieces, like the jaw-dropping sky-tower, he used this rear-projection to give a startlingly life-like effect.
Taking breathtaking cloud formation footage he shot from atop a volcano, and playing it across a series of a large screens set up in place of the windows of the sky-tower, Kosinski managed to truly give the feeling of being in a tower above the clouds. The tower itself is also a work of art, a futuristic design clearly borne from Kosinski’s own architecture background. The glass-and-perspex house-on-stilts is a stunning creation that avoids almost any contemporary comparison, and yet feels like a perfectly natural extrapolation of the latest real-world architectural feats.
Similarly the bubble-ships – the primary form of transportation seen in the movie – avoid stretching your mind’s imaginative limits beyond plausibility; at once offering up what looks like an aerial successor to Tron: Legacy’s lightbikes, whilst also having a striking giant-insect-like appearance (think: dragonfly with retracted wings); but also grounding themselves in reality by essentially looking like futuristic rotor-less versions of old-school bubble helicopters (the kind that were prevalent in the 70s); the gun-turret manoeuvrability of the bubbles taking us even further back to the days of WWII flying fortresses.
It is design genius at work here – and it’s amazing just how closely Kosinski sticks to his original graphic novel designs – but what truly convinces us to invest in these creations is his commitment to stick to practical effects wherever possible, both in the landscapes and in real-life mock-ups used for the real-world shots (i.e. landed craft are real, rather than CG add-ons). It really makes all the difference in the world. Sure the aerial sequences may be, by necessity, pure effects, but they feel all the more real thanks to the authenticity borne out by the land-based and sky-tower-based sequences.
Of course one of the most important elements that he had to convince us with is the aerial drones which ostensibly guard the skies from alien intruders. These, in another film, could have easily been silly, effects-dominated creations which take you right out of the picture, but instead here they are almost given personalities, like some kind of unholy hybrid of the cute repair droids from Silent Running and the unpredictable killer robot that was ED-209 in Robocop: switching from curious-but-loyal protector to unstoppably aggressive attack-dog in a heartbeat, and seemingly without rhyme or reason.
“Is it possible to miss a place you’ve never been to? To mourn a time you never lived in?”
Indeed it was the depth of imagination to all of these fantastically visual future-creations that first captured Tom Cruise’s attention, who expressed interest in the project long before it was green-lit for production. Cruise may have done a vast body of work, but his dips into sci-fi have been fairly limited, restricted to his Spielberg double-bill of War of the Worlds and the superior Minority Report (although there’s also a hint of Vanilla Sky about Oblivion). That’s all going to change over the next few years, however.
Not only has Cruise been passionately committed to visionary director Guillermo Del Toro’s long-gestating adaptation of H.G. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness – which may or may not come to fruition – but he’s also just finished shooting the Source-Code-(or Groundhog Day!)-meets-Aliens sci-fi actioner All You Need Is Kill, which is about a soldier who repeats the same fateful day in battle again and again, only each time gaining experience from the last encounter. Expect to be blown away by this around the same time next year. He’s also, just this last week, announced that he is signing up to a project which can only be described as Top-Gun-meets-Independence-Day, as the pilot of a futuristic plane in a battle against alien invaders. He’s certainly got the sci-fi bug.
But, in the meantime, Oblivion might we be his best sci-fi effort yet.
And as much as there will be those who are all too quick to dismiss Cruise as being a formulaic, unadventurous actor (probably the same people who will dismiss Oblivion’s story as being little more than derivative sci-fi cliché), it’s hard to fault the guy’s dedication to the art. He really does put 110% into every film he does, not just in terms of characterisation, but also in terms of physical performance – and it shows. Sure, nobody is ever going to mistake his work for Daniel Day-Lewis’s, and sure it would be nicer if he chose some more daring roles in the vein of his early-career Born on the Fourth of July performance, and his later work on Collateral and Magnolia, but he still plays A-list Hollywood action-hero better than anybody else around. Look at everything from the Mission: Impossible series to the aforementioned Spielberg features; everything from The Last Samurai to his franchise kick-starter, Jack Reacher – he’s undeniably and wholeheartedly entertaining; one of the most reliable actors in the business. There’s a reason why, even when he’s still mainlining action films at 50, he’s still the top earner in Hollywood.
Here his drone engineer, Jack Harper is cut from the same blue-collar cloth that fans might recognise from his War of the Worlds character (to name but one) – with that same skill with machinery; down-to-earth wit and innate survival instincts. Of course he’s also noticeably proficient with weapons and close-combat, harking back to the recent gun-slinging and fighting in Jack Reacher, but he’s also got an unquenchable curiosity about him which makes his Jack Harper an altogether new character, albeit forged from familiar elements.
Cruise is still clearly a huge Box Office draw – if Reacher didn’t quite meet expectations (even though a sequel with Cruise has finally been greenlit), then Oblivion almost certainly will, after its $60 Million opening weekend – and I hope audiences continue to appreciate his reliable commitment by turning out in droves to see his consistently entertaining films.
“I want mankind to survive. This is the only way.”
Supporting him – although the notion that he’s one of the last humans on Earth would have you believe otherwise – we get the likes of Andrea Riseborough (recently excellent in Shadow Dancer) as Jack’s eye-in-the-sky communications and surveillance officer, Victoria, who stays in the sky-tower and guides him through his missions; veteran character actor Morgan Freeman (Unforgiven, The Dark Knight Trilogy), doing his best Morpheus impression as a wise old veteran who supposedly knows more about Jack than he knows about himself; Melissa Leo (Flight, The Fighter) as Jack and Victoria’s off-world mission commander; and Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace) as a mysterious woman who Jack sees in his dreams. They’re all good, although it’s probably only Riseborough that stands out because she gets a marginally different character to play around with; you’ll be able to see right from the get-go that there’s something subtly offbeat about her performance which nicely builds across the piece and matches well against Cruise’s character-arc.
Beyond the solid old-school sci-fi story; the stunning visuals and impressive action set-pieces; and the commendable all-round performances, you can’t help but champion the soundtrack work from French band M83 (who are probably best known for their hit track used as the Made in Chelsea TV series theme music, Midnight City, but who have also contributed to the soundtracks and promotional material for the likes of Chronicle, Rust & Bone, Cloud Atlas, A Scanner Darkly, and the upcoming Ryan Gosling / Nicholas Winding Refn thriller Only God Forgives).
They bring us the perfect accompaniment to the movie, with haunting nods to all those sci-fi classics of old but also modern rousing inflections and upbeat themes to drive the scenes and maintain the pacing. It’s clearly M83’s product – their music generally being very cinematic in the first place – but one also can’t ignore the influence of Tron: Legacy’s score in the score to Oblivion. Now whilst it would be easy to see the connection as being little more than two similar French electronica bands doing the two scores, there’s actually stronger reason for the connection: the link being composer Joseph Trapanese, who not only worked with Daft Punk on arranging the seminal score to Legacy, but also worked with M83, both on their debut album and here in arranging the score for Oblivion. Trapanese has gone on to score the Tron: Uprising animated TV series and will no doubt be involved in the third Tron movie, Kosinski’s upcoming Tr3n, in the fullness of time, but in the meantime he remains the biggest reason why Oblivion’s score is so undeniably Tron-flavoured, whilst also so rich and original in its own right.
So Oblivion boasts a sumptuous blend of ingredients, for those whose palate it agrees with. At the end of the day I’m sure there will be plenty who balk at the rating, dismiss the praise, deride Cruise’s centre-of-the-universe promotion, and laugh at any supposed originality in this work. It would be all too easy to do one or all of those things. After all, the flipside to everything that you’ve read is that reviewing, as much as we try to be objective, is an inherently subjective task; that the elements one critic praises may be the source of attrition for another; that Cruise’s popularity may simply be unfathomable for some – he may be little more than a one-trick-pony to those who refuse to see otherwise – and the originality of any modern-day production is impossibly simple to call into question given the vast body of works that Hollywood has output over the last Century. I mean, if you look closely enough, is there really such a thing as an original story left?
How can a man better die,
Than facing fearful odd,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods?
If you’re not inclined to be that critical, however, and you’re prepared to see the visual majesty of this piece; to acknowledge all the loving tributes it pays to those myriad sci-fi classics that you would – in another breath – be defending yourself; to champion Cruise’s ability to simply drive blockbusters like this and commend the fact that this means we get sci-fi epics on a scale as grand as this; to revel in the cinematography, the score and the style and simply enjoy getting swept up by this classic sci-fi tale, then you – like me – might find yourself regarding this as one of the best sci-fi blockbusters in years.
VerdictOblivion is a visually stunning experience, with strong performances driven by another dedicated offering from Tom Cruise; interesting, atypical characters; a suitably twisty old-school sci-fi story that pays loving tribute to all the great sci-fi classics; gorgeous cinematography and impressive, well-integrated visual effects; a fabulously evocative score from French electronic band M83 and epic blockbuster action helmed by the same guy who delivered the tremendous audiovisual experience that was Tron: Legacy and who also wrote the story. Whilst it probably plays things that little bit too safe to forge its own path as a modern classic, oftentimes erring on the side of style over substance even if the one is far from drowned out by the other, it’s still one of the best sci-fi blockbusters we’ve seen in years. Watch it on the biggest screen you can find – you won’t be disappointed.
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