Monday, October 7, 2013

Oblivion (Universal, Relativity Media, Monolith, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched a more recent and considerably better (than X-Men Origins: Wolverine) action movie in the modern mold: Oblivion, starring Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman (billed second even though he’s only in two scenes), Olga Kurylenko and Andrea Riseborough in a surprisingly good, though hard to believe, science-fiction tale about Earth in 2077. It seems — at least from the opening narration we get from Cruise’s character, Jack Harper (the kind of simple Anglo-Saxon name with which Cruise’s characters are usually adorned) — that in 2017 Earth was invaded by a nasty alien race from outer space called the Scavengers, “Scavs” for short. Earth managed to beat back the invasion, but only by using nuclear weapons on such a massive scale that the planet became virtually uninhabitable. The people running Earth at that time decided to mount a massive evacuation to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons and apparently the one with a close enough environment to Earth that it’s become beloved of science-fiction writers positing somewhere else in the solar system that people could live (no matter that it’s still considerably farther from the sun than Earth and therefore its temperatures would be quite a bit colder). But they left a few people behind staffing a space station called Tet and a few others working on Earth to extract the last oxygen from Earth’s water supply and send it to Titan. At least that’s what we think is happening for the first half of the movie; it shouldn’t be much of a surprise to a modern-day movie-goer that there’s a big switcheroo about midway through this 124-minute film. Jack Harper and Victoria, a.k.a. “Vika” (Andrea Riseborough), are living together in a spectacular glass house suspended over the presumably unbearably toxic earth — though the radiation level is at least livable in some parts and only the so-called “radiation zones” are downright dangerous — and Jack’s job is to fly in a really cool-looking craft (it actually resembles a giant dental extractor) and maintain the drones that actually do the energy-sucking from the oceans in good repair. Only, this being a movie, things go wrong — he has to contend with one drone that keeps threatening to go lethal on him until he speaks his name to the thing, which is supposed to recognize the computer voiceprint of his voice and class him as friend, not foe — until he ends up trapped on the surface and nearly falls through a cave to its floor below. (I couldn’t help resist joking about the other thing Tom Cruise is famous for — his dedication to the Church of Scientology — and saying, “Wait a minute! Ron told me that when I reached OT VII I could defy gravity!”)

That’s when the switcheroo happens: he meets Beech (Morgan Freeman) — who’s costumed and photographed to make him look like a darker-skinned cross between the Sterling Hayden and George C. Scott characters in Dr. Strangelove — who at first appears to be a Scav villain in human form. Only it turns out [spoiler alert!] that he and his hoodied minions are the real humans and the “people” who have been assisting Jack on his mission are really the Scavs. The purpose of the whole drone infrastructure Jack has been so industriously repairing is not to transfer earth’s resources to Titan — the colony there doesn’t really exist and “Sally” (Melissa Leo), the woman from whom Jack and Vika have been receiving orders, is merely a computer simulation — but to finish the job of sucking the earth bone-dry for which the Scavs launched their invasion in the first place. Jack learns all this when a spaceship called the Odyssey (another Kubrick reference! And one of the production companies involved in this film is called “Monolith”!) lands in the desert and out pop five containers in which astronauts are being kept in “delta sleep” (gee, when Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke pulled this gimmick in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rod Serling ditto in his script for the original Planet of the Apes, they called it “hibernation”). Four of the astronauts die but the fifth gets revived; she is Julia Rusakova (Olga Kurylenko), a woman Harper has been dreaming about all movie and who turns out to have been his wife pre-invasion before the people running his operation wiped his memory clean and left him with only the dimmest memories of who she was. (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind meets Solaris.) Vika, who’d been having an affair with Harper that seems passionless and motivated more by sheer proximity than genuine attraction, suddenly starts getting jealous of Julia and ultimately reports Harper to Mission Control, and midway through the movie Tom Cruise gets into a fight scene with Tom Cruise — at first I couldn’t believe what I was seeing (and truth be told, most of it was probably staged with two stunt doubles made up to look like Cruise) but it’s eventually explained that the Scavs captured Harper and thought he was so suitable for what they had in mind that they cloned thousands of him (the “Agent Smith” character from the Matrices meets the Sam Rockwell character from Duncan Jones’ — David Bowie’s son — fascinating Moon, a sci-fi drama with many similar elements but both less pretentious and more effective) and, rather than give him the promised trip to Titan when his mission is over, they simply replace him with one of their stack of clones.

One could pick the plot of Oblivion to pieces — or note how many pieces of it came out of other, better movies (including Minority Report, another sci-fi vehicle for Tom Cruise that likewise placed him in the cross-hairs of an elaborate social machine he had once run, but to much better effect) — but while it lasts it’s fun even if it’s pretty preposterous. It began as a “graphic novel” (essentially the term-of-art for a book-length comic book) by Joseph Kosinski, and though other people (Karl Gadjusek and Michael Arndt) are credited with the script, Kosinski got to direct the film himself, and it’s not surprising therefore that it’s really spectacular-looking (particularly Harper’s aircraft and the space-age house he shares with Vika). Oh, and did I tell you Harper has a secret nature hideout, complete with a collection of 1970’s rock LP’s and a phonograph in working order? (No, he doesn’t get to dance in his underwear to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock ’n’ Roll” again.) I’ve got an odd relationship to Tom Cruise (in a manner of speaking); he’s the sort of star I don’t particularly like but nonetheless I’ve enjoyed a lot of the movies he’s been in, and I suspect one reason for that —and for the longevity of his career, which has survived an awful lot of craziness, most of it Scientology-driven — is he and/or his agents are just that good at picking parts for him, roles that don’t overstretch his limited acting chops (Cruise has delivered one acting tour de force, and it came relatively early in his career: as Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July — as an actor, it’s all been downhill for him since) and allow him to play the lovable bad but not too bad boy hero he’s been good at (and has been milking since Top Gun). Oblivion is a preposterous movie, and Kosinski seems to have stuck its plot together Frankenstein monster-style from the shards of older and better films (its page lists no fewer than 14 films it “references,” and that doesn’t include some of the ones I’ve mentioned above), but it’s fun while it lasts, good reliable entertainment on the wasted-world genre that seems to have become popular, especially among young people who see the world going to hell in a handbasket around them but have had so much of the idealism of previous generations burned out of them already that all they can think of by way of response is to do whatever they have to do to survive as individuals, and to hell with anybody else.