Movie review: “Oblivion”

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Midway through the new sci-fi flick “Oblivion,” there’s a scene in which drone 

Oblivion move poster

I told you that the spaceship was awesome.

repairman Jack Harper (played by Tom Cruise) is piloting his futuristic flying vehicle through a series of claustrophobic, Death Star-like canyons, when – for a brief, fleeting moment – he passes the remnants of a destroyed Statue of Liberty. As he soared past that iconic torch, submerged in a pile of dirt next to a waterfall, two epiphanies came to mind.

Number 1: Wow, it’s been almost thirty years since “Top Gun” came out in 1986 and Tom Cruise is still stuck in the role of a fighter pilot of some sort.

And Number 2: I just witnessed a scene in a movie in which the very symbol of American freedom is shown lying in ruins and it elicited absolutely no response from me or anyone else in the theater around me, for that matter.

Basically, what I was thinking at that particular point during “Oblivion” was: Have we, as moviegoers, reached the point where we are utterly bored with all of this apocalyptic imagery that we’ve been bombarded with since Charlton Heston had his hands in the sand and was God damning everybody to Hell.

So there I was, about an hour into “Oblivion” and pondering on how I was going to rip this movie to shreds and God damning the powers that be about the lack of creativity and originality within the sci-fi genre, as well as movies in general, when something happened.

“Oblivion” actually started to get… uhhh… for lack of a better word, good.

Now, I can’t tell you too much about the plot of the film without spoiling the whole movie for you. So, basically, I have to tip-toe through this review, or I’d be doing you guys a great disservice by ruining one of the more original and creative sci-fi flicks I’ve seen in a long time. Now, that’s how you pull off a 180-degree turn! Am I right?

What I will say is this – If you’ve seen any of the commercials, teasers or especially the trailer for this film, then you’ll most likely be in the same frame of mind that I was in regarding this film, before I saw it: that is a state of out-and-out apathy towards “Oblivion.”

You’re probably thinking the same thing I was thinking. Oh boy, another Tom Cruise movie where he’s running around shooting down things that are bigger than him (which is just about EVERYTHING), for the sake of personal compensation. Oh yay, another “the world is over” plot with a bunch of CGI-generated laser beams burning through a mess of CGI-generated alien creatures. And oh happy day, there’s Morgan Freeman playing… well… Morgan Freeman, shedding some light on the prototypical “everything is not what it seems” plot point.

And for the first hour of the movie, things seemed to be going this way.

Actually, if truth be told, things don’t start to get good UNTIL Freeman shows up.  

Morgan Freeman in "Oblivion"

Here’s that entrance that I mentioned.

His cigar-puffing, hipster glasses-wearing character of Beech (although it might seem cheesy “on paper”) is the embodiment of smooth. Now that I think about it, maybe it’s Freeman himself that’s the embodiment of cool. Either way, when Beech finally makes his first appearance (which is so memorable that the guy behind me said, “Wow, he really knows how to make an entrance, doesn’t he?”) the action picks up and the narrative starts to gain momentum.

In fact, it’s as if the whole internal structure of the film starts to unravel – one stitch at a time. One mind-boggling series of events leads to another thought-provoking, contemplative notion and before you get a chance to catch your breath to work out all of this new information – boom – a tension-filled action sequence is thrown in. The film’s second and third acts (especially the exposition and back story elements, which are thrown into the mix at exactly the perfect points) are like a hybrid of “Pandorum,” “Prometheus” (I actually liked “Prometheus,” so back off!) and a smidge of “Wall-E” – all rolled-up into one film.

Now, here’s where I try to explain the premise of the film… without giving TOO much away. Drone repairman Jack Harper and his eye-in-the sky partner Victoria (played by “Disconnect” star Andrea Riseborough) are a two-person team, stationed in the sky in a sterile, pod-like tower on top of a giant pole, who apparently have been left to keep an eye on the Earth. See, the planet was involved in a major war with the “Scavengers” or “Scavs,” for short – who were aliens from a distant planet who invaded Earth for our natural resources.

QUICK SIDE NOTE: Why is it always our “natural resources” that these impatient aliens want so badly that they gotta come here and start some shit, huh? I mean, don’t we do enough fighting amongst ourselves for oil and gold and diamonds and stuff like that. For God’s sake, is it really gonna take some technologically-advanced “E.T”’s to come here and suck us dry, for humanity to come to an end? Just leave us alone, aliens, you’ll see. Eventually somebody’s gonna say something disrespectful about somebody else’s country (I’m looking at you, North and South Korea) and… whammo… it’s all gonna end badly for everybody. THEN you guys can move in and take what you want. Just be patient, is all I’m saying.

Anyway, it seems that these “Scavs” came to Earth and blew up our Moon. I mean, the Moon is still technically “in orbit” – but it’s in pieces, hovering over the night sky. Basically, the Moon’s in some terrible shape and that caused all sorts of natural disasters – earthquakes, tidal waves, internet off-line – you name it. These disasters basically knocked the planet, and its population, down to the canvas. This, of course, allowed the aliens to gloat over top of us (Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston-style) and come to the surface to kick us while we’re down.

After a huge series of battles, we won the war. Hoooraaay!!! Well, not so much. The planet was absolutely devastated by the war – completely and totally destroyed. Some of the surviving “Scavs” stayed behind on Earth and kept on fighting, hence the reasoning behind leaving the teams back on Earth to watch the planet.

Jack and Victoria are one of those “effective teams,” and to ensure their effectiveness, both of their memories were wiped of all previous knowledge of the war and personal attachments. This turns out to be convenient plot device that leads to the “slow unraveling” aspect I talked about earlier. Jack and Victoria are also involved on a romantic level. As a viewer, you know this due to an unnecessary and gratuitous sex-scene in a pretty cool-looking swimming pool that kind of reminded me of a giant casserole dish. Just trust me on this one. Pretty standard fare so far, right?

There’s just one problem, Jack is starting to remember bits and pieces of the past.  

Olga Kurylenko and Tom Cruise in "Oblivion"

I thought you were supposed to bring the quarter, We talked about this all night, Tom.

These hallucinatory flashbacks involve those coin-operated binocular tower viewers (I looked it up – apparently, that’s what they’re called) on top of the Empire State Building and a super sexy-looking woman (played by Olga Kurylenko). These visions seem to get more and more frequent for Jack, while Victoria’s way of dealing with questions involving “the past” is to ignore them. On top of the flashbacks, Jack also likes to collect classic literature, Earthly knick-knacks, and small flowers growing in dingy cans. This is the part that reminded me of Wall-E – which made me chuckle – because I started comparing the trash-hoarding robot to Tom Cruise and the similarities were astounding.

See, Jack having these thoughts couldn’t come at a worse time. It seems as if he and Victoria are only two weeks away from their “retirement” of their Earth assignment. This job, by the way, consists of Jack taking his bad-ass spaceship down to the surface to repair broken drones – which are there to protect the machines that suck-up ocean, which is later converted into drinking water. After the two weeks is up, they take a space shuttle to “The Tet,” which is a huge, triangular-shaped space shuttle above Earth’s orbit, and eventually catch a ride to Titan (Saturn’s Moon) to live happily ever after… together.

This is as far as I’ll go when talking about the plot, but I will leave with one final thought: Even in the future, when the world is over and the moon looks like a broken sugar cookie in the sky – Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. There I said it. I swear to you that I didn’t give anything away just now. wink. wink. Nah, I’m kidding about the “wink, wink” part. wink. wink.  All that stuff I just told you was revealed within the film’s first thirty/forty minutes – for real. Seriously, there are no spoilers here.

Or are there?

All joking aside, “Oblivion” is an extremely well-balanced and tightly-constructed film. Forget the fact that it’s another sci-fi flick about the perils of extraterrestrial armageddon. Thankfully this version of these often-imitated events of “the last days of humanity” does not include the ADHD of Michael Bay or the over-the-top awfulness of Randy Quaid flying a plane into the ass-end of an alien ship and screaming, “Hello boys, I’m ba-aaaaack!!”

However, this does feature the brilliant directorial style of Joseph Kosinski – who tends to seamlessly blend all of the obligatory action scenes that a sci-fi flick about alien invasion has to have with the twisting, turning, bait-and-switch techniques of a good mystery.

Kosinski’s success doesn’t surprise me though. I saw these flashes of brilliance with his feature film, directorial debut “Tron Legacy” – which I believe was criminally underrated, if you must know. If truth be told, when I was researching his work, I learned that he was responsible for directing one of my favorite commercials of all-time: The 2006 “Gears of War” video game ad with the Gary Jules version  of “Mad World” (from “Donnie Darko”) playing in the background. Awesome commercial, by the way.

Kosinski also wrote the original graphic novel (also entitled “Oblivion” – go figure) for Radical Publishing, which is a spitting-image of the film – aesthetic-wise. Kosinski, who also penned the screenplay with Karl Gajdusek, needs to be commended for taking a story with such lofty concepts and visuals and turning it into the uncompromising piece of cinematic fantasy that “Oblivion” turned out to be. Kosinski abandoned the stereotypes of what the apocalypse is supposed to look like (his color palette is that of browns, grays and whites – not the overplayed sepia/rust color wheel from every other end-of-the-world flick) and feel like.

I just hope that you don’t follow your first instinct of what you think “Oblivion” is going to be like and just trust me when I say: This movie is a lot better than you think.

A lot better.

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