Monday, 29 April 2013

Oblivion (Film Review)

Okay, a word to the wise before we begin: Do not see the trailers. If you want to enjoy this film, to truly appreciate its story, definitely avoid any of the promotional material. It gives away huge chunks of the plot and ultimately ruins an interesting development which, even if you might have seen coming, serves as a major driving force to the tale.

The strangest thing about Oblivion is that while it might be a very different breed of film, you can see many of its elements in Joseph Kosinski’s previous film Tron Legacy. It’s something very strange as while the protagonists, story and overall structure are ultimately very different, there is enough here to make them feel the same.

A standout example of this is the overall opening to both films. Both start with a monologue detailing the backstory and prior events of that universe. Both exploring a day in the life of the film’s protagonist and setting up major elements within the first few minutes directly, rather than letting it evolve more naturally. Somehow both films manage to keep hitting the same key notes and introducing the same plot elements.

The difference here is that while Tron Legacy had a previous film to build upon, Oblivion lacks such a basis. As a result things like the opening monologue feel much more shallow and lacking in detail. We’ve seen nothing of this universe prior to now, so having an info dump be the opening introduction and never moving beyond that leaves it feeling unusually lacking. It’s a shame as well because, while nowhere near as smart as it thinks it is, Oblivion is an intelligent science fiction action piece in the same way Looper was.

Set in the year 2077, the film is set on an earth which was shattered by war. Having been invaded sixty years ago by an alien race known as the Scavengers, the conflict saw the destruction of the moon and massive natural disasters. While humanity won the war, the losses were insurmountable and the entire human race is forced to depart from its home. Technician 49 Jack Harper is one of the few humans left on the planet alongside his wife Victoria, the rest now living in an orbiting habitat. Tasked with repairing and maintaining gun drones, they help to protect one of the few safe areas of land on the planet from the remaining Scavengers. More importantly, to also protect the series of coastal refineries converting the seas into hydrogen so the remnants of the human race can begin a new life elsewhere.

Unfortunately, some very dark secrets are being kept from the both of them.

Being a slow burning film, Oblivion might not seem the most interesting of productions at first. Something not helped by a mishandled first act which, even being generous, often comes across as heavy handed and lacking in nuances. However the film manages to ultimately improve itself throughout its development. As each scene builds upon one another, more of the cracks in the narrative and apparent plot holes are filled and it moves towards being a far more interesting tale. Turning from what might have originally seemed like a relatively straight forwards tale with an interesting premise to something much more complex and fascinating. Exploring the ideas of memory, choice, individuality, manipulation of information and freedom in ways both overt and subtle. Some you’ll pick up on easily while others will be harder to pin down and directly notice until you spend some time thinking about them. While by no means some extremely heavy going piece of fiction giving an in depth analysis upon the psyche of humans, it’s well constructed and done by someone who knows what they were doing. Even when you realise that the actual premise of the storyline is one big plot hole which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, you probably won’t mind that until you realise it a couple of hours later. If at all.

It’s just unfortunate a lot of the characters tend to be more instruments of the plot rather than figures themselves.

A film can often be made or broken by its characters and Oblivion is definitely one which is struggling to use them. Besides Jack, Tom Cruise if you’ve not guessed, it often feels like it’s either not sure what to do with them or is using them as an excuse to get from point A to point B. A number of the few named characters are so far into the background that it’s a puzzle as to why the script bothered with them over unnamed mooks.

Morgan Freeman is only notable because he’s Morgan Freeman, put him in any role and he’ll steal the show, and the major female characters both feel underused. Victoria, Andrea Risebrough, often feels very stilted in her mannerisms and awkward. While this might work to emphasise upon how the relationship between her and Jack is very one sided, effective together professionally but not personally, it prevents the audience becoming invested in them. As a result making Victoria feel very underperformed despite Risebrough’s best efforts. The later introduced Julia Rusakov, Olga Kurylenko, feels similarly cryptic often only serving as a device to further Jack’s character rather than an individual in her own right. This made the film feel very cold and cynical at times, robbing it of a great deal of potential.

The elements which help to make up for the lack of a well-developed cast, at least in part, are the visuals and battle scenes. Anyone who has seen Tron Legacy will know Kosinski’s ability to use special effects and CGI, creating truly unique landscapes and Oblivion only further proves this. Veering away from many of the usual post-apocalyptic tropes, the world of Oblivion is truly stunning to behold and is of extreme contrasts. With the clinically clean outpost Jack and Victoria call their home clashing with the cataclysm wracked yet still green landscape below them, still dotted with crumbling monuments of what once was. If we do ever get that Mass Effect film people keep talking about, the creators should definitely look at the former of these locations and be taking notes. The battle scenes meanwhile are implemented at the exact moments they need to be. Taking the Looper route of having only brief but extremely well crafted moments, Oblivion only has a handful of extremely bloody but cinematically stunning firefights. All of which stand out due to the inclusion of the drones which, whatever the films flaws, could well be the best mooks introduced in any film thus far this year.

I’ll freely admit that my perspective might be somewhat skewed on this one. The film was effectively described to me as something Roland Emmerich might churn out on his worst days. So being pleasantly surprised to find something trying to be intelligent may well have coloured my vision, but it genuinely came across as an interesting film. Sort of a Ray Bradbury lite tale with sprinkled moments of action to keep the pace going. As such while heavily flawed in both terms of its characters and certain logical elements of its tale, I still can’t help but recommend this one. It’s by no means perfect but if you’ve been itching for a cinematic science fiction saga you could definitely do far worse than Oblivion.


Oblivion and all related characters and media are owned by Universal Pictures.

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