So I watched Oblivion, a 2013 movie scifi movie starring predominantly Tom Cruise.
Now, I’ve opined at length as to the fact that straight scifi movies tend not to be very good. This is because a) filmmakers are stupid, b) they think their audiences are stupid, too. Most SF movies only achieve greatness synthetically, by cribbing off other genres, especially Westerns, but occasionally also horror, or even war-stories. (Pssst, has anyone noticed that Aliens is actually a Western? Everyone thinks it’s an action movie, but it’s got the Red Injuns, the cocky cavalry detachment with the inexperienced leader and the experienced and knowledgeable civilians….)
Anyway, much to my surprise, Oblivion is a straight scifi movie, and it’s….good! It has a simple and unexceptional but solid plot, and it relies on its characters and worldbuilding to reveal that plot point by point and–crucially–twist by twist (there’s a reveal about halfway through that made me actually sit up and grin.) Now, at a certain point it largely gives up on the thoughtful, measured approach and leans hard into the by-golly-I-have-an-explodey-things-budget-and-I’m-gonna-use-it syndrome, but please note I said “leans” not “dives” and entirely omitted “headlong.” The second half of the movie had more than enough built-up good will to keep my attention, but the thing with scifi movies is that they should never try to explain themselves out loud. See a), above. This movie did very, very well when it showed its protagonist–and its audience–what was going on; it only started to fumble when it switched over to telling.
What is there to show, then? Well, Tom Cruise is Jack Harper, Tech-49, who with his communications officer/lover/partner Vika, are the last humans left on Earth after an absolutely devastating war with the alien Scavs that, among other things, destroyed the moon. Most of the human population is on Titan, and some of it is on the orbital space station, the Tet. They have been mind-wiped prior to their mission, because….
Jack maintains the drone fleet that protects the ocean-water-sucking thingies that are destroying what’s left of the earth for power. (Why not just mine some comets, asks no screenwriter ever.) There are still some remnant Scavs on Earth that attack the drones and the power platforms. Vika is his mission control and interface with Command. The two are an effective team, but there are still some conflicts. Jack has dreams of the future and thoughts of the past; Vika resolutely suppresses such things. Jack has a relaxed view of orders and is fully aware that Command has them on a very long leash; Vika has a much stronger belief in regulations.
And then, a signal beamed from Earth brings an ancient spacecraft back to ground….a spacecraft containing living human crewmembers. Living, that is, until Jack’s own drones destroy all but one of the sleep-pods, utterly ignoring his orders to stand down. The sole survivor is Julia, a woman who refuses to reveal anything more to Jack, Vika, or Command until she retrieves the flight recorder from her ship…and shows them the truth. At about this point, Morgan Freeman also enters the picture, and I do have to ask: if Earth is that destroyed, where’d his cigars come from?
And so it goes with the movie, having accumulated this many questions, starting to tip over into revealing the answers (except the one about the cigars.) And so it goes, with the one problem that it reveals rather too many answers and in rather too bald-face a manner for my views.
Other good stuff: the cinematography of this film is really good. Like, I watched it entirely on my phone and I was watching for those little triggering points that normally break my suspension of disbelief (s/a: mysterious, additional light sources when there should not be light sources), and I noticed how good it was. Apparently a chunk of the movie was filmed on location….in Iceland, lending a barren, surreal, beautiful backdrop that works very well indeed. The sets and designs are also very good. Tom Cruise does an expert job as the personable, handsome hero; Morgan Freeman, well, Morgan-Freemans his way through dialogue that is 99% exposition as only Morgan Freeman can or could. Andrea Riseborough and Olga Kurylenko are incredibly outmatched in this movie, talent-wise, which is a shame, but they do their best and, in Riseborough’s case, mostly match up to the challenge.
Okay so, although I’ve spent a long while in this review complaining about the movie when it shifts focus to the action, I will also state that the action scenes themselves are largely quite good….at first, when they don’t involve humans. The drones are an incredible threat / weapon / ally, and it’s an annoying waste of potential that the movie ends up ultimately wimping out and choosing the cheap (explodey) way of making those bits be exciting. That being said, the cinematography still makes everything look good, the characterization makes them be tense and engaging, and, yeah, it’s pretty good.
Overall, I do think that the movie could have been better if it maintained a better balance between its initial, more thoughtful tone and the faster-paced finale (honestly, delete half the expository dialogue and you wouldn’t have to change another thing else), I still have to admit straight-up that, yeah, it’s pretty good.
Rated: Oh wow, you’re in luck, Julie. There’s two of them for you now!
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