Sunday, April 21, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: OBLIVION Has Plenty of Sound and Fury, But Signifies Mostly Nothing

On the Criterion Collection DVD of RoboCop, Paul Verhoeven discusses the difference between "eye candy" and what he calls "eye protein." The former is something that, while looking extravagantly polished and pleasing, offers little to no substance behind it. The latter is exactly what it sounds like: imagery that manages to be both visually and intellectually stimulating. Oblivion is an ocular diabetic's worst nightmare. It may quench your cinematic sweet tooth, but it will leave your soul (and brain) wanting.

Jack (Tom Cruise) is a drone repair man on an abandoned Earth. The planet was attacked by aliens and all of humanity has relocated off-world, leaving Jack and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) to protect the giant water extractors that help power the off-world colony. After discovering a crashed ship with a human survivor (Olga Kurylenko), Jack begins questioning what his real purpose is and exactly what happened to the Earth.

Oblivion is a science fiction movie that wears its references on its sleeve. But, instead of amalgamating those influences into an original product, Oblivion is more than happy to directly co-opt the films it owes its existence to. Because of this, the film ends up being horribly predictable and kind of a chore to sit through when there isn't any action going on. But when there is action, it's fantastic. Each sequence is staged wonderfully and always manages to breathe life into the cold and sometimes flat-lining plot.

Tom Cruise is a master at leading man charisma. While Oblivion isn't a breakout performance by any means, it proves that Cruise has the ability to carry a movie on his likability and charm alone. While his character as written may not be entirely interesting, Cruise adds a lot of pathos for Jack with just the smallest of facial expressions. I don't like to equate actors societal personas with their work (unless they do so deliberately), so I have no problem saying that even though I disagree with Tom Cruise's beliefs and behavior, I will always go see him at the movies. Olga Kurylenko is the weak link in the chain, stuck with one continuous face for most of the film's running time and the inability to emote anything above disinterest. It doesn't help that her character is pretty much relegated to silent sidekick status once things get rolling. The best performance comes from Andrea Riseborough, and since she's the best, that means she needs to be taken out of the plot (and pretty much completely forgotten) once climaxes start...climaxing. She really is the standout performer of the whole bunch, and her character is also the best written! It was really disappointing when the film decided she wasn't integral to the story anymore, and her loss only helped to dampen the overall mood of the picture.

If director Joseph Kosinski was relegated to just taking care of the visual aspects of his films and not having any input on the story (Oblivion is based off of his graphic novel), I get the feeling he could deliver something truly spectacular. His sleek style is gorgeously ogle-worthy and he knows how to direct action so that you are aware of everything that's going on. While his imagery may not be wholly inventive, it's still very effective and looks fantastic on camera. It's too bad that he can't figure out how to create fully realized characters or a compellingly paced plot.

And if there's one thing that Oblivion completely fails on, it's pacing. The first act is actually really well done, setting up both the characters and the world in a very clear way (albeit thanks to copious Cruise voice-over), but once Olga Kurylenko shows up and things start getting revealed, the movie goes into a narrative nose-spin it can't pull up from. Important exposition is simply told to the audience by a paycheck-cashing Morgan Freeman (did the filmmakers not see the South Park episode?), scenes that should have been earlier show up way to late to have any impact, and the eventual threat of the film doesn't feel at all threatening since it's given no real backstory. The marketing for this film didn't help either, spoiling a big part of the movie and sucking out any surprise it was hoping to cultivate.

It doesn't help that the movie's influences also make it incredibly easy to figure out, making any attempt at third act twists fall flat. There is one movie in particular (which I won't mention for spoilers sake. Feel free to discuss spoilers in the comments!) that Oblivion rips off wholesale, and it irritated me not because the movie it stole from was very good (it was), but rather that the idea it took was not explored in any truly meaningful way. If you're going to take a concept, at least delve into that concept headfirst. Don't just tack it on because it's a good narrative twist.

Still, Oblivion (much like Kosinski's debut Tron Legacy) would make a great music video. It's expertly designed and well-photographed. I'd actually love to watch the movie with the isolated score by M83.

It's too bad that an original sci-fi movie with a great budget and plenty of pedigree feels so unoriginal and soulless. It's not a horrible movie, it's just extremely disappointing. The potential is right there on the screen: a good cast (with a criminally under-utilized Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a great design and a director who can deftly stage an action scene. The writing department is what needs some serious sharpening. If the script was as good as the production design, Oblivion would be one of the best summer sci-fi pictures in recent memory. Instead, it's a pretty but unsubstantial morsel of eye candy.

Side note: Anyone care to explain what the significance of the title is? Because it has no bearing in relation to the film, as far as I could gather.

1 comment: