Saturday, May 4, 2013


Finding Oneself in the Future
Scavenging the Sci-Fi Landscape

The new Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion (written and directed by Joseph Kosinski from his "unpublished" graphic novel* and whose previous film was Tron: Legacy) is a science fiction tale that borrows very liberally from the last 30 years of movie sci-fi to the point where you swear you've seen the movie before.  

You have, but which one depends on the reel of the film you're watching.  

The year is 2077.** Earth has just survived a long, devastating war with an alien race that, in its final act to "poison the well" destroyed Earth's moon, creating dire ecological conditions for the planet, wiping out civilization and leaving its coasts under hundreds of feet of silt from tsunamis and tidal devastation.  Folks have moved to the moon Titan, off the rings of Saturn, the last remaining humans being Jack Harper (Cruise) and Vicca (Andrea Riseborough), a mated team of tech-mechanic and monitor whose job it is to keep the giant moisture evaporators running Titanville or wherever and keep them up and running from complications, both natural and unnatural.  The natural being wear and tear and the unnatural the last vestiges of the die-hard combatants—Scavengers—who are still trying to tear apart the fragile mining of Earth's resources to defeat the human race.  Jack monkey-wrenches and Vicca runs data, all under the watchful work-schedule of Sally (Melissa Leo) who oversees their efforts from a large rectangular control station in orbit around Earth, called the Tet.***

So far, so hum-drum.  Yes, there's a lot of background that Cruise has to spew  in the first ten minutes, but basically he's playing another working class stiff doing a dirty job in the future.

Jack and Vicca are a happy-in-love working team, awaiting the day when they can get off this rock and join civilization on Titan.  Jack, bothered by dreams of the observation deck on the Empire State Building and a smiling beauty (Olga Kurylenko) in the New York crowd, gets in his dragonfly of a jetcraft, repairing busted defender drones, and keeping a wary eye on "scav's."  

Cruise's futuristic mechanic keeps an eye on those moisture-vaporators
That's just the set-up.  Things, as they are wont to do, "get complicated" and to say how would start a cascading spoiler effect that will ruin the movie.  I can't even talk about influences without giving away key pieces of information that will kill the "reveals" (even if one does see some of this stuff coming from light-years away), so let's just say that you'll spend the same amount of time playing "name that reference" in post-screening mode, as you do actually watching the movie.  (Would one call that deja-viewing?  And shouldn't a science fiction movie be looking forward, rather than backwards?****

One key sequence echoes Planet of the Apes. Jack's patrol sector is the former northeast coast of the U.S. (and we get a respectful nod at the decimated Statue of Liberty), but only that section, as there's a radioactive "border" he can't cross.  He is told at one point to go explore beyond his limitations and into the radiation zone if he wants answers.  One could easily hear Dr. Zaius echo the words "You won't like what you find..." in the background. This leads to the biggest revelation of the film, but, instead opf answers, it just leads to more questions, which the film goes into warp-drive trying to explain, not very successfully, as plot-holes and logic disconnects begin to eat away at the movie like nano-viruses.

And science-fiction movies usually have a message for us livers-in-the-now, either cautionary or revelatory.  Oblivion fails there by having as its message that we are replaceable cogs in the wheel of society's meat-grinder.  That message was delivered by Fritz Lang's Metropolis way back in the silent era of movies in 1927.  Here we are in the 21st Century (when we should all be wearing jet-packs) and that's all we get...besides the obligatory shoot-outs and chase sequences?  If there's a message there it's along the lines of "Take out the recycling."

Oblivion is a re-treaded Rental made up of spare parts.

*—"well, then, it doesn't really count, does it?"—

** The film is extraordinarily exposition-heavy in the beginning in a long narration spoken by Cruise.  So much so, that one wonders why they didn't just make a movie of the events spoken of in the exposition.  The reason why makes up the plot of the movie and reveals the Cruise character to be the most unreliable of narrators.

*** Amusingly, the first sign we get of the orbiting Tet is a glimpse of it, traversing the globe on the new logo for Universal Studios at the film's beginning.

**** And, appropriately, into the future.  One of the previews preceding Oblivion is for Elysium, the new film by District 9's Neil Blomkamp, where the 1%ers have moved to an idyllic space station, while the rest including cyborg-ish freedom fighter Matt Damon robo-cops attitude against the machinery of the uber-klass.  The two movies could be book-ends for each other.  Think of the double-bill (and the headline): "Oblivion /Elysium/ Expatriatic/ Tedium"

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