RIORI Redux: Joseph Kosinki’s “Oblivion” Revisited


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The Players…

Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko and Andrea Riseborough, with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo and Zoe Bell.


The Story…

Earth. It used to be a nice place to live. Commander Jack Harper thinks so, especially now he’s stuck planetside salvaging scrapped tech and maintaining the automated defensive drones. An alien invasion took it’s toll on Earth, so everybody save Jack and his partner jumped ship and sailed off to Titan to begin new lives. Well, Jack’s stuck with his old one, indefinitely. Then one day a crippled starship enters his territory. Its sole occupant, a mysterious woman, leads Harper to discover some unknown, shocking truths about humankind’s legacy beyond broken cities and mechanized battlebots.


The Rant…

Have you noticed lately that Tom Cruise’s roles lean towards the action hero type? The guy’s fifty-one. Can we say “mid-life crisis?” From the Mission: Impossible franchise to Jack Reacher to Oblivion, it may be now safe to say that his Top Gun days are well over. Best be sure to tell Tom this factoid. It’s time to retire into Forrest Gump territory. And that role gave Tom Hanks street cred. Ironic huh? Like the star of the Fast & Furious franchise going up in an auto-shaped ball of flame?

What, too soon?

And isn’t Morgan Freeman in every movie nowadays? I mean, other than schilling for Visa, hosting Through The Wormhole on the Science Channel, and (as an aside) portraying his best role, Easy Reader from The Electric Company, (that dates me) the guy’s been f*cking everywhere. Maine prisons. Rubbing elbows with rogue spies. Trundling bitchy Miss Daisy down to the Piggly Wiggly. Surviving cancer with Jack Nicholson. Off to Vegas with other geriatrics. Now he’s on post-apocalyptic Earth. Guy gets around faster than a rabbit with herpes.

(PS: I wrote the above before even watching the movie. I’m assuming my pontificating holds up some…)

…I was wrong. Anywho…

Oblivion is an odd duck of a comic-book movie adaptation. What makes it odd is that, first of all, it was based on a comic. I didn’t know that. Did you? Really? Huh. Goes to show what I know. Secondly, I haven’t seen so much philosophizing about identity within a sci-fi film since the original Star Wars trilogy. I don’t say this as derisive, though it may come across that way.

The plot Oblivion is a thin one, but it tries to come across as much thicker than it is. The movie’s motif borrows from countless sci-fi psychodramas, from Blade Runner to Solaris to…to the Solaris remake with George Clooney. Oblivion has less to do with creating new worlds and more about proclaiming identity. It’s character drama. The concept of who you are in a given time under certain circumstances. Are you really sure of who you are and what those circumstances are? Are you lost? Is it the déjà vu all over again scenario? I don’t know, and film did not provide any easy answers.

What it did provide was a visually clean farscape. Not ostentatious, with a lot of smart CGI. You know how most of today’s sci-fi films want to bludgeon you over the head with digitally rendered whatsits and foreign locales off-world with nary a modicum of subtlety? Right, Oblivion doesn’t do that. Instead it offers up a very real, one could say prescient view of a ravaged planet Earth. Did I mention the cinematography (including the CGI enhancement) is breathtaking. I won’t lie to you. Most of Oblivion is pretty damn beautiful.

There was a bit more original drama than I had expected for a lifted plot. Actually, this movie is more a melodrama wrapped up in the guise of a sci-fi flick. There’s a good amount of play and tension against the characters, not unlike a relatively well-wrtten soap opera arc. And like your daytime dramas, there is plenty of intrigue and weird plot loops tossed about. It’s tricky to give a clear explanation about what Oblivion is really about because, 1) it’s near impossible without dumping spoilers all over you, and; 2) it’s not exactly clear what Oblivion is trying to say. Don’t get me wrong. The film is interesting. It’s also obtuse as hell, and can make for a confusing viewing experience. But it’s sci-fi, only when it’s not, and when it’s not…um, it’s something else. Stop yelling at me.

This was a confusing review to write, and it shows. Mostly because I didn’t know where to stand on this film. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good. It was rather confusing as if the film couldn’t make up its mind. It sure as sh*t met The Standard considering its lousy turnout at the box office. Is that a reflection on this movie? Kinda. I don’t know. All I can say for sure is that Oblivion was pretty.


Rant Redux (2019)

I’ve been noticing lately that in addition to commenting, editing, twisting and rationalizing the reasons why my earliest installments need some tweaking, I’ve found myself inadvertently correcting other stuff. Like the list of the players for the particular hack job I’m trying to suture. After the story, who is telling it is the most vital part of the movie, kinda like a Greek chorus; the cast and the director serve that need, following by the scenarist (however the poor drudge who wrote the damned script seldom gets any recognition save the dog and pony show every February). All together form the foundation for a movie, and the rest (eg: costuming, soundtrack, CGI effects, riders, etc) are in essence eyewash.

Why am I telling you this? For the first part, me noticing errors and fixing them are the meat of why I’ve been revising these sandwiches. If the cast and creative crew are indeed the vital signs of a winning or faltering movie I gotta give credit where credit is due (despite the cracks about Cruise’s midlife crisis cum action hero, he did a good job here, as well as most of his John McClane-esque roles). That and it’s the easy part of doing this crap.

The second part is that I am truly, truly sorry for this installment—even more regretful hoodwink that was Silver Linings PlaybookOblivion‘s rambled and rambled and was held aloft by some pretty righteous bullsh*t. Truth be finally told, I was way too messed up to even pay attention to the second and third acts, and here’s why:

My then wife for months was suffering from an incessant cough. She smoked quite a bit so that was no surprise. I smoked, too. But it was this angry, raspy cough that sounded like she was going to puke up her lungs. She wisely saw a doctor and had some tests done. Weeks later when she delivered my the preliminary results it was on my night off (late at night) when she dropped the science on me.

COPD was the verdict. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Your lungs betray you and gradually refuse to do their job. You suffocate on the carbon dioxide you have difficulty expelling. The disease invites an unholy host of terrible maladies, and in the endgame COPD is what kills you. From my understanding and her explanation she was living on borrowed time.

My first reaction was angst. I pressed her for info getting increasingly agitated with every vague detail, drinking all the while, meantime Oblivion (oddly accurate) was rolling on the BD player. I was bawling, screaming “It’s not fair” and fuming with rage and alcohol. I was so torqued I snatched a hatchet from the tool shed and contemplated trashing my own car. I didn’t though, through my whiskey-addled haze I thought of my insurance premiums and it would be expensive to cover my own vandalism. It’s weird what sticks in your conscience when yer pished.

So then what? Grief, fear, crying jag, booze. The wife had went to bed, understandable scared of the diagnosis (and me too, I guess). I was left alone stalking the living room, Oblivion still on pause. Grabbing at a stone, I crashed back down deciding to “watch” the movie. The remaining notes on my pad were blind chicken scratch. Not that I cared. I just needed something that felt normal then and there.

Write drunk, edit sober. Doesn’t really work for movie reviews, since you must have your faculties about you. Big shocker but I only recalled bits and pieces of the end of the movie and the early rant shows that? Did it sound like a lot of BS to you? Bingo! You’ve just won a prize: my bittersweet honesty. You’re welcome and sorry again.

On the brighter side, later on my wife’s diagnosis was reduced to severe asthma, a precursor to COPD but was treated and cleared up after a year or so.

Don’t smoke, kids. And don’t drink and pass judgement on mediocre movies that don’t make much sense. Even when sober.

*ahem*

So after wiping a fresh bar towel across my blurred memory of Oblivion I took to task to giving it a second chance. The movie’s title did it justice to my mental state back then. It’s amazing what one can take away from a Tom Cruise movie with the suspension of disbelief and not under the influence of whiskey. Beer maybe, but not whiskey. What? You think I’m nuts? This was a Tom Cruise movie! You need to numb yourself for most of his filmography. You can’t handle the truth.

You know the expression about a thing being “greater than the sum of its parts?” An example of this is Star Wars: A New Hope. If you take it apart and scrutinize the film (as millions of mouth-breathers do every hour), the thing is riddled with flaws, inconsistencies and a lot of flubs (not to mention the last scene lifted from the ultimate Nazi agitprop film Triumph Of The Will. Dubious at best, nerf herders). But despite those flaws—or perhaps even because of them—A New Hope is a lot of fun. It’s not a great movie, stuck with all the claptrap of comic book sci-fi trappings; a popcorn movie to be sure, but I like popcorn, especially on a lazy Saturday afternoon with no hangover to nurse. The movie has a homespun charm than can’t be denied, and that scrappiness elevates, if not buoys the entire franchise (even most Rebels can forgive the questionable prequels for stretching the plots and defying internal logic…no they didn’t). It’s greater than the sum of its parts.

Oblivion is the direct opposite. It’s entertaining, but only based so on the cool parts the movie culls from. Imagine all the noteworthy S/F films in Hollywood canon, if not doctrine from the past 50 years. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet Of The Apes, Silent Running, The Matrix, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial and, yes the Star Wars saga. Oblivion treats films of that ilk like the salad bar at Old Country Buffet. Picks at what looks good despite what might be best for you. But it’s from the salad bar! Yep, and Oblivion is cottage cheese drenched in French dressing. It may not suit all tastes, but it comforting for many. Then again so is hanging out with John Barleycorn.

Post-apocalypse survival. AI run amok. Nuclear holocaust. Alien invaders. Screwed up history. Mind warps. All present in Oblivion. I once (read: infinitely) applied the saw attached to the blues to describe how a niche film genre works. Say it with me now and you’ll get a cookie: it’s not the notes, but how they are played. John Lee Hooker made millions by this precept. And why not? It works, both in music and cinema. It works…but it can get tiresome. You can only listen to “Boogie Chillin'” so many times trying to eradicate that memory trapped in the murky mire that was The Blues Brothers (don’t forget the Cheez-Wiz, boy).

Oblivion borrows a little from all the above films and tropes and essentially does the “greater than…” idiom in reverse. It felt like director Kosinki (probably bummed his Tron reboot didn’t fly) went through a sci-fi flea market and picked out all the goodies he knew would work in his next effort. Ir did, just not in the way he might have hoped. We understand the three-act structure of plays and films, and there are sub-acts—scenes—that add light and shade to the plot as it moves merrily down the lane. Scenes should never be abrupt, or at least without exposition; they are not chapters. After Kosinksi cobbled together his movie from multiple dips at the golden sci-fi movie spring you can practically see the stitching as the movie moves from chapter to chapter, not scene to scene. At least I was correct in my original opinion: no segue so no sense. Jarring. Abrupt. And yet so familiar…with good reason.

Hey folks, you’ve seen Oblivion already, even if you haven’t. If you’ve seen 2001, you’ve seen Oblivion. I’ve you’ve seen The Matrix, you’ve seen Oblivion. Hell, if you’ve seen The Day After, Galaxy Express 999 or the freakin’ Manchurian Candidate (either one) you’ve seen Oblivion. You’ve just watched a sorta incoherent s/f rip-off from the best cliches of that genre for the past half century. And Kosinski did so with such verve. Naked and shameless. I have to respect that much. I’m not sure if Kosinki can play blues guitar, but I’m pretty sure he’s an Elmore James fan.

The story may be stale, but the movie was a treat for the eyes. Can’t be ignored. The ruined Earth of Oblivion looks like how our planet should after climate change, nuclear war and our natural satellite reduced to powder. The visual of Cruise on patrol walking over a sand dune covering half of the Empire State Building’s observation deck is telling. Startling. The buildings once straddling the Venetian canals are now the cliffs serving as waterfalls into endless basins. Yankee Stadium is a crater akin to the Moon’s Copernicus. Kosinksi succeeded in turning Mother Earth into an alien planet. I couldn’t deny that one bit.

And you know what else? This may be a jump, but Cruise’s Harper pining for an Earth he never knew, perfect in his mind, and suffusing his mountain retreat with some very old skool tech…It suits the mood, without a whit of irony. Especially balanced against the ominous 21st Century tech Harper is ostensibly planet side to service. We have two choices here: Harper relaxing to a hi-fi that was made before even was born grooving to “Midnight Rider” (why not?), or chasing down or being chased by sentient, well-armed drones that resemble albino TIE fighters with HAL 9000’s unblinking red eye. Which toothpaste would you choose? Interesting as this dichotomy was, it still reflects the salad bar thinking. Sure, cool dynamic, but that and a lot of other things in the movie might seem awesome ultimately boils down the the audience being unfamiliar with another movie.

In the endgame, I’m not a snob. With a clear eye I was entertained by Oblivion. But that was it. Any epic message to bestow on my brow was not there. It’s all a rip-ff, sure, but it was a decent, pretty rip-off. An okay time-waster even you see the ending miles ahead of time.

And if you didn’t see anything coming, you are either, a) drunk as a skunk playing funk aboard a junk, or; b) Oblivion is your first foray in s/f movies.

I recommend the drunk part first. And lock up that woodshed.


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. Entertaining but only filler. ‘Ware any s/f movie implying epic proportions only to land in a crock of French dressing.


Next Installment…

We return with another wobbly, half-baked subterfuge in your humble blogger twisting the Standard to their own evil ends using the first Pacific Rim movie as bait.

Mwa ha ha.


 

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