Review: Oblivion

I'm one of Tron: Legacy's biggest apologists. I saw the movie as a feature-length music video. I think its soundtrack is Daft Punk's strongest album. The visuals are sharp and pretty enough to keep the eye amused, and the storyline was largely incidental. Sure, it didn't have a single memorable line of dialogue. Sure, Michael Sheen was clearly acting in a completely different movie from everybody else in the production. And any kind of serious science fiction statement it was ever trying to make - the grand themes of science, medicine and religion promised in the trailer - was clearly quelled by Disney for fear of being remotely controversial, which is to say, thought-provoking. And yet every movie is the work of many hands, and it's statistically improbable that none of those hands will have any skill. Tron: Legacy clearly had a lot of love put into it. My particular highlight is the computer interfaces seen in the real world, used by Cillian Murphy's character to stop the hack at Encom in the beginning, and then the huge, ancient Solaris box that Garrett Hedlund's character discovers. While the actors are just poking imaginary buttons, you can see realistic prompts and command histories. While it's not entirely clear what Clu is trying to accomplish by driving his aircraft carrier thing at the exit to the Grid, the score pumps it up to something that's close to gripping. The movie was like a cake made entirely out of icing: far from filling, but icing is still nice, right?

I was ambivalent about Oblivion, even on the basis of its trailer, until two things happened. I discovered that the score was by fellow French electronic band M83, and I discovered that it had the same director, Joseph Kosinski. I went in with broadly similar expectations: a feast for the eyes and ears, with a relatively light plot tying matters together. As long as the movie didn't actively insult my intelligence, I'd be happy.

Oblivion borrows heavily from many sources of science fiction: Moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Half-Life 2, Portal, Rendezvous With Rama, Wall-E, Planet Of The Apes, Blade Runner, Independence Day. In fact, if you take all of those works and lay them out, you'll cover Oblivion almost completely. This should not be construed as criticism; the comparison, in most cases, is favourable. Filmed largely in unspoilt black wilderness in Iceland, it takes place on an Earth which has been invaded and successfully blasted into oblivion by aliens known as Scavs. Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough form a two-person team whose job is to repair the drones whose job is to defend the vast water-powered offshore fusion reactors whose job is to supply power and resources to the Tet, a gigantic orbiting space station where the rest of humanity lives.

All of this is revealed in an opening narration by Cruise's character, whose first name, in accordance with US film industry regulations, is Jack. Right out of the gate, Jack Harper's narration gives us some hesitation. Defend the reactors from what, exactly? Why, from the few remaining Scavs on Earth. But didn't humanity win? Well, perhaps not entirely. In what sense did humanity "win", anyway, given that there's nothing left of its world but the Washington Monument? These inconsistencies are not accidents, but Jack and his teammate/lover Victoria accept their scenario unquestioningly. After the standard science fiction day-in-the-life tour of Jack Harper's world, his cool little white aircraft, his improbably dust-free ultra-modern glass home in the clouds, and his comparably sterile relationship, a standard science fiction kick-off-the-adventure event happens: a antique human spaceship crash-lands, containing a woman (Olga Kurylenko) whom Jack recognises from his vivid recurring dreams.

Much of the movie from this point onwards can be predicted easily, but I urge you not to be that person. I singled out Blade Runner as an inspiration because Oblivion, similarly, is a movie which works in terms of some fairly broad concepts, using long dialogue-free sequences to let the concepts breathe and to let the audience soak up some atmosphere. It would be easy for you to instead use this time to start jumping to conclusions about what's going to happen next, which plainly isn't the intention. Themes are artificial intelligence, fate/predestination, identity, warfare and religion. This time around, they actually do get more than lip service paid. Some interesting messages come out, which I'll cover after the jump.

There are points of weakness. Although the technology, gadgetry and architecture are impressive and nifty and sweet, "colourful" is not a word that can be applied. There's an excessive reliance on the old teal and orange palette, particularly in indoor/underground scenes, with plain white often replacing teal, just to make things even less interesting to look at. It's almost the photographic negative of Tron: Legacy (which was orange/teal/black where this movie is teal/orange/white). There's a smattering of action sequences: they look good enough. They pass the time. The dialogue serves, but still isn't in the same league as "quotable". Many of the characters, I would call sparse, seemingly only existing to join dots up without embellishment. But another way to describe them might be "elegant". It's a reasonably simple story, all things considered. Perhaps additional complexity would have just felt arbitrary.

The score is not a point of weakness. M83, like Daft Punk before them, have created something not entirely like their usual fare, but risen to the new challenge with confidence and capability. Pretty enormous events transpire in the final act of this movie, and M83's soundtrack amplifies these events to an extent which, as I say, rather flips the score/movie relationship around, and makes it the movie which is playing catch-up in the emotional stakes, trying to construct a story momentous enough to fit a work of music that was pre-existing. Their final track, played over the closing credits and also titled "Oblivion", could be the best thing they've ever recorded.

Oblivion is better than Tron: Legacy in almost every respect, is a step forward for Kosinski and, as big-budget widesceen blockbuster sci-fi goes, is not immediately forgettable, which in my book makes it great. There is something good here. This is a recommendation.

*

Spoilers:

Oblivion has two messages that I can see. One of them (relating to warfare) is quite amusing: if you find that your home has been invaded and destroyed by a vast, faceless, technologically advanced civilisation who wants to plunder your natural resources but honestly couldn't care less if you live or die - a civilisation which defends its property using unmanned drones and cookie-cutter soldiers raised on a diet of disinformation, such as "the war is over" and "we won" - then the best way to fight back is using guerilla warfare tactics and - I kid you not - suicide bombing. Yeah, I'm saying that this is a movie in which Morgan Freeman plays Osama bin Laden. I mean, I could be wrong. But then, why don't the invaders just harvest hydrogen from a nearby gas giant instead of stealing perfectly good water? Oh, right: because they're lazy jerks who don't care enough about ecology to develop something better than what they've got. IT'S A METAPHOR.

The other message relates to religion. Jack Harper is a mindless adherent to a religion which withstands no scrutiny. He dutifully follows the instructions of his priest/prophet, Victoria, who in turn relays those instructions from their shared God, Sally, to whom Jack himself is never permitted to speak directly.

Until the very end of the movie, that is. Hence my belief that the other message is: if you meet God, kill her.

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Discussion (12)

2013-04-25 19:01:25 by tc:

glad to hear it's a decent watch. hopefully this will be a great year for sci-fi. I'm also looking forward to AE, Star Trek, Elysium, Pacific Rim and Ender's Game. The mechs in Pacific Rim remind me of Ed's stories

2013-04-25 19:10:39 by qntm:

That reminds me, I'm thinking of wrapping the Ed Stories up into an ebook of some kind. Unfortunately I don't have an ereader so I don't really know what sort of pitfalls there are to avoid here. If anybody has any comments or suggestions, let me know.

2013-04-25 23:15:11 by Alex:

Oh man, I'd love an Ed Stories ebook. I was actually contemplating compiling them into one myself today.

I recommend Adobe InDesign unless you have a program for it, although I'm not sure what limitations the trial has.

2013-04-25 23:22:19 by Alex:

Also, two comments. I am no longer a lurker!

2013-04-26 01:07:59 by kpreid:

Re ebooks: EPUB is pretty industry-standard, and is just XHTML and some metadata files wrapped up in a zip. You can put it all together by hand, or with shell scripts, if you're so inclined. No particular pitfalls other than that you *must* have well-formed XML for your XHTML, and the old presentational HTML (<font face=...> etc.) doesn't work at all.

From the feel of your site, I suspect that it would be a very small amount of additional coding on your part to generate a perfectly respectable EPUB from an arbitrary slice of qntm.org.

2013-04-26 04:56:08 by Brendan:

If you like Daft Punk perhaps you should review the anime Interstella 5555, which is basically an hour long story driven music video for their 'Discovery' album.

2013-04-26 06:53:29 by Thomas:

This is pretty much how i feel about Oblivion, but i couldn't articulate it as well as you can Sam. Except i though Tron:Legacy was this films equal. Also i would buy Ed Stories ebook if you wanted to sell it.

2013-04-26 10:19:23 by MichaelGrosberg:

I guess this is a good a time as ever to decloak. I've been reading your (awesome) stories for some time now on my Kindle, and since I arrived late at the scene and had a lot of existing material to cover, I converted all of them to ebooks. With your website being as well formatted as it is it was quite easy. I used the HTML-to-Calibre path at first, but now I use Sigil to compile a more standard Epub and then Calibre to convert to Mobi. Sigil is an open source app for compiling Epub files and will do everything for you. It's easy to learn and use and is still very feature rich and will allow you to edit the underlying XHTML code if you wish to.
I can send the result if you want.

Brendan: Interstella:5555 rocks! (or perhaps elctros?)

2013-04-26 17:42:10 by JoetheRat:

I come for the movie review, and leave with suggestions for my iPod. Ain't modern life grand?

Prefacing your review not only provided some aesthetic comparison points, it also provided insight to how you see things. This is important: If you know how a reviewer experiences things, and what their perspective is, you'll know if you'd agree with their review.

I thought this one looked interesting. Thank you for sharing your experience.

2013-04-28 05:57:47 by Andrew:

JoeTheRat: I like to think we live in the future that way. Downloading the soundtrack now, and Pandora's playing a cross-referenced set like it. Work next week is going to be great.

As for the movie, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride save for Sally at the end, which was a tad disappointing. The Culture series has broken my perception of mechanical intelligence, at least hyper advanced computer minds so physically large. The idea that the alien didn't see it coming seems ... unlikely. The machine seemed creative enough that it shouldn't have trusted Jack's honest (if vaguely omninous) reply on the way in; perhaps just a well hung lampshade, since going into it any deeper probably wouldn't have helped the movie any.

Or, perhaps even more disturbing, Sally is hardly creative at all, and it arrived at the current program via trial and error over the last 60 years. The idea of something like an experimental joint effort between Aperature Science and Vault-Tec to blindly experiment for decades with unlimited control subjects is such a horrifying implication I'd rather just think Sally's simply a little poorly portrayed. At least we see a setup that works - imagine how confusing and upsetting the initial setups would have been for Jack and Victoria while the Tet tried to find something that worked. The computer interface Victoria uses is pretty awesome, but doesn't actually seem to need her at all, which leads me back to thinking it keeps her busy just enough for her to feel like she's doing something. Which still leave me with that creepy vibe that the whole setup is one that just seems to work for those two, despite how clearly artificial and awkward it is. I'd find it hard to believe there's only a few dozen stations around the planet (which who knows how many generations of Jack and Victoria running them).

A good movie that decompresses well, at least. Since I can't decide if my quibble is even valid, I'd say it holds up nicely.

2013-04-30 16:29:51 by Astrogirl:

> Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough form a two-person team

Ach, shame. I've decided not to direct any more money to Cruise, him being a Scientologist.

2015-06-26 17:01:00 by SiNGH:

Good read.

Your two ending points = LOL

Osama bin Laden!?

Scientology!?

DUN DUN DUUUUUUN!