Either I have become increasingly cynical lately, or we’ve been having a profound problem with creativity in screenwriting in recent times. I realize I might have been rather critical when it comes to what I’ve recently seen in the cinema, but now I’m pretty sure that we’re just about scraping the bottom of the pot of creative ideas. Thus, every other movie that hits the screens seems to attempt to recycle ideas, dress them nicely and shove them down my throat without so much as a ‘how do you do’. I wrote before about that phenomenon and intend to do some more on the subject, but the way I see it, things are looking pretty grim. I know certain genres are sort of exempt from that trend (like horror, which I will get to in some time as well) because the apparent lack of freshness serves them well, but when it comes to Sci-Fi, a creative script is of a paramount importance for the movie to be successful.
Now, there are several kinds of Sci-Fi:
– instant genre-defining classics,
– good Sci-Fi that while not breaking new grounds offers an interesting take on things and/or is very visually pleasing,
– mediocre Sci-Fi that blatantly borrows and copies used up ideas and tries to sell them as new after having garnished them with something pretty,
– eye-stabbingly terrible Sci-Fi that is so poor that you really wish you hadn’t spent money on, as you fear you’d develop some sort of paranoid repulsion towards Sci-Fi in general.
Quite frankly, “Oblivion” fits right into the ‘mediocre’ pigeonhole, no doubt about it. It has a couple of things going for it, but generally speaking, my experience with “Oblivion” can be described with one word – indifference.
First things first; if you saw the trailers to this film, you probably already know too much about the plot (it is one of the most mind-boggling cases of revealing too much about the plot in 2.5 minutes). Anyhow, imagine that in not too distant future the Earth is a wasteland. It was attacked by an alien race of Scavengers (or Scavs, as the protagonists refer to them romantically) who destroyed our Moon, let the nature weaken us by destroying our cities through tsunamis and the like, and then proceeded with a full-blown invasion. Worry not, though – we won the war, yet a Pyrrhic victory it was – the Earth post-war became uninhabitable, therefore the remnants of the human race fled to Titan (understandably so, as it is the closest object to Earth that contains water on its surface) leaving behind only a handful of technical teams. These are responsible for managing and security of energy-harvesting rigs that use water to produce fuel cells crucial for the survival of humans in its new extra-terrestrial home.
Right, so the Earth is a nuclear wasteland guarded by ping-pong ball-like drones and aforementioned tech teams who maintain the drones. This is where we meet Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), a technician paired with Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) who spends his days patrolling his grid, repairing drones, fighting the Scavs and visiting landmarks. By the way, I would like to point out that someone might be interested to have a look at the materials used to build well-recognizable monuments. It is not the first time I see The Washington Monument, or the Brooklyn Bridge to survive major apocalyptic events in movies. Maybe there’s something about the quality of these materials that could be utilized for our benefit; maybe we should start building everything from the materials used to erect landmarks – we’d be safe for eons… Sarcasm over.
Where was I? Ah, yes. Jack spends his days patrolling the grid and stuff, getting off-com to kick back in his little shed he built and subsequently filled with memorabilia collected from various iconic places, and admiring the world that is no more in anticipation for his departure to Titan (which by the way he feels reluctant about, for some reason). He spends the nights hanging out with Victoria naked in a swimming pool, eating ready-made food with futuristic silverware, dreaming about the past world he has never seen and talking to himself… I mean, to us – the viewers… A lot…
Jack’s routine is brutally severed when a series of unforeseen events transpire in close succession. First, a seemingly routine operation of repairing two failed drones gets Jack nearly abducted by the Scavs, who had captured one of said drones. Then, one of the harvesting rigs gets blown to pieces by the rebellious Scavs, and finally a strange object falls down from the sky (literally) whose contents will make Jack question everything he had ever known about the world – as the capsule that fell down from space carried humans in it.
This is just about enough that one can say about the plot of “Oblivion” without spoiling too much. After all, most of it is in the trailer. Ok, I should probably start off by applauding the visuals “Oblivion” is sporting. The landscapes are shot very well, the Earth looks nice and ravaged… Well, maybe not the Earth, but our civilization (or what’s left of it) is presented in a breath-taking manner. Also, the score complements the photography in a powerful way. In fact, now that I think about it, the music is the strongest card in “Oblivion’s” deck. Even when you take into account the fact that Joseph Kosinski did not venture far enough from his comfort zone that he set in “Tron – Legacy” when it comes to the style of photography and the atmosphere set by the score – “Oblivion” still remains a sensory delight. It’s simply nice to look at.
Other than that, it was really painful to watch as the plot unfolded to reveal old ideas one after another, chewed up and dressed up in fancy uniforms without even a shred of respect to the classics of Sci-Fi it borrows from. Tom Cruise could not carry the weight of his character, as I think he’ll never be seen as a hero. His character lacked charisma and I didn’t get to develop a connection with him – or maybe I didn’t want to, because – as I said – Cruise fails in playing a stellar hero character. On top of that, you can smell a badly written script from a mile away, when Tom Cruise needs to keep explaining s**t to you off-screen. Even “I am legend” was done better in that regard and Will Smith didn’t have anyone to talk to besides his dog. The movie is basically a string of monologues bundled together with mildly entertaining action in beautifully rendered settings. Someone should maybe inform the director that some facts can be either omitted altogether, as they do not bring anything to the table besides noise, while other can be explained without resorting to having Tom Cruise read me a bedtime story. Even if they had Morgan Freeman (who also stars in “Oblivion”, but I shall stop now before I say too much) read the off-screen remarks, the film as a whole would still remain a lost cause. I mean, if you need to explain things to me, be smart about it. If you need, you can shove it into a dialogue and pace it better. In fact, there is a dialogue just like that in “Oblivion”, but having sat through Cruise’s prior soliloquys, it almost seems redundant at this point. And it really could have been a better film than that. As it stands now, the film is anti-climactic, predictable and flat, and even the striking visuals, music and Morgan Freeman wouldn’t save it.
In summary, “Oblivion” was a disappointment. It almost seemed forced and by the end (and it is quite long) I really couldn’t wait for the credits to roll. Now that I think about it, it sure looks to me as if Joe Kosinski was approached by the producers after his debut “Tron – Legacy” hit the screens and was asked to make it once more. But different. With Tom Cruise. And Morgan Freeman. If you look at “Oblivion” having Kosinski’s debut in mind, you’d find way too many similarities for it to be considered coincidence. I realize that it might be Kosinski’s style that has crystallized here and we just need to deal with it, but I’m sure as hell, you shouldn’t stuff everything you have onto the same stencil. It makes “Oblivion” look more derivative than it originally was. In the end, the movie’s title ended up its doom. It is better for all of us if we simply forget “Oblivion” ever existed. On second thought, maybe we should keep it in our memory as a reminder that Sci-Fi needs to be about more than just looks.