Five brief thoughts on a recent film. SPOILERS, obviously.
1) Let’s start with the most important point. This isn’t a bad bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, though most critics seem to think so. It’s nearly a good movie, only really let down by a tedious fizzle-out ending. That’s really surprising when you consider the facts, that (a) It’s a Tom Cruise vehicle with no other characters allowed significant screen time, (b) it’s a genre movie with literally zero original ideas and (c) all of the plot “twists” are unchallenging and easy to see coming. Considering those three factors, you would expect a stinker but honestly the film comes across more like an honourable, yet ultimately not quite fully successful attempt. The visual design is great, the effects good and the acting is pretty solid throughout. It’s no surprise that nobody wanted to see it at the cinema but it’s a passable as DVD faire and could be an enjoyable low key evening. Let’s compare to two other movies that spring to mind to explain further……
2) Let’s restate. There are no original ideas in this film. In fact, most of the plot is a cribbed collage of other sci fi movies, most specifically Moon, Independence Day, Planet of the Apes (at least as far as every shot seems to include a half buried US monument), Prometheus, Terminator and 2001. It’s often assumed that a Movie has to offer something original in order to be good. Whilst that might be a pre-requisite for a great film (and even that is a stretch), it’s not essential for a good one. Watching, I immediately thought of a science fiction film that also cribs ideas from other films and but unlike Oblivion actually succeeds in making the synthesis quite enjoyable and making something new out of the recycling. That film is Equilibrium which is essentially nothing more than 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 and THX 1138 with guns and martial arts. However, through Christian Bale’s commitment to the emotional reality of what could otherwise have been quite a flimsy role, through the great visuals and the fun action it’s not simply a repeat but comes out as something new. It’s nearly the same with Oblivion. Though you’ll likely enjoy the film much more if you haven’t seen Moon, as somebody who knows that film closely and loves it dearly it’s actually quite fun to see a more glossy action-based take on the same ideas. However, though the individual cribbed elements work well, they don’t fit together to form any kind of plot. It’s fine to steal ideas from here and there but at the end of the day those ideas still need to hang on some kind of plot framework and with Oblivion this just doesn’t try hard enough to make you care about the outcome or make you feel that the outcome has really any kind of meaning or catharsis.
3) The other film I thought of after seeing this was one of the films I wrote about most recently – Elysium. The reason for this is that I feel that the two movies pretty much hit the same level in terms of enjoyability and satisfaction. I was pretty hard on Elysium because it was clearly supposed to be a smart, political film but didn’t live up to the hype and I’m being pretty easy on Oblivion considering that it’s actually pretty palatable for a dumb Tom Cruise vehicle. Both films have excellent visual design as their main selling point and both are not quite smart enough for the smart crowd but don’t really have enough fun or action for the dumb crowd. Maybe it’s an unfair comparison but before seeing these two films, I never would have thought that it would be a toss up which one of them was actually better.
4) Ok, let’s go into why the Oblivion plot falls a little flat. We start off with two characters who have been subjected to a memory wipe with no given reason why this has happened, no reason why this should be necessary (“security” apparently) and no suggestion as to why the characters should agree to it. From the get go then, the screenwriters have established a loophole for a plot twist big enough to drive a bus through it, which immediately makes you start to theorise what that twist is going to be. There are three major twists and my guess was right every time, with the guesses usually being about half an hour before the reveal. Films don’t have to be surprising but it’s certainly a plot point that only serves to dissociate the viewer. Then we have the “bad guys” who are never seen apart from occasionally wearing big scary suits and masks. Immediately it’s obvious that these people are not who they seem and that their apparent visual scariness is a red herring. In fact, the enemies are essentially the Rebel Alliance and are pretty unsubtle in how they operate – they all live in a concrete bunker and stroll in and out through a big metal front door despite constant drone surveillance. Finally, the ending just plain doesn’t work. It relies on the real enemy being so stupid as to invite Tom into it’s big space ship without first searching his craft for weapons. It’s your typical common all-garden dumb supercomputer. The plot doesn’t really even explain what the Tet is – a single entity, a vanguard for an alien race, a big wobbly reject from a Tron movie. Without establishing what is really going on, it’s hard to know if the destruction of the Tet simply means anything at all? If it were only a supercomputer, then what did it need with all that water? Coolant? Hydrogen perhaps? The point is that the plot doesn’t have the depth to even make you think there are any answers to these questions. Finally, Tom finds out he is a clone (a clone who inexplicably has some of the pre-plot memories of the person he is cloned from) and that there are at least 51 other clones (surely many more). He sacrifices himself but his wife lives on with one of the other clones? What happens to the other 50? Everything in this movie is paper thin and the whole thing collapses under questioning. Let’s not even mention the opening stanza in which for some reason the script does its best to convince you that the main character is Ace Rimmer, a guy so annoyingly smugly heroic he doesn’t even mention a total engine failure on his craft to the wonderfully inept controllers that monitor him and could possibly help and only gives a smug one liner after pulling out of the dive. The character quickly becomes less of an ass but it’s touch and go.
5) So the film is mostly enjoyable but the plot is paper thin and the ending a damp squib. Even that wouldn’t matter so much if we had a little more to root for. Cruise is supposed to end up with his wife (or the wife of the person he was cloned from anyway). However, this doesn’t really work. Cruise’s character doesn’t really remember much about this woman and has to be told that they were married. Told from Julia (the wife’s perspective) this would be compelling as she would want her husband back at any cost. However, told from Cruise’s perspective it isn’t compelling because he barely knows her and has little to no time to build up any chemistry (a few flashbacks seem to suffice for this, though it should be impossible for Cruise to have the memories to have these flashbacks). Cruise’s other love interest (and yes the film takes care to show him sleeping with both women, which could well have been a contract stipulation) is much more interesting. For some reason, the evil mastermind computer has set Cruise up in a cohabiting relationship with another clone. This is much more interesting as they have a not entirely trusting relationship which is half a marriage of professional convenience and half actually affectionate relationship which just doesn’t seem to have been given the time it needs to become more intimate in anything other than sexual terms. If the film had focused on this relationship rather than a Romeo and Juliet style grand passion, it would have worked really very well and added a dash of pragmatic realism into the equation which really would have put more emotional ties into the balance. Unfortunately the film reveals it’s approach to the actresses in this film as entirely disposable around their ageing male star. In a scene where Tom reveals his distrust of their employers to his partner Victoria, a drone is activated and inexplicably kills the loyal Victoria and spares the rebellious Tom before Tom is extended the offer to go to the space station which he uses at the end of the film. This decision makes no sense unless you imagine that the aliens value men over women or simply want to get an A-lister’s autograph.
5a) This film had no original ideas? There is an original idea they could have used but missed. Each sector of a shattered earth has a clone Tom Cruise and a clone Victoria in an identical stilt house. There’s no reason for any of the clone Toms to be more or less sceptical than any other so why not show the events unfolding to three different clones but fool the audience into thinking they are watching only one Tom for say, twenty minutes of the film. Even this simple ploy would have probably pushed the interest factor far higher and would have put something into the plot that the writers didn’t have to cut Duncan Jones a cheque for. However, since I just wrote that here, you now owe me a cheque. Unless it doesn’t work in which case it’s your problem.