Saturday, May 4, 2013

I the Jury: Oblivion

The Charges:  Derivative plot devices, Uneven pacing, Tom Cruise

The Verdict:  Guilty as charged, but released for good behavior after time served.

The Finding:  Science fiction works very well with small casts.  Usually, stories with very tight casting are good vehicles for intimate character studies, and SF gives this formula twists by the nature of the external problems the characters face.

Oblivion uses the small-cast formula to effectively set up a mystery.  Technician 42, a stoic man named Jack, shuttles about an abandoned Earth, repairing the drones that maintain security for a system of automated fusion reactors.  These reactors give power to the space station called the Tet (after its strange tetrahedral shape), used as a staging point for sending humanity to Titan.  These developments occurred after a ruinous war with an alien power, forcing humans to flee an occupied Earth, and technicians to guard against the attacks of forces of alien stragglers, called simply “Skavs”.

Jack lives with his controller, a woman named Victoria.  They have a simplified domestic existence together in an ergonomically perfect apartment suspended far off the ground to protect it from Skav attack.  But Jack feels dissatisfied, prodded by fragments of memories that have snuck past his mandatory memory wipe.  Together, these two form, as Victoria periodically assures Sally (their mission control contact aboard the Tet) an “effective team”.  This mantra is laden with overtones, suggesting some sort of social engineering at work, binding Jack and Victoria together beyond the requirements of reactor maintenance.

Warning:  Spoilers for Oblivion and Moon (2009) follow.

This is the sort of setup that SF handles very well, and Oblivion, with its clean tech and comfortable design, keeps the audience in line by giving us new information at a decent pace.  The fact that this information is discordant and contradictory makes the somewhat pedestrian action sequences involving the Skavs more interesting.  Strangely, the action sequences feel the most tacked on, and not really necessary.  They detract from what could have been gripping tension, and take time away from the storytelling..

But Oblivion will suffer among more dedicated fans of cinematic SF, as it offers little that hasn’t been seen before, and relatively recently.  The Skavs being humans doesn’t come as any sort of surprise, given that very little effort was taken to make the seem alien.  Tinted POV shots accompanied by strange audio-filtered sounds don’t go nearly far enough.  The fact that the Tet is the alien force, and Jack is serving it unwittingly, is only surprising if you are picking apart other mysteries.

After that revelation, the learning curve that goes along with the plot flattens out.  Jack’s discovery that he, along with Victoria is one of uncounted duplicates, each living parallel lives as technicians on an abandoned Earth, will only remind viewers of 2009’s Moon, another story of an isolated man servicing a high tech installation and discovering he’s a clone.

Oblivion’s resolution to the questions it sets up is more complete than Moon’s, and this will satisfy some, while leaving others to rage that the lack of laying out the logic of the alien’s motives.  For me, this is just fine.  An alien’s methods don’t need to make sense, and given the huge inefficiencies of human endeavors caused by our cultural mores, it’s all right if aliens are shown as having a similar cultural maintenance cost.

Where Oblivion shines is in the more subtle acting by Andrea Riseborough as Victoria and Melissa Leo as Sally.  Victoria’s character is subtle, and she fights her own doubts so that she can maintain an illusion of a perfect life with Jack, a man her original self pined after.  Her pain at the reappearance of Jack’s wife Julia is very convincing and touching.  It is the perfect counterpoint to the subtle menace of Sally.

Melissa Leo somehow walks the line between friendly and accomodating and menacing and distant, which is perfect for the avatar of the alien Tet.  As the friendly human face of the distant mission controller, Sally’s role is important, and not given enough time to grow.  Thus, when she needs to embody the alien revealed, her effectiveness is diminished, which is a shame.

One other aspect of Oblivion bothered me, and that is seeing the female lead of Julia, played by Olga Kurylenko, portrayed as so helpless while Jack kicks ass.  While it’s not really in her character, the contrast between Jack fighting and flying while Julia is helpless next to him bothered me.  Perhaps if Kurylenko weren’t so gorgeous it might come off less like the hero guarding his cheescake, but I was really hoping that she would do something materially important during the many crises she was present for.

One last element that struck me later was the huge apparent influence of Portal.  The flying drones looked suspiciously like that game’s turrets, if you were to give them high-tech suspensors and double their guns.  Maybe that’s just where good design leads us.  And maybe the physical Sally, with her single glowing eye and mechanical distance, wasn’t influenced by GlaDOS, but I would be surprised if someone on the design pipeline hadn’t played that awesomely influential game.

Not bad, but not a film for the ages, either.