CINEMA: News Weekly
How can man die better than facing fearful odds?
, April 27, 2013
A visually spectacular science-fiction action film, Oblivion (rated M), is reviewed by Symeon Thompson, a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).
Oblivion is a beautiful and breathtaking sci-fi flick that asks the following questions: What makes a man? How ought he live? And how ought he die? It offers an unimpeachable answer. Joseph Kosinski follows-up his visually ambitious but narratively lacking Tron: Legacy (2010) with a clever work to irk the critics.
In 2017, aliens destroy the moon, wreaking havoc on the Earth, as a prelude to an invasion. Humanity wins the war but at the cost of the planet. As a result, most of humanity has been transported to Saturn’s moon, Titan, leaving a single mega-spaceship in orbit, The Tet, and a “mop-up crew” on the Earth.
In 2077, the mop-up crew consists of Commander Jack Harper “Tech 49” (Tom Cruise) and his English station assistant Victoria “Vika” Olsen (Andrea Riseborough). Their mission is to monitor surviving alien activity and maintain the drones that protect the Hydro Rigs, that are generating the fuel for the final trip to Titan.
To protect the security of the mission their memories have been wiped.
Jack is unhappy with the situation, and haunted by odd dreams of a woman and a past he ought not know. He has built a rustic shack beside a lake and filled it with artefacts of humanity that he finds. Vika just wants to leave. They are an “effective team”, whose only other contact is with Sally (Melissa Leo) on board The Tet, via a video-link.
An antique homing beacon causes an old spaceship to crash. When Jack investigates, he finds the strange
woman from his dream among the survivors, deep in delta-sleep. The drones appear and proceed to kill everyone, except the woman, whom Jack manages to save.
Upon returning to their tower base, the woman awakes and is revealed to be Julia Rusaskova (Olga Kurylenko), an officer who was part of a classified space mission before the war. She has secrets, but cannot say anything until her flight recorder is recovered.
When Jack takes her to recover the recorder, the pair are captured and taken to Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman), a resistance leader stationed on Earth with his own take on what really happened.
Tom Cruise is cheerfully human as the efficient but independent Jack, as Yankee as they come. Andrea Riseborough is icy and sexy as the elegant English Vika. Olga Kurylenko is a heartfelt Julia. Morgan Freeman is masterful as the cigar-smoking, rich-voiced Malcolm, in a role that would’ve suited Orson Welles — especially with his theatrical entrance into the action.
Claudio Miranda’s cinematography is crisp and gorgeous, showcasing the grandeur of an Earth abandoned by humanity, and the sleek, high-tech minimalism of those who must remain. It focuses on the human form in such a way as to emphasise its humanity, despite everything.
Australian Richard Francis-Bruce’s editing is clever and subtle, not drawing attention to itself; but for those looking, it makes some provocative comments. His last film was the Christeros-themed Cristiada (2011), starring Andy Garcia and Peter O’Toole.
Darren Gilford’s production design and Kevin Ishioka’s art design brilliantly complement the film’s visual composition, reinforcing its central theme.
The soundtrack is a powerful blend of electronica, provided by the French band M83, and seemingly inspired by Hans Zimmer’s score from Inception (2010), and classic rock co-ordinated by Joseph Trapanese. It is almost Wagnerian in its operatic approach to underscoring the action while elegantly syncing in with the technological themes.
Joseph Kosinski is a modern auteur, a director with a vision. His vision is as present in every aspect as completely as that of, say, Michael Haneke or Andrei Tarkovsky. This vision is nowhere near as bleakly intellectual as Haneke’s, and is infinitely more accessible than Tarkovsky’s.
Oblivion is a sci-fi film that seeks to be a sci-fi film. It is not just a mindless blockbuster, although some audience members may get lost in the constantly reversing story. Others viewers, such as many of the critics, may see it solely as a pastiche of past masterpieces — of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), Michael Bay’s Independence Day (1996), and so on.
But, as this reviewer regularly argues, that’s not the point. Originality is as likely as Richard Dawkins becoming a Catholic priest — a nice thought, but really? Sci-fi is about exploring what might happen if…. It’s about how people and technology interact, and is told in the form of a ripping yarn rather than as an abstract academic paper.
Oblivion asks about responsibility and the role of memory. It raises questions about our bodies and our souls; our identities and our personhood; our relations to the spaces we inhabit and the pasts we draw upon.
Jack finds a copy of Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, and this stanza about Horatius at the Bridge recurs throughout the film:
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods?