the better truth

the better truth

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Oblivion (2013)

Apocalypse Now and Then

There is something about end of world dramas that prompts writers to bang the pulpit and throw in some religion with the special effects. “Oblivion”, the latest Tom Cruise apocalyptic sci-fi thriller, is no exception. “The Book of Revelation” reigns large in the American psyche; even thetans aren’t immune. For those not familiar with the good book: it has a happy ending. The good guys win the big fight. “Oblivion” begins with the interesting notion that we won the battle; but lost the earth. Cruise is a commander of a ‘mop up‘ operation where the remaining resources of a doomed earth are being salvaged for a new human colony on one of Jupiter’s moons. You see during the raging conflict, started by invaders from outer space, the earth’s moon was destroyed sending a torrent of earthquakes and planet-spanning tidal waves.   Tom and his wife/partner/work colleague oversea a guard station in which they protect the machines that are sucking up the earth’s remaining water from remnants of the invaders who are still lurking in the scarred remnants of the beloved mother planet. Tom actually does the heavy lifting of repairing the protector drones while wifey talks to headquarters. They live in a Philippe Starck apartment/satellite/airport hub (with see-through pool) which hovers over the clouds.  Am I going to fast? It’s all explained in 10 minutes of voiceover replete with Tom looking serious and wifey appearing busy/anxious.  Narration is usually an escape hatch for directors who are overwhelmed with the story. Even though Joseph Kosinski is the author, the film is no exception. The creative team was shooting for Romans 12:21, “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good”. Unfortunately the verse that comes to mind is Ecclesiastes 1:9, “There is nothing new under the sun”.

As a certified non-celebrity I share the fantasy that the superstars of our universe have the world at the palm of their hand. Tom Cruise could hire almost anyone to write and direct his projects. Why would he turn to Joseph Kosinski? Well.... he’s smart.  He is an assistant professor in architecture with a degree from Columbia. His venture into filmmaking began by combining his proficiency in 3D modeling with his passion for graphic novels. His work, “Oblivion”, was published by Radical Comics - a cutting edge multi-media studio. This resume answers puzzling questions about two things that stood out from the tedious familiarity: the helicopter/spaceship and the post-modernist apartment.  These two elements were great and seemed to possess something the story, set-design, script all lacked.... a fresh sense of purpose.  In these small objects Kosinki really showed his stuff.  If only the director could channel the energy he spent on those two things to the script, there might have been something to watch.  Otherwise we are bogged down in an endless stream of sci-fi cliches which seemed to permeate the setting as well as the script. Kubrick’s evil ‘HAL’ makes a grand appearance. The ‘Star Wars” death star is reconfigured. The drones seem to have borrowed their look from R2D2. Since “Return of the Planet of the Apes” it has been de rigueur to include the ruins of the Statue of Liberty amongst earth’s debris.  The story itself has the smell of old Star Trek episodes relating to cloning, eco-peril, the dangers of technology..... Kosinski is, no doubt, brilliant but his creative strength seems limited to visual acuity rather than movie based narrative storytelling. I have not viewed the graphic novel but it is VITAL to understand that, whatever its strengths, film is a different medium. Picture books, no matter how dynamic, are NOT motion pictures.

Perhaps the best film created by architect/designers is the short classic “Powers of Ten” by the legendary couple Charles and Ray Eames. (the film can be seen at ( ). This is the text which appears on screen after the title itself: A FILM DEALING WITH THE RELATIVE SIZE OF THINGS IN THE UNIVERSE AND THE EFFECT OF ADDING ANOTHER ZERO. This awkwardly phrased summary is in stark contrast to the wonderfully concise and clear ‘narrative’ which explains ‘size’ on a grand scale.  Once again it hints at deficiencies in otherwise gifted designers.  Brevity is lacking in the skill-set. Now imagine if these fine minds had come together to tackles grand issues of religion and philosophy.... One can clearly see that this would lead to “Oblivion”. It is vital that ‘special’ people choose the right material. Ironically the formula is counter-intuitive: the academic firepower of the director should be in inverse proportion to the size of the topic at hand in order to yield the grander statement. Kosinki gift lends itself to exquisite work on a small scale rather than worldly themes of universal import. 

The hero of “Oblivion” exhibits a ‘back to the garden’ desire. It’s the same prelapsarian conflict shown in countless sci-fi epics (e.g. “Avatar”, “Star Trek Insurrection”, “Star Wars”).   It would have been interesting if Kosinki had focused exclusively on this theme. The cumbersome complicated ‘conspiracy’ and clumsy set up, inhibited all hope of bringing the characters to life. In this vein perhaps a re-make of “Silent Running is in order. This 1972 space drama focuses on an astronaut who mutinies against his crew in order to save the last remaining plants. It certainly more interesting than the original “Tron” which the suits decided to revise with Kosinki at the helm.  (I couldn’t bring myself to see his version as I was haunted by the boredom of the original.)  “Oblivion” also brought to mind Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine” - a very interesting, much ignored, space thriller. Boyle had the good sense to devise an exquisitely simple premise in order to focus on what we all really want to see: development of the characters within the movie. “Sunshine” boils down to a small crew manning a ship on a salvation mission to fire a device into the waning sun in order to save earth from freezing. The SIMPLE mission becomes intensely dynamic as the struggles of the various individuals are paramount. Contrast this with the convoluted ‘set up’ of “Oblivion”. Despite the careful ten minute voice over the audience is left scrutinizing the storyline IN ADDITION to the drama. The many ‘reveals’ feel more akin to solving medium difficult crossword puzzles rather than character epiphanies.  There is no room for romance or heroics when the focus is on plotline GPS.

“Oblivion” was the NUMBER ONE box office movie this past weekend.  What is a ‘successful’ film? It brought to mind Cary Grant.  Some people felt he should raise the bar on his choice of material citing his starring in a comedy set on a submarine. He pointed out it garnered him a golden globe nomination. In addition it was within the top five top grossing films that year.  History has proven him correct in that adjusted for inflation this was the most financially successful work of his career. (  That same year he made another film which earned less money and failed to earn him any awards.  In hindsight it’s hard to imagine anyone considering “North by Northwest” less ‘successful’ than “Operation Petticoat”.... but this is the problem with merely counting figures and citing accolades.  It is something Tom Cruise should consider as he is at a point in his career which is akin to a second US Presidential term: the legacy is the thing. 

Given the last few outings it is time to re-assess Tom’s script selection process. Kudos to him for making a daring political statement in “Lions for Lambs”; although the result artistically fell short.     ( ) He also deserves praise for playing against type in  “Magnolia”, “ Tropic Thunder” and “Rock of Ages”. The “Mission Impossible” franchise can pay the rent, so what are we to make of: “Jack Reacher”, “Knight and Day”, “Valkyrie”.... and now "Oblivion"? Once again from my view in 'little people' oblivion it seems self evident that: a. something is wrong and b. it is fixable. Note to Tom: raise bar on material selection. Don’t be fooled by degrees. Don’t hire a cook to do your gardening. Don’t hire an architect to be a writer/director. Why not give Danny Boyle a call. Whether or not these turkeys hit; it doesn’t do much for your standing. Remember Romans 2:6 : (God) “will repay each person according to what they have done.” You’re audiences don’t want to end up on the submarine in “Operation Petticoat”;  they'd rather be flying North on NorthWest Airlines.

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