A Case for World-Building: An Oblivion Review

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John Oliver Go
Author: John Oliver GoWebsite: http://dangerousblogforboys.wordpress.com
Oliver has a love-hate romance with video games. So much so that all he writes are loving hate letters about his games - or hateful love letters depending on his mood. But he has a love-love relationship with his cats.

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It seems very tricky to tell an original science fiction film. Generally, in movies, you have to make sure that the audience is in on the joke. The films have to establish that (a) the world it inhabits is believable and (b) the story it tells is plausible... before it finally gets the ball rolling. The former is a particularly important yardstick for sci-fi, given that this kind of film needs to establish rules before it could build a convincing world; after all, a story set in the future doesn't have the inherent comfort of realism to establish its own authenticity. This is why Star Wars devoted its first hour merely to introduce Tatooine, Jedi culture, and Empire politics before it introduced any veritable conflict. This is why Avatar dedicated more than half of its running time to a first act that basically presented what Pandora is all about.

Oblivion, in telling a razor-sharp yarn of love, loss, and second chances, trips all over itself by not giving out its rules outright. It does show them, late during the second act, but mistakes them for plot twists. What the film ends up being is a smart, touching story wrapped around a confusing, implausible universe. It's quite disappointing, really, as it is likely that the peripheral questions hovering over your head would overcome what you'd feel at the heartfelt attempt at the focused love story being told within.

Consider, for instance, its premise. It's the year 2077 and mankind has been invaded by an alien race called Scavengers. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) tells us that we won the war, but blew up the planet. Now he's on clean-up duty with the pretty Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) to ensure that we harvest all of Earth's remaining resources to bring to Saturn's moon Titan, where all of the humans have apparently colonized. It presents a very hazy backdrop, drip-feeding us with details that are almost arbitrary in terms of function. Why are there only two people on the clean-up crew for a mission of unwieldy importance and immediate danger? Why are there radiation zones presenting themselves as literal iron curtains? I mean, does radiation choose the exact coordinates with which it inhabits? If Jack is apparently breathing properly and there are hints of life all around his pocket of responsibility, then perhaps we humans could figure out a way to stay? And why is their commanding officer Sally (Melissa Leo) sound like a sweet, robotic Texan who only calls up to ask: "Are you an effective team?"

Perhaps it can be argued that a certain suspension of disbelief is forgiven for science fiction, but the film doesn't even bother to mask that it's hiding shallow secrets. When Jack is captured by a ragtag group of humans led by the sagely Beech (Morgan Freeman), we don't try to piece together what's been trying to form in our minds because we expect the film to be smart enough to know that it's leading us somewhere. And then we get to where we expect to anyway. I'll give out an appropriate spoiler: If you expect the film's trailers to seduce us into an story of high adventure, know that it's not just actually presenting the premise, but also the primary conflict. And this should be okay, but not in an original, twisting sci-fi film like this. Not when the conflict is presented as a 'Gotcha!' moment that turns the entire story around. You'll find that you were right all along and are merely waiting for Jack to figure it out as well.

It's a pity on numerous levels, but perhaps one that the film isn't even that concerned about; because at the very least, the film's central focus isn't subjectively on the functional part of its world, but on its very form. It's a very beautifully realized world on a more literal perspective, and it's a testament to Mr. Kosinski's imagination that we barely even leave New York City. It's a cold, desolate and lonely place - much as you'd imagine what a place would look like after (and not even during) a post-apocalyptic Earth. An early scene takes place in an intricately imagined ruins of the New York Public Library: half of it a deep and dark chasm, the other half curiously preserved aisles of books and chandeliers untouched for decades. Another sequence a stark contrast, with anĀ urban chic dwelling that hangs high above the sky, beside a literal infinity pool where we see two intertwined lovers floating above and beneath lustrous metal and grimly dark clouds. Perhaps the film prefers visual over functional clarity, but heaven forbid if the place itself isn't worth the price of admission, despite the entire set eclipsing the fiction surrounding it.

But perhaps most telling is the decidedly human story that the world and its fiction is gleefully wrapped around. If people say that Oblivion is an ode to the 1970's science fiction movies, perhaps it is only in wrapper alone. Because its tale is oddly, morosely touching if it isn't dampened by the fact that its universe isn't coolly plausible at all. The films in its genre are quite more interested in the romance of their worlds and in bold-stroke filmmaking stirring excitement in unknown adventures. Oblivion, however, doubles down on itself, zooming the camera from its perceived universe way down to the romance of its three central characters. Up until now I haven't discussed Julia (Olga Kurylenko) in a role that I would have to leave unsaid, but she lends a curiously beautiful charm to a disappointingly underwritten role. More telling is Victoria, arguably the best part of the movie, whose performance as a delicately jealous lover lending credence and fierce emotion to a decidedly sterile world and, more importantly, to Tom Cruise who is just too much of a celebrity to completely embody any nuanced role. As the film juggles between its epic ambitions and its intricate love story, however, both sides suffer. The former being quite shoddily (or mysteriously?) detailed to plug in its world's loopholes, the latter being a tad bit undercooked as the screen shifts and careens to its action set pieces.

What we have in the end is a beautiful, desolate world inhabited by a small number of people looking for a second chance at life (perhaps more than just an allusion). If not for its shaky world-building, the film might have worked as a sublime piece of fantasy filmmaking where the audience leaves with wonder and insight about dire hope and "how man cannot die better than facing fearful odds", as Jack more than once quotes from an Ancient Roman epic. What stands, however, is a gorgeous-looking universe and an intelligent story of good intentions - all held up by an imaginative background fiction that constantly threatens to collapse on its own tale. Perhaps if we were romanced into its world first before its story and characters, then maybe we would have taken away more.

   

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