posted Saturday 20 April 2013 @ 1:12 pm PST
by Gary Westfahl
Since Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion is both an entertaining and interesting film, a reviewer faces the pleasant challenge of finding the best way to explore its provocative virtues and revelatory flaws. At the moment, I can discern five appropriate descriptions of the film: as a typical sci-fi action film; as yet another response to the September 11 attacks; as an outgrowth of earlier science fiction films, especially 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); as a reflection of an era’s peculiar nostalgia; and as an illustration of the importance of casting. Undoubtedly, other perspectives would emerge from further rumination, but with a deadline to meet, I must do what I can in the available hours.
To please one’s financial backers, anyone making a big-budget science fiction film today must provide an abundance of the fast-moving chases, exciting violence, and spectacular explosions that audiences for these films purportedly crave; and Kosinski was careful to meet those expectations. So, as a man in the year 2077 who believes he is maintaining drones to protect a dying Earth from alien invaders, Jack Harper (Cruise) flies around in a futuristic helicopter (officially, his “Bubbleship”), regularly pursuing or being attacked by malevolent drones; sometimes he is on the ground, riding a sleek motorcycle (officially his “Moto Bike”) or firing at drones or human opponents with various firearms; there are even moments of hand-to-hand combat. With necessary pauses for exposition or character development, these episodes occur with sufficient regularity, and are executed with sufficient skill, to satisfy any viewers who simply want an adrenalin rush without worrying about the plot. Yet these scenes can also seem like mechanical exercises, completed solely as a directorial duty, and one wonders whether audiences will really prefer these sequences to the film’s quieter dramas, especially since they have seen these sorts of things many times before.
Someday, then, such films may fall out of favor, as filmgoers grow tired of their tropes – a thought provoked by two items I observed amidst the interminable clutter of outright advertisements, promotional pseudo-documentaries, and traditional previews that now precede the showing of any motion picture. The first was an advertisement for Ask.com that parodied an iconic scene from the classic Western, two gunslingers having a showdown on a dusty street; the second was a preview for Johnny Depp’s The Lone Ranger (2013), which seems a desperate attempt to revive a famous Western hero with a bizarre combination of genuine Native American mysticism, over-the-top special effects, and an awkward jokiness. Long ago, Hollywood mastered the art of making exciting Westerns, featuring Native Americans throwing spears at white men, gunfights in deserted towns or on rocky hillsides, heroes on horses chasing after bank-robbing varmints, and other tried-and-true devices; literally thousands of such films and television programs were produced for appreciative audiences. And yet, rather suddenly, people decided that they were no longer interested in such adventures, and today the Western is a dead genre, surfacing only in the form of occasional homages and satires. As one watches Oblivion, it does not seem daring to predict that science fiction films foregrounding armored soldiers firing machine guns at robots will eventually suffer the same fate. Then, someone undertaking to make a film like Oblivion would have to deal with a much smaller budget, but would also be free to develop its ideas without worrying about having to include a lot of irrelevant bloodshed.
Although science fiction films about aliens invading Earth, or other disasters afflicting the planet, have long been commonplace, it seems that all such films made after 2001 must refer in some way to the attack on New York’s World Trade Center; and Oblivion is no exception. True, in opening scenes depicting how the aliens’ destruction of the Moon and subsequent invasion devastated the world, there are images of a bombed Pentagon and half-buried Capitol Building and Washington Monument, perhaps to remind people that the 9/11 terrorists also targeted Washington D.C.; but the rest of the film is set in the area around New York City, and during his journeys Harper constantly encounters ruins of the city’s landmarks. The top floors of the Empire State Building are a key setting that he visits repeatedly; he rides his motorcycle past remnants of the Brooklyn Bridge; in one battle with drones, he flies over the hand of the Statue of Liberty, emerging from the ground; and he is lured into the devastated Reading Room of the New York Public Library, with its renowned chandeliers, walls of bookshelves, and long tables with little bronze lamps. Like other films, then, Oblivion seeks to heighten the poignancy of its future Earth’s plight by linking its unexpected alien invasion to the unexpected assault on New York City; even the fragments of Earth’s destroyed Moon, improbably lingering in close proximity and often observed in the sky, might be regarded as the film’s version of the World Trade Center, an iconic site cruelly destroyed by implacable enemies.
All these evocations of 9/11, however, neither weaken nor strengthen the film; one suspects that it would have had the same emotional impact if Harper had struggled near the ruins of the Hollywood sign and Disneyland’s Matterhorn, or the ruins of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe for that matter. Frankly, one suspects that the story’s New York setting was the result of Kosinski surrendering to the suggestion of some powerful idiot: “Hey, let’s move the story to New York! Then, everyone will think of 9/11!” But in the hands of a talented filmmaker, the ruins of any city can evoke strong emotions, and since they are not as stupid as some people believe, audiences recognize full well than any city can arouse strong feelings if victimized by terrorist attacks, as this week’s events in Boston demonstrate. (Right now, that same idiot is probably thinking, “If only we had known! We could have set the story in Boston!”)
The argument can be made that, since 1968, all science fiction films, in one way or another, have necessarily been in dialogue with Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s masterful 2001: A Space Odyssey, and this is especially true when filmmakers strive to be profound or thought-provoking. Since such aspirations visibly inform Oblivion, its many references of the 1968 film seem inevitable. Even before the story belatedly moves into outer space, one notices that the menacing drones that increasingly bedevil Harper have the white sheen and circular shape of the astronauts’ pods in 2001, which seem menacing in precisely the same way in the scene when the pod controlled by the maddened HAL 9000 computer advances toward the doomed Frank Poole. In both films, unseen aliens are associated with stark geometric shapes: the rectangular monoliths of 2001, and the inverted tetrahedron, “the Tet,” orbiting the Earth in this film. The projected new home for humanity, and planned destination of an earlier space mission, is Saturn’s moon Titan, and knowledgeable viewers will recall that Saturn was the original destination of 2001’s Discovery (though it was changed to Jupiter when special-effects artist Douglas Trumbull could not convincingly render Saturn’s rings). When an astronaut floats through a cylindrical corridor, he looks like Dave Bowman floating into the emergency airlock, and that astronaut’s spaceship is, not coincidentally, named the Odyssey. The chambers in which certain astronauts are maintained in “delta-sleep” resemble the chambers holding hibernating astronauts in the Discovery. Most interestingly, the film’s true villain increasingly appears to be an evil computer, and when it is finally confronted, it is represented by a circular red light that seems exactly the same as the circular red light that represented HAL. In this respect, the film actually recalls not the original film but Clarke’s three sequels to the film, which began characterizing the monoliths as senile, damaged, and/or evil computers; in other words, Clarke makes his alien agents seem more and more like HAL, and this film does much the same thing.
More broadly, the central idea of 2001 is that the human race is not what it seems; instead of a natural evolution, humans are actually the product of an alien plan to create first an intelligent species, and later a super-intelligent species. In other works of science fiction, this scenario unfolds in the case of one individual, as a man (it is usually a man) discovers that he is not who he thinks he is – a favorite trope of Philip K. Dick, observed in classic stories like “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1966), which inspired two less classic films called Total Recall (1990, 2012; review of 2012 film here). Oblivion is also part of that tradition, and most particularly recalls another film, Moon (2009; review here). Here, one must speak carefully to avoid overly specific “spoilers,” but the similarity might be conveyed in this vague language: in both films, a man who believes he is a normal human being finds out that he is actually a product, and he must wrestle with the implications of being a product. Without endorsing the plausibility of these revelations, one can praise all three films for recognizing, plausibly, that traveling into space is going to change the way that humans think of themselves – in contrast to the innumerable films that argue, implausibly, that humans in space will see themselves in precisely the same way that people on Earth now see themselves (e.g., all incarnations of Star Trek and Star Wars).
However, mentioning Moon also brings to the forefront one of this film’s most conspicuous weaknesses, which again must be discussed circumspectly. In the story of the person who learns that he is a product, a natural consequence is the character’s determination to see himself as a unique individual, despite his origins, and a story that validates that resolve; as one example, one might recall the scene in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001; review here) when the robot David reacts angrily after seeing scores of identical Davids ready to be marketed and sold. And, if the character is indeed a unique individual, that means that he cannot be replaced. Yet the stories of both Moon and Oblivion reach a point when such a character does have to be replaced by another, similar character, who must become the new focus of the audience’s sympathies; Moon makes this transition smoothly and artfully, while Oblivion does so abruptly and ineffectively. The problem, again, may be another result of the intervention of a powerful idiot who accepted one of the most pervasive false beliefs in the film community – namely, that all films must have happy endings – a fallacy that I fulminated about in a discussion of The Twilight Zone (commentary here). Yet a film that repeatedly references the story of Horatius in Thomas Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome (1842) and also offers a glimpse of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859) should have the courage to provide a similarly tragic conclusion.
Still, while this film’s debts to 2001 and Moon seem most conspicuous, one can detect homages to many other science fiction films. A few example immediately come to mind: when Harper is told to enter Earth’s “radiation zones” to discover “the truth” about his situation, and later does so, he recalls the final journey of astronaut George Hunter in the original Planet of the Apes (1968), also referenced in the aforementioned glimpse of a buried Statue of Liberty; a scene in which Harper battles against attacking drones in a narrow corridor seems a shot-for-shot transcription of a concluding battle scene in the original Star Wars (1977 – no, I’m not going to call it “A New Hope”); and when Harper presents his romantic and business partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) with a flower in a can, he duplicates the titular robot’s loving gift of a potted plant to Eve in WALL·E (2008; review here). But spotting references to other science fiction films in Oblivion is a game that I must now bequeath to others and move on.
In reviewing other recent films, I noted a tendency to envision a future that actually resembles America’s past, with a special fondness for evoking the lifestyle of the Great Depression in the 1930s; repeatedly, one observes future denizens who have abandoned universal aspects of contemporary life, like cell phones and personal computers, and rely instead on technology developed long before most filmgoers were born. Oblivion also reflects this strange nostalgia for earlier times. According to the film, Earth was invaded in 2017, and the film takes place 60 years later; this means that humans, even while dealing with an alien invasion and its aftermath, should have been able to maintain and improve upon the technology we have today. This seems the case with the film’s forms of transportation and weaponry, which are more advanced than anything we have today (but such transportation and weaponry, of course, must be present to provide the high-speed action that the film requires). Otherwise, however, this is yet another future world where nobody has a cell phone, nobody has a computer that can access the Internet, and nobody seems to watch television except to spy on other people.
Most provocatively, Harper seems fixated on a relatively distant past. One cannot pin down precisely when he was born, but by my reckoning, the earliest decade he could have reached adulthood in would be the 1990s, which means that his favorite music should be grunge and rap, and he should have grown up listening to that music on CDs or an iPod. Yet he instead collects vinyl records, which one imagines would be hard to locate in a world that was invaded 30 years after they were largely replaced by CDs, and he seems most attached to music of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s: on the dashboard of his Bubbleship, he keeps a Bobblehead that he calls “Bob,” but it is identified in the end credits as a likeness of Elvis Presley; his favorite song is said to be Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” released in 1967; he also plays the Led Zeppelin song “Ramble On” from 1969; his collection of albums conspicuously includes the Rolling Stones’s Exile on Main Street (1972); and the most recent artist in his collection seems to be the 1980s’s Duran Duran. Harper is also fond of picking up and reading books, but most of the ones he gathers look like they were published in the nineteenth century, and as noted, the volume that made the strongest impression on him appeared in 1842. Other surviving humans on Earth seem to share Harper’s outdated tastes, since they maintain a collection of paintings that includes Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World (1948), more old books, and a number of Greek or Roman statues – but no abstract art or classic DVDs; also, their leader Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman) can quote Macaulay’s ancient text from memory, suggesting that it is also one of his favorites. Even the places that Harper visits seem more antiquated than they should be: I have not recently visited the New York Public Library’s Reading Room, but a recent photograph suggests that it now includes some computers and no longer has a card catalog; yet the Reading Room that Harper enters has no computers and a visible card catalog, as if it had been abandoned in 1987, not 2017.
In focusing so strongly on cultural artifacts that were created before any of its characters were born, the film seems to argue that the technologies that we now depend upon have somehow made us less human, so that the hoped-for reemergence and triumph of humanity must replicate the lifestyle of an earlier age – as represented most clearly by the rustic cabin which Harper identifies as the permanent residence he would prefer. The irony is that this message was being presented in a darkened theatre where I could observe several glowing cell phones, held by people who had ignored repeated pleas to keep them turned off because they could not bear to be separated from them for even one hour. As they checked their messages and sent their texts, one wonders if they even noticed that all the characters in the film they were watching were living their entire lives without cell phones.
Despite its intriguing themes, providing much food for thought, the success of this film is largely due to a factor that I rarely mention in reviews: its brilliant casting. Its chief virtue is its star, Tom Cruise, one of our greatest living actors. Those who would not agree with this assessment, including many of our most esteemed critics, simply do not understand the true essence of successful screen acting, which can be summed up as follows: always appearing relaxed and natural in front of the camera, and presenting a consistent, appealing personality while ostensibly portraying different characters in different films. This is why people love Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, and Cary Grant, all masters of this art; this is why people do not love George Arliss, Laurence Olivier, and Meryl Streep, who deliberately call our attention to how marvelously they are acting and particularly strive to impress us by playing radically different people in every film. But even in his twenties, Cruise was wiser than they, as he understood and quickly perfected the skill of playing the Tom Cruise character: the overgrown child whose good-hearted determination to do the right thing somehow enables him to succeed in a world where he does not really seem mature enough to prosper. In this film, he conveys this personality primarily by means of Harper’s devotion to sports: he wears a New York Yankees cap and cherishes an old baseball; he enthusiastically recounts the story of the final seconds of a classic Super Bowl game; and he relaxes by shooting baskets at his lakeside retreat. But these gestures are in a sense unnecessary, since Cruise (despite some unfortunate developments in his personal life) is effortlessly resourceful in making audiences like Tom Cruise.
Ah, some people reading this might think, if we all love Tom Cruise so much, why have several of his recent films bombed? The problem Cruise now faces is the problem that all great actors eventually face: they grow too old to play the part that made them famous. Inevitably, they then enter a period of slow decline when they can sometimes garner a role that enables them, despite their advanced age, to recapture that old magic (think of Cary Grant in North by Northwest  and Charade ) but otherwise flounder when they endeavor to adapt their personae to more age-appropriate roles (think of Cary Grant in Father Goose  and Walk, Don’t Run ). At the age of 51, Cruise has now entered this hit-or-miss stage of his career, but as demonstrated by this film and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011), he can still, at least occasionally, make successful Tom Cruise films.
Yet the other star of this film – Morgan Freeman – is equally crucial to its success. The makers of this film had to confront a significant difficulty: for its story to work, a group of individuals must be initially presented as despicable villains, yet audiences would have to change their minds halfway through the film and instead regard them as heroes. To achieve this shift in attitudes, the filmmakers employed a simple but effective device: they cast Morgan Freeman as their leader. And he is another great actor who always projects a consistent, appealing personality, since the Morgan Freeman character is invariably wise, authoritative, and kindly. From the first moment that he lights a cigar and reveals his face, Freeman informs us that he and his followers are all wonderful people that we should henceforth admire and root for. And I’m sorry, Philip Seymour Hoffman, but for all your vaunted acting talents, there is nothing you could have done with this part to achieve a similar result.
The film’s other stars are far less celebrated, but they were shrewdly chosen nonetheless. In the two female leads who compete for Harper’s affections, the film sets up a version of the classic triangle in a romance novel. Harper is the attractive hero. Victoria, with her red hair and British accent, is the Girl Next Door – friendly, intelligent, supportive, but not terribly exciting and even a bit maternal. Julia (Olga Kurylenko), with her black hair and Russian accent, is the Tall Dark Stranger – exotic, mysterious, even threatening, but powerfully and erotically appealing, and hence irresistible. As soon as they are both on the scene, we know precisely which two performers will appear together in the final scene. Finally, for the voice of “Mission” which directs Harper’s and Victoria’s activities, Sally, the filmmakers found an actor, Melissa Leo, who could do a convincing Southern accent, and hence effect another shift in the audience’s attitudes. For having cast the African-American Freeman as the victim of an alien invasion, the filmmakers linked his plight to the plight of all of America’s long-suffering African-Americans, and the region where they were historically most oppressed was the American South. Thus, once Freeman is introduced, a woman with a Southern accent, previously regarded as sympathetic, suddenly starts to seem rather sinister, which is precisely what the filmmakers wanted the audience to think.
In sum, one cannot discuss Oblivion without praising its cast, for if it had been made with an entirely different set of actors, I might now be explaining why, despite such promise, it turned out to be such an awful film.
What, then, unites these disparate approaches to this film? Perhaps the link is to be found in the film’s bleak title, suggesting that it represents a sort of film that may soon be obsolete. That is, it represents a film genre that may be driven to extinction by repetitiveness and overexposure; a film haunted by an event that will grow less and less significant until finally, like the sinking of the Maine or the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it is merely a passage in the history books; a film obsessed with hearkening back to previous films, mining resources that must someday be exhausted; a film infused with the sort of compulsive nostalgia that is often associated with senescence and decline; and a film energized by casting decisions that may become more and more difficult, as the increasing infrequency of films makes it harder and harder for actors to establish an on-screen personality. (Matthew McConaughey, who are you?)
But aging critics must not fall into the trap of imagining that the world is falling apart merely because their bodies are falling apart. And after all, regardless of the fates of individual characters, Oblivion does conclude on a hopeful note, as humanity has apparently emerged from its darkest hour as a vibrant, reinvigorated society. Similarly, science fiction films might endure through these dark and dreary times to become new and exciting again in ways we cannot even imagine. In the meantime, we should appreciate the genre’s occasional bright spots, and Oblivion is most definitely one of them.