French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once said: “It’s not where you take things from. It’s where you take them to.”
American director Joseph Kosinski is only partial to that advice. In his new film “Oblivion”, he takes the sexiest parts of contemporary design sensibilities and gives them a futuristic polish, while bringing his own keen eye for photogenic desolation into the mix. It’s a visual feast. On the other hand, the story and concepts Kosinksi’s conceived borrow quite liberally and (in some cases) literally from numerous works of sci-fi, which unfortunately makes a lot of the film feel overly familiar.
I can’t even name the movies that Kosinski and his story partner Arvid Nelson got their ideas from, because doing so would immediately give away crucial plot elements to any half-avid moviegoer. That’s how obvious it is.
Kosinski has his heart in the right place. He’s clearly a fanboy who loves the same kind of movies the rest of us do. He just hasn’t quite figured out how to spin off something new from the stuff that inspires him, without coming off like a blatant copycat. He should look to Quentin Tarantino for how it’s done. The “Pulp Fiction” director wears his pop culture influences on his sleeve, nay, on his chest. Yet the guy is a master of the mash-up, blending old cinematic tropes with original ideas to create works that are altogether fresh and relevant.
It’s not that Kosinski and his co-writers aren’t trying. To their credit, the story they’ve come up with is both intimate and far-reaching in its scope. It works particularly well when focused on its main character Jack Harper, who is a repairman stationed on what’s left of Earth after a devastating war with alien invaders. The first act follows Jack around on his daily routine; fixing fallen security drones, patrolling the barren landscape for any signs of hostiles, going through the domestic motions with his colleague/lover, and pottering about his secret getaway by a lake. As it turns out, he’s a bit of a sentimental, nature-loving soul. Nothing much happens during this portion of the film, but ironically it’s the part I found most absorbing. And I’m not spoiling anything by saying it reminds me a lot of “Wall-E”. Nor is it an unfavourable comparison, because Kosinski and his star Tom Cruise manage to own the quiet moments.
In the sweeping wide-angle shots where we see the remains of human civilization long reclaimed by Mother Earth, Kosinski’s cinematographer Claudio Miranda (well-deserved Oscar winner for “Life Of Pi”) really gives us our money’s worth. More so if you watch this in IMAX, which I fully recommend. There is a serene beauty to these scenes, tinged with melancholy. Like “Prometheus” this is another production that reaps maximum benefits from shooting on location in Iceland. The mood here is almost meditative. And devoid of any dialogue in quite a few scenes, Cruise matches the tone of the proceedings by playing it low key. It’s a role geared towards him as a movie star, yet makes the most of him as an actor. It’s his most likable, grounded performance in a while.
Then, the plot happens… and the film loses a lot of its early magic.
Jack discovers the truth about his past, his connection to the mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) he rescues from a crash landing, and the true fate of the Earth. It’s all very layered and twisty-twisty, but try as it might, the film simply cannot escape the predictability that comes from being unoriginal. The problem lies in the way “Oblivion” is structured. The story unfolds like a mystery, with Jack piecing things together one step at a time. Because we as an audience are saturated by our knowledge of other well-known sci-fi films that have come before (your personal mileage may vary), we’re already a couple of steps ahead of Jack. So for the rest of the film, we’re waiting for him to play catch up with us. It’s never a good place for a film to be in, especially when it relies so heavily on its twists for impact. Even with the twists that you don’t see coming, once they’re revealed you might probably go: Hey, I’ve kinda seen that somewhere else. Of course, I’m being presumptuous on your part, but regardless there is definitely a feeling of been there, done that.
The only thing I did not see coming was just how much more emotionally engaging this film is compared with Kosinski’s previous effort “Tron: Legacy”. Both share the same ultra sleek, Apple-in-the-future, glass & metal aesthetic that design aficionados like myself just drool over. Visuals are still Kosinski’s biggest strength. But “Legacy” was all surfaces; its heart was ultimately hollow. Considering how much emphasis the filmmakers place on the technical side of things, “Oblivion” has a surprising amount of heart. While both films share common themes of love and sacrifice, here those themes are genuinely felt. I won’t elaborate any further since that would reveal the nature and the meaningful-ness of the central relationships. Suffice to say that I found them sweet and poignant. I suspect this has more to do with the cast than the writing itself. Although Cruise anchors the story, Kurylenko is the highlight here. She turns what is essentially a colourless role into one filled with real humanity. This is an actress to watch out for. Oh, and it helps that she is gorgeous. Morgan Freeman on the other hand is slightly wasted, showing up halfway and at the end just to service the plot. Still, I can’t complain. The guy’s always a welcome presence.
There are also underlying messages about identity and the notion of an eternal soul that works largely due to the likability of the leads. Too bad the film itself does not have a singular identity to call its own but in a weird sort of way, being an amalgamation that tries to rise above the sum of its parts is a perfect parallel for the main character.
Based on his output so far, it’s easy to write off Kosinski as a style-over-substance director. At this stage he is already an adept filmmaker — witness how he’s led Digital Domain to produce some of their best visual effects work ever. The hybrid electronic-orchestral score by M83 with Joseph Trapanese & Anthony Gonzalez bears what seems to me like the influence of a blossoming directorial voice. Plus Kosinski is quite good with action scenes. What’s more crucial is whether he continues to mature as a storyteller. He’ll need every last bit of this skill, as it’s getting harder and harder to make a mark in science-fiction, a genre with such a vast history of already-done ideas. Being derivative is actually fine, as long as you take what’s been done and then do it better.
“Oblivion” is an admirable effort but doesn’t further the genre in any new or memorable ways.