Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Microreview [film]: Oblivion

Oblivion [Dir. Joseph Kosinski, 2013]

The Meat

The thing about doing reviews as a side project to real life work is that it’s easy to just pick things you figure you’ll likely be interested in. More often than not, that’s at least partially true, which means that I rarely get the “pleasure” of reviewing something that I’m more likely to dislike than like. Thanks to a 20-hour journey from Indonesia, and the airline's rather extensive collection of films on demand, I found myself in the position of wanting to watch a film, but not wanting to watch a film on an airline screen that I’d rather see on a regular TV with, you know, adequate sound.

The choice came down to After Earth, a scientology-inflected Will and Jayden Smith vanity project, and Oblivion, which as far as I knew could have been a scientology-inflected Tom Cruise vanity project. I decided to go with the classic Cruise—after all, he’s a master of picking watchable-but-not-very-good SF films to star in. I figured watchability would be a good thing. And besides, if you’re going to be indulgent, best to not get the kid involved, right?

Oblivion starts, ominously, with a voiceover. Now, voiceovers are generally problematic—the equivalent of the egregious infodump in fiction. They relay information in an uninteresting way, and for the most part, reduce the quality of storytelling. That doesn’t meant they are always bad—the one in My Life as a Dog is awesome. But pretty much every other voiceover ever has sucked. The one in Oblivion sucks bigtime.

With that out of the way, we are introduced to Cruise and Attractive British Girl. Maybe it’s because of engine noise, but I don’t think I heard her name. Or if I did, I instantly forgot it. I decide to call her Attractive British Girl because that's basically her character in a nutshell--she's attractive and she's British and not much else. I also can’t remember Cruise’s name. I just know that he’s Cruise and he’s wearing a Yankees hat. Maybe his name is Jack? For some reason I think his name is Jack, but, frankly, it’s not really important. He’s sci-fi Cruise. You know this man. He’s busy repairing drones, which seem to be much more capable of taking out these alien dudes than Cruise is. The alien dudes look cool, and are called “Scavs,” but whether that’s short for “Scavengers” or “Scandinavian Chavs” is not clear.

The world Cruise, Attractive British Girl and the drones inhabit is a sad and bleak one—nuked, as it happens. Thankfully dron repair appears to be just a temporary assignment, something Cruise and Attractive British Girl have to do before returning to Titan, at which point others will come repair the drones. Only they don't seem to know much about anything, because their memories have been wiped. Still, Cruise has these flashes back to a life before the war. And hold on...what's this? Cruise has found a growing plant! And a book! He visits his cabin in the woods and listens to Led Zeppelin! Oh the symbolism!

Then a bunch of stuff happens, which I won’t recount for you. A lot is cobbled together from other sci-fi films, as well as sci-fi video games, giving Oblivion a tropey, Spielberg-minus feel to it. And there are some seriously facepalmy elements as well, such as the painful (voiced-over) speech at the end and the aforementioned visit to the cabin in the woods. The worst part, though, would be basically anything involving Morgan Freeman, who is unfortunately cast as Cruise’s “Magical Negro.” If you don't get why this is problematic, read this quote from scholar Matthew Hughey (culled from the wiki page I linked to):

[His/her] powers are used to save and transform disheveled, uncultured, lost, or broken whites (almost exclusively white men) into competent,successful, and content people within the context of the American myth of redemption and salvation. It is this feature of the Magical Negro that some people find most troubling. Although from a certain perspective the character may seem to be showing blacks in a positive light, he is still ultimately subordinate to whites. He is also regarded as an exception, allowing white America to like individual black people but not black culture.

If Oblivion is a fairly drab sci-fi story populated with uninteresting characters and marred by one egregious racist trope, it’s at least designed well. Bad sci-fi design irritates the shit out of me, and abuse of CGI tools to make things look ridiculous and overcomplicated is the scourge of today’s sci-fi film (see: Romulan ship in Star Trek). Nearly everything in Oblivion looks cool, looks plausible and isn’t overdesigned. I like that. The score is good too, and there's a great M83 track at the closing credits.

Cruise acting taller than Super Hot European Woman* 
And you can see glimpses of the very good film Oblivion wants to be, and almost is. The introduction of Super Hot European Woman (to the dismay of Attractive British Girl) and Jaime Lannister helps, because they are both very good looking. Plus the film is generally well paced. Actually, despite the problems, it ended up being just enjoyable enough. Not great, and not even good--but certainly watchable and, as such, a decent way to pass a couple hours on a long plane ride. In other words, a perfectly mediocre film. I don't think I'd ever seek it out again, but if it were already on TV, I might not change the channel. Maybe.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 5/10

Bonuses: +1 for top quality design; +1 for no CGI abuse; +1 for the score, plus a great M83 track at the credits.

Penalties: -1 for all the tropeyness and cornball Spielbergisms; -1 for badly drawn female characters; -1 for the “Magic Negro” character; -1 for the fucking idiotic voiceovers.

Nerd Coefficient: 4/10. "Tolerable on a plane."

** Source.