Oblivion

The Scavs and the Scav-nots
★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
2013
Director: 
Joseph Kosinski
Starring: 
Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Morgan Freeman
The Setup: 
Man and woman are last people on Earth, blah, blah.
Discussion: 

The first time I saw the trailer for this I was like "I am there," because no matter what the film was about, those kind of spaceships and visuals are catnip for me. So there I was on opening weekend, sitting through it and, for God's sake, what a total piece of shit. This is directed by Joseph Kozinksi, his second film after Tron: Legacy, a film which I thought would have been much improved with the dialogue track removed, so you could just sit and look at the visuals without having to engage in the banal story. And now, a second movie that would be better off without dialogue! Although, geez, if you thought Tron had too much story, this one has about twice as much.

So it's 2077, and Tom Cruise as Jack Harper lives in this Jetsons-style pad way up in the clouds with his wife and co-worker, Victoria. Years ago, there was an alien invasion and in trying to save humanity we wiped out the Earth, leaving it a muddy place with familiar landmarks sticking out of the mud (the film hits all the major tourist destinations, like most disaster films). Most humans have left for Titan, and Jack and Victoria are left to maintain drones that go around killing remaining aliens, before they leave for Titan in two weeks. To quote another review, if you've seen any other science-fiction film, by the time you hear Jack say "we had our memory wiped five years ago," you know that everything you're seeing will turn out to be wrong.

The movie manages to be awful from the get-go. We start with a dream, Jack back in human times with a beautiful woman atop the Empire State Building. Then he wakes from the dream and gets ready for work, and we have exposition about their workday. Then he flies off and we see some ruined Earth and Jack's drone repair duties. It just refuses to gain any momentum, or interest, and one is surprised to find that the scenes of the ruined Earth have no impact or haunted quality. Soon we realize that this film is going to pander to perceived multiplex audience tastes in having a little action or danger every five minutes, which also serves to undermine it gathering any sort of rhythm or story momentum.

Jack was assigned Victoria as a wife, and when he brings her back a flower from Earth, she immediately tosses it over the side. He later discovers that if he flies into a canyon, she can't monitor him, which he is relieved by. And he has a secret cabin in the mountains (places that look like Montana are just off the former BQE, by the way) where he enjoys some private time. And she resists asking any kind of questions by inviting him to some amorous frolic in their abyss-side pool (watch the edge!). And you start to think; Oh, maybe this film is going to develop this melancholy edge by showing us this lonely marriage. But no, we don't have any time for emotions when we've got drone attacks coming up! Any direction when you think this film might get interesting is thwarted by more action or plot.

SPOILERS? > > >
So first Jack is captured and led to Morgan Freeman. This is an example of the surfeit of hot action moments, because why have Jack just wander in, when we can have him step lightly on a precarious beam over a yawning abyss? Turns out the scavs aren't aliens at all, but a bunch of humans. And the drones are actually meant to kill humans. Because there's these big machines that are sucking up water from the oceans. Did I mention those? But now it looks like those are alien machines, and Jack in an unwitting ally to them in repairing drones that kill off humans. Oh by the way, there is no human colony on Titan, either. And Freeman wants Jack to repair a drone to fly a nuclear bomb into the Tet, which is a huge orbiting station where he thinks the remains of humanity are, but actually aren't. Got all that? Good, because that's only a quarter of it.

Then something falls to Earth, which has a bunch of humans in storage on it, including one who is--the mysterious woman Jack saw in his dreams! Or we're they... memories? She tells him, after MUCH hugger-mugger, that she is actually his wife, and that they were together pre-invasion. And she needs to get the flight recorder from her ship, which they do, after an ACTION SCENE! Then they go back to Freeman, which occasions an ACTION SCENE! Then Jack repairs the drone, and I was like "Okay, now it's just going to fly off," but no, they have to have a big procession slowly leading it outside, leading to a big ACTION SCENE! It's the kind of thing where a ton of stuff is happening, but nothing is really HAPPENING, you know?

I will say that the drones in this movie are scary. But again, nothing you haven't seen in other movies.

But wait, I don't think I've mentioned a ship that lands, containing--Jack! And he has a big mano-mano with himself, then flies off to a duplicate house (this time discreetly on a mountain peak) with a duplicate Victoria inside, whereupon he says "This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife!" Then we learn that Jack is actually a clone, and the reason there are "radiation zones" he must stay out of is to keep him from knowing about the other clones and, well, did you see Moon? Yeah, well, THAT. That's all going on, too.

So Jack, although you have not sensed any progression in his consciousness whatsoever, has now had a total change of heart and is going to fly the bomb into the Tet himself (which would make it the Tet Offensive, methinks), because the drone that was supposed to do it was destroyed in the last arbitrary action scene. Then he does, and you're thinking "Okay, they're going to blow that thing up, and then the movie will be over," but wait, there's MORE! More exposition, that is.

On the way there, Jack decides to flip on the old flight recorder from the, you know, thing, that came down after the, umm, blast, before the drone attack, no, not that drone attack, or, I forget. Anyway, now we're going to find out the truth! Thought we already found out the truth? Like, seventeen times? Well, this is the real, real, REAL, REAL truth! It would hap that Jack and his wife, and Victoria, were all buddies back in the day on this space mission to the Tet, which was around at that time, and Victoria, jealous and possessive of Jack even then, separated the ship with the survivors and it has been just orbiting in space for the past 60 years, and, somehow in all this time, the Tet and its drones never found it or destroyed it. Jack and Victoria were captured and cloned and thus began this whole thing, with Victoria now getting to be Jack's wife, living her dream, if only as a clone, which could have had resonance, if it weren't buried under so much action and exposition.

So then Jack flies his ship into the heart of the Tet, past all the clone breeding tanks which are conveniently located for his perusal RIGHT on the flight path into the center! The Tet seems to house a whole lot of nothing else, making you wonder what it's for and where are these aliens and... but why bother. At the center they meet the big mastermind machine-thing, why, pretty much exactly like Tron and Tron: Legacy. And Return of the Jedi. And The Matrix Reloaded. But anyway, they have a little chat before Jack blows it up and the whole place blows up. Then there's a little coda, at which point I decided to hit the restroom before the rest of the crowds, and was surprised to find that when I returned, it was STILL GOING ON! For Christ's sake, movie, fucking END!
< < < SPOILERS END

It was just a total piece of garbage. The visuals that got you to come to this thing in the first place are there, but have no impact. I made it all the way to release day sure that this was in 3D, and was stunned to find that its not. And if ever a movie could have benefited from 3D, because then you'd have more to look at and wouldn't mind as much that there was nothing to think about (it worked for me with Tron: Legacy). I watched in a featurette that the director filmed clouds and sunsets from the tops of mountains, then projected them around the sky-lounge set so that the "natural" light would fill the place, and it works, it looks gorgeous. Now, if only there was anything about the story to give all those gorgeous visuals any kind of meaning or resonance.

But this time, the problem is not lack of story, but too much story. I didn't understand the whole thing by the end, and I read the detailed synopsis on Wikipedia, and I still don't understand it (there's this whole incredibly elaborate cover-up to keep Earth's three remaining inhabitants in the dark?). The problem (or chief among the numerous problems) is that there's so much story, and so many useless action moments, the movie never has time to develop any emotional core or accumulate any atmosphere. It had so many intriguing elements--enough for three movies--and so many intriguing concepts, rendered in gorgeous images, but it doesn't give you time to think about them or let them sink in. Compare to Moon, which this can be considered a more elaborated remake of, and remember how it unfolded slowly and we really got to know its hero and spend time with him, which gave time for the whole thing to develop an emotional core and put all the visuals in service of an intriguing concept with tons of atmosphere and gave us lots to think about and a hero we cared about. This one has ten times as much plot and visual content, so much that it overwhelms any ability to actually engage with it. It's a beautiful, elaborate, dead object.

Should you watch it: 

Wait for cable, when you can watch enough to know when to turn it off.