Friday, May 17, 2013

It Came From The Cineplex: Oblivion

Tom Cruise stars in the new sci-fi film Oblivion, written and directed by Joseph Kosinski. It's based on Konsinski's unpublished graphic novel of the same name. How the hell do you get to direct a movie from a comic book you wrote yourself but never published?

Konsinski also directed Tron: Legacy, which I didn't much care for. Oblivion is a big improvment in my opinion, proving he can direct a decent movie when he wants to.

The best thing about Oblivion? It's not a remake, sequel or reboot, which automatically gives it points in my book. That said, it's derivative with a capital D, which taints it a bit.

I'm of two minds about this film. Overall I liked it and parts of it were fairly intelligent and well thought out. On the other hand it's marred by some truly mind-bogglingly bad science. Science so bone-headed it would make Ed Wood blush and look away.


The Plot:
Get comfortable, it's complicated. It's the incredibly far off year of 2077. Earth has been virtually destroyed after a battle with aliens called Scavs, who blew up Earth's moon and were narrowly defeated when humanity attacked them with nuclear weapons, rendering the planet nearly lifeless.

Humanity flees to an enormous orbiting space station called the Tet (after tetrahedron, not the Offensive). Technician Jack Harper (Cruise) and his partner Victoria oversee a series of massive power stations that draw power from what's left of the oceans. The energy harvested from the stations is being stored in the Tet and will be used to power the new human colony on Saturn's moon Titan. They also maintain a team of robotic flying drones that help protect the power stations from the few remaining tribes of Scavs that remain on Earth.

Everything's going fine until Jack finds a mysterious female survivor from a space expedition launched before the Scav War, who seems very familiar to him. Morgan Freeman shows up and sounds somber and important, Jamie Lannister acts like a jerk, and Zoe Bell wanders onto the set for some reason. 

The mysterious woman reveals a startling truth about Jack and Vic, Morgan Freelman reveals a startling truth about the Scavs, and Jack delivers a startling surprise to the real aliens.

Despite Tom Cruise's nutsy cuckoo personal life, he really is a pretty good actor. Luckily I can separate him from the parts he plays and enjoy his films.

• Jesus, not another damn Tom Cruise sci-fi movie with another damn futuristic computer interface that Apple is going to try to emulate. At least this one doesn't require the user to stand and wave their arms at it like a damn symphony conductor.

It's a great looking movie full of beautifully realized technology and some truly epic vistas.
I liked that the plot wasn't spoon fed to the audience. Information was doled out bit by bit, challenging the audience to piece it all together like a puzzle. That's pretty rare these days.

There are voice-overs in films and then there are voice-overs. And then there are the voice-overs in Oblivion. Seriously, around ten minutes into the film Tom Cruise was still going on about how the world got this way. I was beginning to think that there would be no standard dialog at all and he'd just be narrating the whole thing.

• "Meet George Jetson!" Behold the futuristic architecture of Oblivion.

For an "original" film it sure is derivative. There are elements of Moon, Independence Day, Inception, The Matrix, Wall-E, Robocop and even a little bit of Planet Of The Apes. Somehow it even looks and feels like After Earth, a film that hasn't been released yet! And that's just off the top of my head! There are probably even more lesser-known films from which it cribs scenes.

There were times while I was watching when I was mentally checking films off a list in my head. "Ah, people who have their memory wiped for no good reason to complete their mission, that's just like Moon. Clones, again, Moon. Caretaker on a deserted earth, saw that in Wall-E. Infiltrating a giant spaceship, that's from Independence Day," and on and on. It got to be distracting after a while.

Oblivion contains one of my major sci-fi movie pet peeves-- it takes place way too close to the present day. The film's set in the year 2077. Jack drones on about how the Scav War started sixty years before. Than means the aliens invaded in the futuristic year of 2017.

Even worse, the events of the film are all kicked off when a NASA spaceship encounters an alien vessel during a mission to Titan. First of all, the NASA ship that's shown is far, far more advanced than anything we have now or will possibly have in the next four years. Second, we couldn't even mount an expedition to the freakin' Moon right now if our lives depended on it. Titan is between 800 to 900 MILLION miles from Earth! They'd probably have had to launch it back in 2010 or so just to get there by 2017. Would it have killed them to have set the story in 2177 for Pete's sake? I will never understand why screenwriters do this.

As soon as I saw that the Scavs (who are supposedly remnants of the alien invasion force) were wearing full face masks, I knew they were going to turn out to be humans in disguise. Remember that, folks. Any time someone wears a mask in a movie, their true identity is supposed to be a surprise.

• Jack and Vic have been told by their mission commander Sally that most of humanity is living on a colony on Titan. They should have suspected that was a lie from the start. There's no way a human could possibly live on the surface of Titan, given our current understanding of the place. Underground or inside a dome, maybe, but not bloody likely.

The biggest problem I had about the film was the so-called science. "Science" like they used to have in B-movies about giant ants. Now of course I don't expect 100% scientific accuracy in a science fiction movie-- there is after all "fiction" in the term-- but it should at least make a tiny bit of sense or seem like it might somehow be possible.

• So who destroyed the Pentagon, the Scavs or Humanity's nukes? Either way, it was nice of them to just blow a relatively small hole in it and leave enough of it standing so we can still identify it.

• We're told (and shown) that Earth was decimated when the Scavs destroyed the Moon. Violent upheavals apparently occurred and we see recognizable landmarks poking up out thousands of feet of dirt. At one point Jack even climbs a mere ten feet or so up to Observation Deck of the Empire State Building! What'd the aliens do, somehow drop several billion tons of soil on us?

There's no way the destruction of the Moon could have caused the surface to change like this. Don't believe me? Then check out what Larry O'Hanlon, a real life honest to goodness scientist has to say about it. If you don't want to read what he has to say or the article disappears, I'll summarize: What would happen to Earth if the Moon was destroyed? Not much.

"We'd still have tides, but they'd be weaker and caused by the Sun. There might be a few earthquakes and maybe even a grumbling volcano or two as the Earth's gravitational field adjusted to the loss. The biggest effect would be on Earth's axial tilt. Right now it's at 23 degrees and it's the reason we have seasons. Scientists believe that the Moon stabilizes the axial tilt and without it the tilt would vary, resulting in violently fluctuating seasons. Fortunately that wouldn't happen for a million years or more."

So the loss of the Moon would have pretty much no effect on Earth. It certainly wouldn't cause the ground to rise up thousands of feet and bury all our national monuments.

Besides, if you look at the scenes of the "destroyed" Moon in the film, it looks like it's still pretty much intact. Sure, it's in several large chunks with some smaller debris floating around, but it all looks like it's still pretty much in one place in the sky. So it for damn sure wouldn't have any effect based on the visual evidence!

• If the earth is ever threatened by aliens, for god's sake stay away from the Statue Of Liberty. That thing is a death magnet.

As soon as Jack mentioned that he and Vic had their memories wiped for "security purposes" I knew that their supervisor Sally and everyone in the Tet was bad news. No one ever has their memories wiped for a good reason.

I don't even get the whole memory wipe thing in the first place. Well, I get it in terms of the plot, which can't progress without the two main characters having no memories. But what about the "in universe" reason? Why wipe their memories? In case they got captured, they can't spill any secrets? So they won't miss their families on the Tet? So they won't remember that their "mission" is total bullsh*t?

Ultimately wiping their memories makes no damn sense because Jack and Vic are clones. The originals presumably died after being captured by aliens back in 2017. The aliens used Jack as a template to clone an entire deadly army with which to conquer Earth. When that was marked off their bucket list, they cloned Jack (and Vic) to use as caretakers. But here's the thing: you can't clone memories. No matter how many clones the aliens make of Jack, they won't remember a goddamned thing about his past life. Because they're brand new copies that don't have any memories yet. There's no way in hell he could possibly remember Julia or that she was his fiance. The only way that could possibly work is if the aliens had some kind of magical technology that copied memories as well as DNA, and if that's the case, then F you Mr. Screenwriter. 

Why the hell is stunt woman/actress Zoe Bell in this movie? I don't begrudge her a gig, mind you, but she presumably commands a higher salary than a no-name extra would. So they went out of their way to hire her, then used her in exactly one scene that lasted for two seconds.

Did she originally have a larger role that was drastically cut down?

• My favorite scene from Independence Day, er, I mean Oblivion.

At the end of the film Jack and Morgan Freeman fly up to the Tet and destroy it, freeing Earth from the grip of the aliens and dying in the process. Before Jack died though he took Julia to his secret untouched Garden Of Eden.

No matter how badly the earth is decimated in one of these movies, there's always a verdant hidden valley.

A few years pass and we see Julia and her daughter (!) gardening in their little paradise. A group of human survivors steps out of the bushes and waves to Julia. We see that one member of the group is one of the many clones of Jack! Julia smiles knowingly at him, as her daughter asks, "Who's that, Mommy?" Julia, obviously pleased with what she sees, replies, "He's your father."

Yikes. Um, no he's not kid. The Jack that apparently knocked up your mom died a couple years ago. This is just a copy of him, a guy who looks like him if you will. He ain't your dad any more than I am. 

And shouldn't Julia be a little skeeved out by this too? Clone or not, same memories or not, this ain't the same guy you were in love with! For that matter, neither was the one who rescued you earlier in the film. The one who proposed to you died 60 years ago. I guess a copy is better than nothing, but it just seems... wrong somehow.

Don't think so? OK then, forget clones. Imagine Jack's got a twin brother. He sacrifices himself just as he does in the film and at the end, his twin shows up. Would Julia smile and immediately hook up with him? Of course not! Appearances aside, he ain't the same guy!

And when the hell did Jack ever have time to have sex with Julia during the movie? Unless I missed something, the action was pretty much non-stop the moment after they met. Julia's been orbiting the Earth in suspended animation in a forgotten spacecraft for the last 60 years-- surely to Thor they didn't send a pregnant woman into outer space back then?

Let's hope he found a tire pump in the rubble, or this is gonna be a really short game.

A reasonably enjoyable sci-fi epic that's unfortunately a bit derivative and marred by some bone-headed science. I give it a B.

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