Don’t Let this One Trail into Oblivion: See Tom Cruise’s Latest SF Flick

OK, a confession: I liked Oblivion. Quite a bit, in fact. Why that should be shoehorned in as a confession I have no idea, except that the movie currently stands at a “rotten” 55% on the tomatometer. Less than half of the critics who saw it liked this movie, and I’m writing this post to tease out some of my feelings on that.

Without giving much away that people can’t glean from the previews (or the first 5 minutes of the movie, if you must know) 60 years from now, the earth has been abandoned in the aftermath of a human-alien war. Jack Harper (the ubiquitous Tom Cruise) and his companion/partner/all-round nice to have around gal Vica are literally the last humans remaining on the surface, or actually, high above it if you want to get technical. Vica manages communications from inside while Jack gets cleanup duty, draining the last of the earth’s seawater for use by the human colony on Titan. If that sounds boring, my guess is it would be–except that Jack gets to buzz around the beautiful devastation in a futuristic flying machine, trying to avoid run-ins with the nefarious “Scavs”–the cockroach-like aliens that still scurry around underground. Jack’s partner embraces their return to the human colony with unthinking happiness, but Jack is confused: Why are they leaving a planet which still seems so rich in resources? And why does he dream of a New York he never could have visited, and a woman he never met? Jack’s questions lead him to an answer of sorts, a way past the carefully telegraphed oblivion of the human project and toward a stranger truth (you like how I did that just now? C’mon, admit it, you smiled through the cheese).

Anyway, the bulk of the criticisms about this movie seem to fall into 3 distinct categories: A) this is all stuff we’ve seen before. Move along, move along, B) there’s not enough action, and what there is is boring, and C) it’s Tom Cruise, no further comments needed.

First of all, I love it when people use (A) as an excuse for not enjoying a film. As a writer, let me let you all in on a little secret: Nothing is original. Nothing. The originality is in the telling of the story, in the packaging in which you wrap the revelations that you want to impart. Hate to break it to ya, but The Matrix, which is on my top ten greatest sci-fi movies of all time, is a hodge-podge of religion, mysticism, recycled William Gibson/Bladerunner plots and production design, and oh yeah, comic books, X-Files, and anime. But it’s mind-blowing because when you mix the batter, a tasty pancake of pop-philosophy perfectly fitting the approach of the millenium emerges.

Now I’m not comparing Oblivion to The Matrix–I won’t be going back to see it in the theater at least 5 times, buying the dvd, and practically wearing it out–but the movie, while certainly borrowing liberally from 2001: A Space Odysee and a host of other things we’ve seen before, has it’s own compelling take on the alien invasion angle. If you can forgive the fact that one of the two “twists” in the film is unfortunately revealed in the previews, and that the other is not very hard to figure out, you can set yourself to simply enjoying the one-man journey–it isn’t the revelations themselves, but how they are arrived at, that make for a weirdly beautiful experience. For this film the director, who previously headed Tron: Legacy and has roots in architecture, positions us somewhere in between the cold, black gridlines of that world and a lush, untamed, lost one–the smooth, safe, overmade communications tower represents man’s technical triumph over and distancing from nature, while Jack’s secret bangalow in a canyon on the surface is indicative of our urge to get back to where we began. This cold/warm dicotomy helps to tell the story with very few words. It is a marked step-up from Tron: Legacy, which had trouble both with human characters and “real” environments.

How about (B), no action/boring action? To this I say: Whhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaat?! Where were you when those polished white drones, Jack’s only help in destroying the remaining alien threat, whizzed through canyons at breakneck speeds in persuit? Where were you when Jack found an underground passage into an old library, a dusty haunt that seemed infested by insects seen only as long shadows on the walls, until they shoot at you? Where were you when unearthly coffins fell out of the sky, each one a fiery piece of Jack’s puzzle? This movie has plenty of action, but since it is all in the service of the story, and the story takes its time, there are…gasp…pauses between the action beats. If unrelenting, eye-gougingly boring waves of cgi count as action, then no, there isn’t much. But I saw great attention to movement of models (the future-tech, most specifically the chillingly-designed drones, is just cool) and human-focused stuntwork, and ear-popping, subtle sound design, all of which counts as action in my book. In other words, the action is grounded in semi-reality and old staples of film-making.

And finally, (C), the Cruise factor. Honestly speaking, I (and probably most of you reading this over the age of 30) have liked the vast majority of Tom Cruise’s stuff. Whatever you think of his acting choices, which can to some appear “wooden,” the sheer level of committment that Cruise displays in every role he tries is undeniable. Here he plays the working man of the future with his trademark “affable distance,” and it works for a film where everything is not as it seems. And no, despite the aft-repeated idea that, “Tom Cruise is too old for X,” I think people are just being silly. The man has played 30 going on 35 for the better part of 20 years now, and does it because he can. The fact is that, if this were somebody people still liked personally, they’d be raving about how little he’s changed physically and laud his work ethic. But we Americans, myself included, take our stars too personally now. The man is undoubtedly a strange bird, but the question is: Should I care? Should anybody? In Japan, I’ve found that people are much less interested in digging around the inner lives of the people who grace their movie screens. There are reasons stars like Cruise enjoy it here, and that must surely be one of them. Final answer to (C): If Tom Cruise can still make compelling movies after the age of 50, I’ll still be onboard Scientology nonsense aside.

In watching this movie I had the same feeling I did when watching The Island in a nearly deserted theater when it came out: This one will be popular on dvd, bluray, netflix, hulu, whatever medium people will have, but it will be popular a bit later. When people have forgotten all of their misgivings and just sit down to watch one day. Who knows, maybe somebody less jaded will watch another sf movie and say, with a straight face, that they’ve seen it all before–in a film called Oblivion!

Good night/good morning all,



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One Response to “Don’t Let this One Trail into Oblivion: See Tom Cruise’s Latest SF Flick”

  1. alantekhu Says:

    Reblogged this on Alan Tek Hughes Blog .


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