2013, Joseph Kosinski
Oblivion is just one of many science-fiction "desolate earth"/"dystopian future" subgenre films hitting the theatres this year, a busy crowd that includes, most notably, M. Night Shyamalan's Smith family vehicle After Earth and Neill Blomcamp's Elysium starring Matt Damon and (a now retired?) Jody Foster. What's surprising about each of the major entries in this new wave of genre filmmaking is how the concepts seem to be placed more in the center, acting less as a template for action setpieces and franchise building, and more a vehicle for storytelling. It seems to be in this age of sequels and comic book adaptations, original and somewhat heady SF still has a place. While I haven't seen any of the other films (yet), Oblivion seems to step backwards to a pre-Star Wars era of science fiction storytelling, one that wouldn't be out of place were it starring Charlton Heston 40 years ago.
Joseph Kosinski's first feature, Tron Legacy, was a visual feast, but one steeped in a 30-year-old mythos that the public-at-large couldn't be bothered to invest into. Here he's directing a script that strips down the audience requirements, giving a very basic set-up of an Earth that was invaded, then abandoned, and now all that's left are resource harvesting machines and a two-person repair crew. Tom Cruise plays Jack, the repairman, who frequently ventures down to the planet from his sleek glass lookout perched high above the ground, even if there's no repairs required or incidents to investigate. He does this to the chagrin of his partner, Vicka (Andrea Riseborough), who monitors his actions and communicates with the Tet, a monolithic space station orbiting the earth that serves as headquarters for humanity's salvation efforts. Vicka and Jack are romantically involved, but it's evident that their partnership is largely one of convenience, since Jack, despite a mind wipe, he still has fuzzy memories of what Earth was like before it was invaded and a fondness for exploring its fractured terrain, while Vicka wants little more than to finish their 5-year tour-of-duty and go to New Earth as promised.
Down in the ruins of New York, however, Jack encounters Scavs, leftover invaders who seem to want to interfere with any remaining human operations on the planet. But naturally very little is as it seems, and Jack begins to learn the truth about the Earth, the Tet, the Scavs and himself as the film progresses. A lot of this is familiar ground for SF veterans, but it's still presented largely in a visually appealing, and elegantly paced manner that makes the journey more than work the investment.
There are some flaws though, like a perfunctory flying chase sequence (which get more and more tired the more I see them... compare the chase sequence here with the one against the Klingons in Star Trek Into Darkness or any others that have cropped up in genre films since the Empire Strikes Back did it best in an asteroid belt, and there's little exciting or new to them) or a gun battle with some renegade drones, which seem out of place in this otherwise quasi-meditative film. There's also some dishonest filmmaking and storytelling, particularly film's duplicity surrounding the Scavs, used in order to make some of the turns a bigger surprise, when I don't think they were necessary deceptions at all (especially since some were already spoiled by the trailer).
Kosinksi's work in Tron Legacy had him exploring a unreal, somewhat contained digital landscape, striving to make it at once foreign yet relatable, believable but fantastical, and largely succeeded, through his palette of deep black with neon highlights. With Oblivion, Kosinski works in a polar contrast, bright, airy, seemingly without limitations, and yet boundaries are set which constantly reign Jack's Earth-based adventures in. The designs are sleek, edgeless, somewhat organic, the single-person plane Jack flies is modeled after a dragonfly, while the station, Tower 49, is almost like a flower growing on a long stem reaching for the sun. It's contrasted with the Scavs, trim-yet-clunky, living in a hollowed out mountain side, full of jagged rusty metal platforms and support beams. Kosinski frequently captures imagery that could, in still frame, be novel cover by Michael Whelan or Kelly Freas.
The editing is economical, allowing scenes to breathe, and Kosinski's eye opens up his shot frequently to the broadest possible perspective of landscapes and scenery. One of the most inspired images is that of the moon in the sky, a quarter of it having exploded outwards, looking like an upside-down-Pac Man trying to eat a trail of debris. This wonderful imagery is enveloped by a modernistic soundtrack by french electronica artist M83 with instrumentation from Joseph Trapanese. It's a sweeping, epic, affecting score, at times bristling with intensity, other's swelling to a grandiose apex. There's a lot of similar cues as Daft Punk's Tron Legacy score (likely the influence of Trapanese) but some strong delineations as well.
Oblivion, with it's self-contained nature, and it's minimalistic scope, won't be remembered as a major event picture, or even a major picture in Tom Cruise's extensive resume, but it's appealing enough to have an endearing longevity, it the same respect as the Omega Man or Silent Running, genre films otherwise overshadowed by the likes of 2001, Star Wars and Alien.