Oblivionby Kavish Chetty / 25.04.2013
Tom Cruise is a reminder that there is no justice in the relation between talent and wage in this world. The highest paid actor in Hollywood, nature has mercilessly challenged him along the vertical axis (not to mention the intellectual and religious) and his presence in all cinema summons something like a catastrophic force: a crumbling effect upon everything he stars in. It is impossible to come afresh to Cruise: the history, the endless inscriptions of his face, all produce a context in which he will fuck up a film just by being. He cannot act. His face is absent of the usual elasticities and pliabilities of flesh, and his expression is one of ossified idiocy. His voice is a narration of collective suffering. In Oblivion – an expansive and imaginative new film by Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy) – Cruise turns what could have been a masterful performance in delusion and anxiety into a mechanistic routine of swollen tropes and tough-guy grunts. His inclusion in the lead role signals something about the film. It’s caught between two impulses which are almost impossibly exclusive: the desire to produce something beautiful and intelligent whilst at the same time subordinating itself to the greasiest dictates of genre. Cruise is the perpetual reminder that there are blunt market forces at work in an otherwise moderately intriguing film.
2077: sixty-years after an alien invasion (the “scavengers” or “scavs”), the Earth is blank matter; a once-emerald planet now desolated by the ravages of a war and abandoned by the humans who were victorious over it. It is curious that rather than choosing to rebuild their world – in which still stands the poignant architectural masteries of ruined Empire: sunken public libraries, melancholy baseball stadia, half-smashed state buildings gazing over plateaux of nothingness – humans instead exiled themselves to Titan, a hovering moon of Saturn. Cruise plays Jack Harper, who together with his lover Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are among the last humans left on Earth. They live in a “skytower”, a gloriously designed aerial base of smooth surfaces, glass and metal, from which they conduct their mission: a hydroelectric energy project, to extract viable resources from the near-dead Earth on humanity’s behalf. Harper is a fighter pilot and technician, who accompanies drones out to fertile sites for extraction, and is aware of an alien scavenger presence on the planet – he glimpses them in their Cabal-style masks with artificial dreadlocks, the insectoid plating of their black armour.
The world that Kosinski has created – and I say this especially with regard to the way its characters operate within it in the first half – is one of vastness and desolation. Harper flies across the naked expanses of land, from its scorched deserts to its gorgeous valleys and rivers and the organising emotion is one of agoraphobia, of intense loneliness. Even the nude swim sequence, in which Victoria strips off her evening dress, slipping them over her contoured hips, and launches into murk of the pool, feels sexual and disturbing at the same time. Dialogue is sparse, and the camera lingers in mute witness over an apocalypse that is among the most beautiful yet incarnated in cinema. The film pays its homage and tribute to a sci-fi heritage beginning around the 70s – although its more immediate referents are things like The Matrix and even Independence Day – and Harper’s absurd silvery body suit and chunky rifle are the markers of this. Not to mention the whole technology of this place, which compress the analogue fantasies of the postmodern: both cutting-edge and nostalgic at the same time. Kosinski’s work with tension and atmosphere in the first half of this film is brilliant. M83 give us a soundtrack which is sparse, electric, plangent, repetitive, recalling Zimmer. Swooping camera lunges across amazing horizons and the neat elegance of design make this aesthetically compelling.
The plotting of the film, however, dramatically changes its eerie tonal composition about mid-way and produces anxieties for closure, thrill, shock and the usual glut of action-hero clichés bound to interrupt a fragile emotion, like isolation, which the film could have expanded upon (recall to mind the now dated videogame, Shadow of the Colossus, which provides a more-or-less comparable example of Harper’s lonely quests into the unknown, or in a more oblique sense, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker). Harper discovers a crash-site where cryogenic humans are about to be killed by marauding drones. That drones, the technology of humans, would turn against their masters without any directive, brings his first anxiety, that things in this ordered post-apocalyptic mission are perhaps not what they seem. This is compounded when Harper has his first audience with the scavengers, who bring fresh reams of intrigue and conspiracy to the plot, announcing themselves in the sagacious timbre, the black vox Dei, the deus ex blachina, so to speak, of Morgan Freeman. Available to new intelligences now, and you’ll notice I’m being deliberately cryptic here so as to insulate you from the plot twists, Harper is now inaugurated into a new mission to find out precisely what is going on in this sci-fi Earth of his.
So, having built this gorgeous apocalyptic diorama, animated it with tension and longing, Kosinski goes on to re-wreck the entire thing with banal narrative and dialogic twists: a renegade people; action-hero quips like “Fuck you, Sally”, spoken in that space of incandescent rage where poetry gives itself over to cliché; happy endings; painful and enduring architectures that, in the tradition of the best adventure cinema, are designed simply to be immolated in set-piece fight sequences; Tom Cruise’s idiotic face; Morgan Freeman sporting the eye-patch and cigar couture of the future; predictable and poorly-plotted mysteries; and, arching over all this, a desire to be clever where there aren’t enough intellectual resources to sustain the intelligence. It’s a shame, because Oblivion actually ends up being as awful as Prometheus, another beautifully-filmed sci-fi epic in which genre tropes and general bullshit ended up wrecking what could have been a sensuous and atmospherically-charged film. This is worth watching for the summoning potential of its visual artistry, but the endless interruptions of a far more meagre blockbuster tradition will enflame patience.