It's been too long since we've seen a proper, unapologetic future SF movie in the multiplexes. Something with robots and aliens and spaceships.
This is the sort of thing that's been floating my boat since I was a nipper. Big, fat unabashed space opera. And it looks like 2013 is going to be my kind of year. With films like Star Trek: Into Darkness and After Earth hitting screens in the next few months, and big-budget offerings from the likes of Del Toro and Cuarón to come (giant robots! Clooney in space!), it's a bumper year for yer scientifiction buff.
First out of the gates is Joseph Kosinski's Oblivion. A pet project that got the go-ahead after the big business he did on Tron: Legacy, it takes his trademark clean surfaces and arcitectural cool and applies them to a story of an abandoned world, the aftermath of a terrible war–and a dreadful secret.
Earth, after a devastating war against an implacable alien foe. Humanity has won, but victory has cost us the planet. Ma Earth is an irradiated mess, and the remnants of mankind are cutting their losses and moving to a new colony on Titan. All that's left is a caretaker crew, maintaining the drones that will guard the world after its masters have gone. Lucky us, then, that the man in charge is Tom Cruise, whizzing around the globe in a bug-eyed ornithopter, while his girlfriend, played by Andrea Riseborough channeling a young Gillian Anderson, keeps the home fires burning. It's two weeks and counting until they can join the exodus and start a new life.
All is, of course, not what it seems. It seems impossible to greenlight an SF script these days without a head-spinning revelation midway through that turns everything on its head. Oblivion doesn't buck that trend. There's an awful secret to be revealed, and a terrible crime to be avenged. It's a film that's keen to ingratiate itself to the target audience–people like me.
Therein lies the problem. If you're the sort of rabid SF fan that has been waiting for a film like Oblivion, things start looking dreadfully familiar dreadfully quickly. I want to stay relatively spoiler-free (after all, I'm writing this on the afternoon of the film's day of release) but there's a point where the references to classic and modern filmed SF start stacking up more quickly than you can write them. From Moon to 2001, Independence Day to Robocop, Wall-E to The Matrix, it's all in here, whether as a visual reference or a straight plot crib. It starts to feel like an SF mixtape, a supercut of the moments and images you love.
And because I love those references, I can't find it in my heart to hate the film. It's a bit po-faced, and a tad dry in the story-telling. Expect the usual sag at the end of the second act. But Kosinsky has assembled a crack cast (Riseborough in particular is luminous–my earlier Anderson comparison was entirely complimentary) and his reputation as a prime visual stylist is secure. Oblivion has the sharp, clean lines that Syd Mead burned into my cortex when I read Omni in the 80s, and the empty Earth he conjures, landmarks in deserts, the Chrysler Building buried in sand to its spire, is a thing of stark beauty. It's no use pretending that you haven't seen it before, but you've rarely seen it rendered this precisely.
Oblivion is a film that's standing on the shoulders of giants. There's nothing original here. The story is one that could easily have sprung from the pages of Astonishing in the 50s. There are echoes of Theodoe Sturgeon, Larry Niven, even Ray Bradbury. There's even a whiff of Hollywood science in the issues that Tom and Andrea have with orbital line-of-sight comms. So far, so ho hum.
But at the same time, Oblivion does the job asked of it with panache and polish. As a herald to our summer of SF, it's not half bad. Especially if you do a spot-the-references drinking game while you watch. If you're as much of a fanboi as me, you'll be off your face before the credits roll.