Friday 12 April 2013

Moon blanding: "Oblivion"

Joseph Kosinski is the former ad-world whizz who did his level best to sink Disney's film division back in 2010 with his impressive-looking but interminably inane franchise reboot Tron: Legacy. It may be indicative of the dysfunctionality of those large multimedia conglomerates currently passing for movie studios that Kosinski has now been hired again, this time by Universal, after pitching an adaptation of a "graphic novel" (comic book) he must have written and coloured in himself back when he was eleven or twelve, at a moment when its core ideas might have seemed fresh and exciting. The result, Oblivion, is almost identical: a film that looks good - particularly on the IMAX screen, Hollywood's new preferred means of overcompensating - but is, if anything, even more brain-sappingly inert than its predecessor.

The set-up is WALL-E meets Solaris meets Total Recall - so there, immediately, are three films you might prefer to be watching; five if you liked the latter films' remakes. In the year 2077, after the desolation of Earth, mankind is obliged to live an altogether sterile existence (lots of showers, no off-planet flowers) on the moons of Saturn. Our hero Jack (Tom Cruise) lives a well-drilled, well-regulated life in the astral commuter belt, locating and repairing surveillance beacons on the Earth's abandoned surface under the command of his current squeeze Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). You might have thought a society so devoted to health and efficiency would have strictures in place against any worker skinnydipping after hours with Mission Control, but - hey - she presses his buttons. Then one morning, while - yes - taking a shower, Major Tom has a flash of another, earlier, perhaps better life: a memory of bustling Manhattan streets from before the Fall, this stirring vision only being marred by the appearance among these crowds of pouty model-turned-[sic] Olga Kurylenko, whose screen presence has rapidly (To The Wonder, The Expatriate, now this) come to serve as a reliable indicator the next two hours of your life are about to spiral into the void. Jack's heart soars; 'most everybody else's, I'd venture, will sink.

One of the reasons Cruise's Mission: Impossible movies have consistently outgrossed his recent non-franchise entries (Knight & Day, Jack Reacher) may be that the former are essentially ensemble pieces, showcasing between mega-stunts supporting players who represent those elements (humour, sex appeal, relatability) the leading man has only occasionally brought to the table of late. (I bet there are Simon Pegg fans who wouldn't normally go near a Tom Cruise movie.) Oblivion, in stark contrast, establishes itself as weirdly, disconcertingly sparse, like the worst kind of control-freak fantasy: for a while, it's nothing but white people in white jumpsuits moving through the clean, clear spaces of Jack and Victoria's modernist home in the clouds, a location that makes de Niro's beachfront pad in Heat look like something off Hoarders. The film's syntax and performers are themselves limited: it turns out Kosinski has only a finite number of tricks in what one hesitates to describe as his storytelling arsenal, and most of those are burned up within ninety seconds.

There are lots of shots of Tom strapped into his cockpit doing his patented Intense Face (cf. Top Gun) while the effects team doodle around him. Yet there's absolutely nothing else, physical or emotional, going on here. Riseborough glows more keenly than she has elsewhere, but that luminescence seems in part a reflection from the touchscreens she's always prodding away at; when Kurylenko shows up in person as "Julia Rusakova" - of course Julia Rusakova -  you despair on multiple levels: Kosinski has achieved the scientifically impossible, and squeezed a vacuum inside a vacuum. (As an example of this species of blockbuster's sudden, reckless and ultimately damaging disregard for real actors - as set against, say, its growing fondness for glassy babes in vests - consider the sorry fate of recent Oscar-winner Melissa Leo: she's the hologram Riseborough is seen prodding away at.)

It takes an hour for the film to suggest any life beyond this inert love triangle, and then some part of you might wish it hadn't. Enter Morgan Freeman, stuck behind those silly round sci-fi sunglasses, and his army of Earthling blackshirts, somehow presented as hostile to the white world above; enter the uninhibited digital spectacle these movies almost always wind up descending into; exit, with great haste, any remaining traces of logic or coherence, accompanied by any viewer who came looking for passable escapism now that the weekend's here. One semi-intriguing subtext presents itself - Oblivion might just operate as a user's guide for any man looking for pointers on how to get out of marriage to a chilly redhead and put himself into the arms of a more pliant brunette, while remaining on some level heroic (hi Tom!) - but the bigger picture is fundamentally airless and joyless, and just dull enough for Tom and Olga's heartsong to be A Whiter Shade of Fucking Pale.

Oblivion is in cinemas nationwide.

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