Saturday, April 20, 2013

Lonesome Planet: Oblivion

I love science fiction movies. Ever since I was a boy when I would catch the “Creature Feature” on TV after school and my mother said I couldn’t watch anymore when she came down and saw some guy melting (head made of wax) from radiation, I have always been drawn to science fiction movies as some sort of tempting forbidden fruit. Of course, the first science fiction movies I saw and loved were 1950s classics like The Incredible Shrinking Man and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. During the 60s, I remember being blown away by Planet of the Apes.

But you wouldn’t call me a sci-fi geek. I don’t follow the serialized Syfy Channel shows; I don’t go to conventions; I don’t read the sci-fi book series; I have no graphic novels. I’m not a passionate enthusiast of the Star Trek world, and I consider Star Wars more fantasy than science fiction.

As for books, I love a classic one-off science fiction novel. I don’t like the books that lead to a series. I thought Ender’s Game was a bore, and that expels me right away from the geek pool. Recently I read and enjoyed 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson, a novel that sets its story on or in the environmentally transformed planets of our solar system, not on imagined planets whose worlds take science fiction more into the realm of fantasy. My favorite science fiction novel of the past ten years or more has been The Windup Girl, by Paulo Bacigalupi. I especially like these books because they are whole worlds contained, and they don’t lead to a series.

And that’s one thing I like about Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion. It’s a one-off story without the threat of a sequel, and you get the whole story in its nutshell. I am also a sucker for stories set on a post-apocalyptic Earth. The abundance of such films lately suggests we don’t see much hope in the future. But I never tire of seeing New York City, always emblematic of our entire country, in some state of post-apocalyptic disrepair. Here, the ubiquitous Empire State Building is buried up to its observation deck! Wow! That’s a lot of shifting sand! And we catch a glimpse of Liberty’s dismembered hand in a gorge. A key sequence takes place in the New York Public Library, which is now underground, an element that reminded me of the post-nuclear wasteland in Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971). Also, I dig the sci-fi re-positioning of the classic Robinson Crusoe character to a wasted Earth.

In this case, the resident Robinson is Jack Harper, whose job it is to fly around in a cool helicopter and maintenance spherical drones that go around killing off the last of the aliens whose invasion led to a nuclear war that laid waste to our poor planet. The plan is to suck up the last of Earth’s resources in gigantic sucking machines and then transport the last humans from a vast space station called Tet to a colony on Titan.

Much like Neville in The Omega Man (1971) and I Am Legend (2007), Jack Harper works on his own as he reminisces about the good old things we’ve lost like the Super Bowl and the New York Yankees. Sometimes Jack relaxes in a little cabin he's built in a hidden canyon where he keeps souvenirs from the olden days – books and sunglasses and, you guessed it, LPs (it's time to eradicate that hackneyed device as an emblem of nostalgia and coolness). Then he gets to go back to his base on an elevated platform where he is greeted by his gorgeous communications officer, Victoria, who wears trim dresses and high heels. Together they make a “perfect team,” but things are not perfect on this mysterious, ruined planet.

Oblivion is a feast for sci-fi eyes, full of meticulously rendered vistas, and the gadgets do not disappoint. Although the lethal drone guards might remind you of Eve in WALL-E, and Jack Harper as a lone maintenance man who collects things is a lot like WALL-E himself, what they do here is cool and the focus of a lot of action. Also, I dig the high-tech touch-screen computer systems. Click and drag, big time! But the drones are the servants of a malevolent technology, and the shocking truth leads to a nifty twist.

The film has its flaws: Olga Kurylenko as a human survivor gets little more to do than hold onto her seat when Jack drives recklessly, and it takes a little too long to get to the shocking secrets that I shall not divulge here. But I was transported to another world, Andrea Riseborough as Victoria is a very attractive “effective teammate,” and although his face is looking lined these days, Cruise is the perfect performer to play our futuristic Everyman, questioning his identity and searching for the answers to cosmic questions.

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