Monday, April 22, 2013

In Defense of 'Oblivion'

I have been anxiously awaiting the release of Oblivion for quite some time. I devoured the trailers that promised a post-apocalyptic struggle for the future of mankind set to the backdrop of stunning 4K digital imagery. I looked forward to another feather in the cap of Tom Cruise's career renaissance (seriously, why didn't more of you see Jack Reacher? Shape Up!) And, of course, who could say no to a movie where Morgan Freeman cryptically waves a match in front of his face while chomping on a cigar.

Like a boss.

So imagine my surprise when, in the final days before the film's wide release, a ho-hum buzz of mixed reviews started rolling in. Aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes gave Oblivion a very just-ok score of 59 percent while Entertainment Weekly, the I Ching of all things film, handed down a very stern C+ rating.

Now, I would never question the right of an individual reviewer to state his view of a film, whether I agree with that view or not. I hated the Blind Side. I absolutely, unequivocally despised it, but they still gave Sandie Bullock an Oscar (absurd). That's the thing about opinions, sometimes every human being on earth besides you is wrong.

But among the criticisms of Oblivion's detractors is an interestingly omnipresent thesis statement, which in essence says that the visuals in Oblivion are mesmerizing and gorgeous but the plot is largely derivative of other, greater films. You can almost see the gleeful expressions on the faces of writers as they derisively compare Oblivion to WALL-E, Blade Runner and The Matrix. Even the positive reviews use the copy-cat label as a rubber stamp of failure, like that of Richard Roeper who said "This is the sci-fi movie equivalent of a pretty damn good cover band."

Well, dear reviewing colleagues and not-so-dear internet trolls, I respectfully disagree.
First, the complaint of "it's like every other sci-fi movie" has been and can be raised against essentially every other sci-fi movie. And chick flick. And coming-of-age tale. And buddy cop show. And Tyler Perry's Madea's latest adventure. Yes, some movies blatantly rip off the creative work of other, greater minds but the idea of building from a base of familiar themes and concepts is not, in and of itself, a negative trait. Also, some movies are just plain bad. Oblivion is not one of them.

Yes, it incorporates elements that are recognizable, but in my opinion it does so largely to set a stage from which several interesting and surprising paths diverge.

Second, I would argue that the plot's weaknesses (of which I admit there are a few) in this case are not so grievous as to warrant a negative review, particularly considering the compensatory caliber of the remaining cinematic elements. In particular, the visuals in this movie are quite simply amazing. The scenes shot in the film's most notable set piece, the Sky Tower, are exquisite, incorporating an innovative projection method in lieu of the cheaper and industry-standard green screen. For the shots, director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) literally surrounded the actors on stage with the same ethereal vistas that the viewer is experiencing in the theater. It's a neat visual trick that pays of in spades.

This kind of meticulous and product-conscious directing to me makes the "just like other movies" argument even more infuriating when we consider that Avatar, the most derivative film ever made and a similarly visuals-heavy blockbuster, scored an unwarranted 83 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and went on to be nominated for best picture as well as become the single highest-grossing film of all time.

Injustice, I say. Which brings me to point number three: people just love picking on Tom Cruise.
Reading through the internet chatter, I can't help but wonder how much of the non-buzz surrounding Oblivion is residual negativity from America's refusal to let go of the couch-jumping incident. Despite being, by nearly all accounts, one of the nicest, hardest-working men in Hollywood, there is an unfortunate lingering schadenfreude toward Mr. Cruise. I still, from time to time, hear people saying "I can't see that, Tom Cruise is weird." To them I say, "Go kill yourself, Ghost Protes was Re-donk-ulous."

In closing. I saw Oblivion last night and haven't stopped thinking about it since. Perfect? No. Awesome? Yes. Trippy? In the best ways. As always, Cruise is a machine of whispered intensity and I can not say enough of his co-star Andrea Riseborough. She was absolutely haunting, a master-class in subtlety and nuance. Also, watching it in IMAX melted my face clean off.

Oh, and initial reports have it pulling in about $13.3 million on Friday, on track for an opening weekend of just under $40 million and a first-place finish in the box office. So stuff that in your pipe and smoke it.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed the movie; there are just those glaring flaws that don't make me feel like I need to see it again. Good review Ben.