For the Earth is Old and Gray, by Scott Nye
For all the talk on its opacity, I followed Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color with basically no difficulty. Conversely, I had to check Wikipedia when I got home from Oblivion to have any idea what the hell just happened. Luckily, the film’s already opened internationally, and a plot synopsis was readily available, but all that got me was some exposition that, in some cases, I overlooked or, more frequently than one might expect, just flat-out wasn’t conveyed. Director Joseph Kosinski proved he has a spot-on eye for shot composition with Tron: Legacy, and that talent is even more evident here, but the man can’t do anything beyond that. His shots have little meaning or resonance, and in connecting them together, he can’t tell even the most basic of stories, never mind one as overly-complex as this. In the process, he deprives his film of any sort of spark, any trace of evidence that a human might have had a hand in crafting this, somehow making his film about computer programs look more human by comparison. At least that one had Michael Sheen doing his crazy Michael-Sheen-in-a-genre-movie thing.
Here’s what I gather – it’s the future, Earth went to war with some aliens, and although we won, the devastation required for victory left the planet pretty much decimated. Most of humanity retreated to an orbiting spacecraft thingy, while Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), whose memories have been wiped (because…reasons) hang back on Earth and manage affairs there (mostly repairing these drones that go around and kill the aliens that have remained), with the eventual promise of getting to go live on the spacecraft. Jack is pretty attached to Earth life, fueled by this nagging sense that he can remember something from before the war, and urged along by a very firm love for any remnants of that past civilization – mostly books and records (if not for a basketball and a sharp recollection of sports statistics, this little shack he built by the river would be every hipster’s dream abode). But what if…the whole life he knows…is a lie?
I’m sure the trailers have spoiled more than I will here, but for those who, like me, avoid such things, I won’t go much further, plot-wise. It’s not that the film is bereft of anything of interest beyond being really, really pretty, but we should first discuss the fact that this film is really, ridiculously appealing to one’s ocular senses, with a pretty damn fine sound design to back it up. Shot by now-Oscar-winner Claudio Miranda (who shot Life of Pi and Tron: Legacy, but whose calling card for me will always be The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) especially for the IMAX format, this is a film really intended for the biggest screen possible, rather than letting its theatrical run be a brief afterthought in considering its life on HDTVs across the world. Kosinski frames his actors firmly within their spaces, to almost Antonionian effect if one felt he was operating on such a level, but the scope isn’t always so wide. The way Miranda lights Riseborough’s eyes could be discussed for the entire length of the review. She has these massive, entrancing pupils, and the way Miranda manipulates the light around them – and thus, their size – communicates leagues of emotional activity (and thematic, given that prominence of rounded objects and ways of seeing) that Kosinski simply isn’t interested in exploring.
The driving themes involve the nagging sense that, somehow, you’ve taken a wrong turn and, as good as things might be, you’re supposed to be living another life, as well as the usual tacked-on nonsense about everlasting love that is somehow bereft of any actual romance. The stakes and ramifications of the central love story couldn’t be more enormous, personally or philosophically, but Kosinski (who conceived the story upon which he, Karl Gajdusek, and Michael Arndt wrote their screenplay) seems to have no interest in such matters. Much of the resultant emotional tenor is akin to a missed flight or forgotten birthday, but without any of the drama that could accompany even those minor transgressions. Even Cruise, an actor who cannot help but emote, is insistently ratcheted down, removing everything that is great about him, save his star power. That latter quality is of vital import to the film, even if it sometimes denies it. I couldn’t help but think of the trailer for Mission: Impossible III, and how every time I saw it in a theater, people would instantly realize what it was based on the back of Tom Cruise’s head. This is an actor audiences know every inch of; playing coy with his identity during any scene underestimates us.
One could say the film’s lack of emotion, or nearly any other sign of humanity, is a reflection of its desolate setting, but I wouldn’t buy it if they did. There are indications that Kosinski recognizes the value of, say, a good joke, but he just can’t deliver it. He’s telling, essentially, a love story, but without evoking much in the way of warmth. The film’s depiction of sex seems to have been influenced by statues. The closest it comes to a genuine feeling requires the accompaniment of pop music. In some sections, its iciness is effective. Cruise’s flight towards the big spaceship in the sky is a beautiful movement, as is the death of a key character that kicks the plot into high gear. It builds some very effective tension in the build-up to action sequences, using the sound design as much as the visuals in a very video-gamey way without feeling cheap, recognizing that the closer we are to the protagonist’s mindset, the more visceral the thrill. But Jack is as much an avatar as any video game lead. Oblivion just can’t steel itself for the long haul, resorting to sentiments that convey the idea of emotion, but not the feeling. “This is what love looks like,” it reminds us, McGregor-style. And would that it had the weight of those ideas on its attractive, well-rounded shoulders, we’d really have something on our hands; as it is, it’s just a reminder that perhaps Hollywood is right to keep investing this much money in action figure movies.