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Oblivion – Ob-li-vi, Ob-li-va, Earth goes on, bra!

Last Man Standing: Tom Cruise in Oblivion

Last Man Standing: Tom Cruise in Oblivion

Torturing us all for the shock success of Battle: Los Angeles back in early 2011, Hollywood has begun its own alien onslaught, flinging some half dozen end-of-the-world science fiction films at us this year.

The first up is Oblivion, Joseph Kosinski’s follow-up to the flashy and distracting, if slightly moronic and empty, Tron: Legacy. An eye-wateringly glossy post-apocalyptic mystery adventure, it is a finely assembled work, that has been finely assembled from other, better films.

Seventy years after a war with alien scavengers, the Scavs, Earth has seen better days. The destruction of the Moon has caused geographical discombobulation on an Emmerichian scale, and the plundering of the resources of what used to be the blue planet has meant that mankind has had to relocate to one of the moons of Saturn. The Scavs, defeated, have scurried in fragmented numbers underground.

Tom Cruise plays Jack Harper, one of the last humans remaining on Earth, as part of a clean-up detail. A high-tech mechanic, he repairs the drones and devices that keep the Scavs at bay and recoup the last of Earth’s energy for the new human homeworld. His only contact is with his communications officer Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who keeps him advised on every move he makes. They live together in a Big Brother house in the sky, and, at the slightly creepy encouragement of their mission commander, Sally (Melissa Leo), who directs them in fractured messages from beyond the stratosphere, to engage in carnal discourse, because that’s what makes “an effective team”.

But not everything is as it seems. Jack has incomprehensible flashbacks to a time before the war, despite his memory having been wiped for mission security reasons. He collects trinkets from the once great civilisation of New York, now flooded in silt and rubble: toys, records, books, a Yankees cap. Soon the Scavs begin to take a personal interest in Jack’s movement, and then the woman of his dreams literally comes crashing back into his life. What, exactly, is Jack and Victoria’s mission?

Date with destiny: Olga Kurylenko and Tom Cruise recall better times

Date with destiny: Olga Kurylenko and Tom Cruise recall better times

If any of this sounds familiar, you shouldn’t be surprised; it should. “Derivative” is a word that gets thrown around a lot, and in relation to science fiction it’s as commonly used as “darker” is in superhero movie reviews. But Oblivion might just be the most derivative film ever made. Like, class action lawsuit derivative. Its central ideas and themes are fused from a number of recent and classic science fiction films. Visually, its space pods and structures hearken back to countless other sci-fi designs. Even its action scenes seem overly familiar in pace and choreography.

Take the drones – almost identical to the pods from 2001: A Space Odyssey, they are similarly controlled by a red electric eye. Instead of claw arms, they have cannons which fold out from their sides like EVE from WALL•E (and they share her iPod veneer). But reacting to Cruise’s raising of his weapon, and failing to react to his lowering of it, the drones show an identical programming to ED209 from RoboCop. When a drone is summoned for termination purposes, a drone without a minty white coating appears, revealing a black skeletal series of patterns across it in the vein of a T-800. At a moment of supposed high tension the Terminator allusion is simply guffawable. That’s four films unmistakably sampled in one brilliantly realised prop.

Other films blatantly referenced or “borrowed from” in Oblivion include (in alphabetical order to avoid spoilers): Aliens, I Am Legend, Independence Day, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Matrix Revolutions, Moon, Planet of the Apes, Predator, The Road Warrior, Silent Running, Solaris, Star Wars, Stargate, Total Recall, Transformers: The Movie, War of the Worlds. It’s actually a fun game to count them, although repeatedly it forces you out of the film, as Oblivion makes you think of beloved classics instead of, well, the story in progress. Kosinski, directing from a script polished by Toy Story 3’s Michael Arndt and The Departed’s William Monahan but based on an unpublished graphic novel he had written himself some years back, is all too unsubtle in his inspirations, and they cloud the fact that at many levels Oblivion is quite a strong film.

Cruise takes a role that only a select few actors could have made work and, despite limited characterisation, holds the movie together when it is at its weakest, most ramshackle points. Riseborough plays the increasingly Pod Peopled Victoria with some admirable restraint. Olga Kurylenko does her best in a role the film’s four writers all managed to overlook, while Morgan Freeman shows up to take the most relish he has in any role since Wanted.

On a technical side, the movie looks sublime, and not much of that can be handed to its… influences. Kosinski has a great feel for the visual, and refusing to shoot in 3D to keep the whites dazzling and the blacks standing out  was a great decision that shows a huge amount of confidence in the director on behalf of production studio Universal. Life of Pi’s D.P. Claudio Miranda brings every image sharply to life, while the soundtrack by French electronic outfit M83 pulses with an energy that drives much of the film forward and escalates some of the weaker drama.

In the end, Oblivion falls on its own laser sword*. It looks and sounds great throughout, but assembled like a Frankenstein’s monster from so many superior films not only dilutes the enjoyment but dilutes its own sincerity. “Earth is a memory worth fighting for” runs the tagline, but the memories on display here are all film memories, scavenged from the sci-fi greats of the ’50s to the present. They are worth fighting for, and remembering their origins and not the film that dared to harvest them all is what matters.

Oblivion is a superbly crafted film, but its memory will not be long for this world.

3/5

 

 

*Laser swords are one of the only clichés of the genre Oblivion skipped, thankfully.

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Argo – Hollywood’s finest exodus since The Ten Commandments

Big decisions: Affleck and Cranston in Argo

With tensions increasing in the Middle East as Iran comes ever closer to developing the bomb, this quite brilliant, witty political thriller seems very timely, despite being set over 30 years ago.

Argo, the latest from one-time Hollywood poster boy/laughing stock Ben Affleck, now a respected director of punchy, entertaining if until now slight films, tells the so-improbable-it-must-be-true tale of a CIA operation to evacuate six American diplomats during the Iranian hostage crisis of ’79-’81 by pretending they are members of a science fiction film crew. In its unlikely fusion of genres, the film manages to lampoon the audacity of Hollywood while also racking up the tension as the crisis escalates.

Affleck himself plays CIA consultant Tony Mendez, a so-called “Moses”, whose expertise is in extracting American civilians from international hotspots. During the crisis which follows the Iranian Revolution, six of the staff members at the American Embassy in Tehran escape the embassy, the centre of the crisis, and hole up in the residence of the Canadian ambassador to Iran.

With no hope of smuggling them across the border into Turkey, Mendez comes up with the plan of sneaking them out in broad daylight through Tehran’s airport, by coaching them to pose as a Canadian film crew doing a reccy in “exotic locations” for a sci-fi B-movie, called “Argo”. To sell the deception, Mendez teams up with (fictional) one-time Hollywood big leaguer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and real-life Oscar-winning make-up effects artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who worked on Planet of the Apes and the original Star Trek series. Hosting gala events in service of their Star Wars knock-off (which most closely resembles 1980’s Flash Gordon movie), the trio land an ad for Argo in Variety and generate buzz for the fraudulent film. All that has to be done then is for the terrified embassy staff to keep their nerve.

Full of punchy one-liners, especially from Goodman, Arkin and Bryan Cranston as CIA boss Jack O’Donnell, Argo’s script jets along at a very enjoyable pace before its nerve-wracking finale. Editing tricks cut between the film and documentary footage to emphasise the remarkable reality that lies behind the story. The almost excessive period detail, shot in bright ’70s colours, sells the movie to its audience even better than Mendez sells his film to the Iranians.

I’ll drink to that!: Goodman and Arkin (also Affleck, just about)

Acting is mostly solid across the board, although Affleck is perhaps not the strongest actor who might have fronted it, and he fluffs some of his best lines. Goodman and Arkin have remarkable fun as the pair who see through the “bullshit business” while also doing remarkable pro bono work for their endangered countrymen. Cranston, so hot right now it burns the eyes, has a strong go at the “disapproving chief who’s actually incredibly proud of his renegade underling” role, and it’s a treat to behold. The rest of the exhaustive cast is assembled from some of the best TV and movie character actors out there; Victor Garber, Kyle Chandler, Zeljko Ivanek, Bob Gunton, Philip Baker Hall, Richard Kind, Titus Welliver… the list goes on and on.

What the film does that no amount of perusing declassified State Department documents can do is truly get at the heart of the movie business, and give it a deserved ribbing. From the moment the film opens with the red Warner Bros logo from the 1970s, you can tell this is a film gleefully in love with a different age of moviemaking. Much of the opening preamble, bringing clueless audiences up to speed on the history of Iran (think Persepolis, but less sweet), is explained using storyboards. When Mendez reaches Hollywood, the hokey sets, ridiculous costumes and obnoxious self-promoters seem far more alien than Iran itself.

While Iran is the villain of the piece, so to speak, Argo is not overly critical of the nation, refusing to demonise it as it underlines the need for change that resulted in the Iranian Revolution. Using Istanbul as its shooting location, it paints the country as one of massive contradiction, where US flags are burnt while Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants are found on the high street.

Despite its energy, Argo slumps a little in the middle, as it struggles to define the characters of the six refugees, who are even more over-shadowed by the titanic performances of Arkin and Goodman than Affleck is. As the nail-biting finale approaches, the film blatantly goes beyond the real history and artificially raises the tension without any need. Yes, it’s intense, but for the only brief moment in its two-hour run-time this impossible story becomes unbelievable.

Affleck’s finest film to date, Argo is an endlessly witty, powerful and thrilling drama. With skilful craft in recreating an age almost out of memory, it has a unique honesty to it that is far more interested in the individual figures involved than flag-waving patriotism. A spy movie without guns or sex, Argo is nothing less than a ridiculous adventure with fine, clever characters and a fist-chewing climax like few others.

Be sure to stick around during the closing credits where actual photos from the real-life Argo exodus are placed side-by-side with images from the film. It is a final testament to the remarkable work Affleck and his team put into telling this story.

4/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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