Review: Oblivion (2013)

Oblivion posterTom Cruise tackles space invaders in Oblivion, a half decent science fiction film constructed from stitched together parts of older and better science fiction films – a Frankenstein’s Monster of a sci-fi film, if you like. While being a perfectly respectable attempt at forging a story that attempts to engage the brain as well as dazzle the eyes, there is nothing here that you haven’t seen before. In fact there’s some fun to be had in identifying its various constituent parts; there are bits and pieces pinched from the likes of Silent Running, WALL-E, The Matrix, RoboCop, Planet of the Apes, Independence Day, I Am Legend, and quite a few others. That wouldn’t be so bad if writer-director Joseph Kosinski had moulded them into something different or added to them with a few new ideas, but no such luck.

That said, it’s refreshing to see a genre piece that has enough confidence to take the time to establish an atmosphere and tone – a throwback to the days when science fiction could still be serious. The terrific production design goes some way to giving it an identity of its own, and there are several arresting images, not least of which is that of a disintegrated moon, its remnants still mournfully orbiting the Earth as though it hadn’t quite realised it had been blown apart.

Oblivion also represents the closest melding of film with the computer game and graphic novel we’ve seen yet. Based on a comic book that was never published, it almost feels like it might have existed in any or all of those media, and which format you chose hardly mattered. Perhaps this is the most interesting aspect of the film, pointing to a growing trend of technological convergence.

The cast are all solid enough, with Andrea Riseborough the standout among the supporting players. As reliable as he is, the casting of Cruise only hampers the attempt to inject real drama in to the story, because his screen persona is by now one of invulnerability and Oblivion does little to examine or subvert that. It’s a little slow in parts, but otherwise worth a trip to see on the big screen.

[xrr rating=3/5]

The Tree of Life (2011)

It's been a while since I last came out of the cinema on a high. You know that feeling: buzzing with excitement, genuinely thrilled with the experience that a film has given you – one that seems to speak to you personally. It rarely happens, but it did for me coming out of The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick's latest. 

It took me a little by surprise. Going in, I was hopeful I would like it. Terrence Malick is not a filmmaker I have especially loved in the past, though I did enjoy his last film, The New World. What intrigued me most reading about it in advance was Malick's intention to explore the origins of the universe, and the involvement of Douglas Trumbull in the special effects sequences (striking a chord with my genuine love of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey). Here perhaps was a film that could genuinely lay claim to joining the ranks of the other great science-fiction films Trumbull had contributed to, like Close Encounters, Blade Runner, Silent Running, and of course 2001.

The Tree of Life ultimately isn't one of those films; it's so much more. Crammed with thoughts and ideas about the nature of existence and the "meaning" of life (and indeed whether there is any), Malick's visual poem is a wonder to behold. Beautiful to both look at and listen to, it's a genuine work of art, whether earthbound with Brad Pitt's family in 1950s Texas or leaping back to witness the origins of life, the universe and everything. The space sequences are quite simply breathtaking. But no less powerful are the emotions running through Pitt's family following the death of a child, and the struggle for understanding and resolution.

That's not to say it's flawless: it certainly drags a little in places, particularly towards the end (though I disagree with the common view that the dinosaur sequence is a mis-step; on the contrary, it is a necessary counterpoint to the view that humanity is the beginning and end of all life). But it's easy to forgive the flaws when the ambition and success of the whole is so dazzling. Maybe it's just taken me a while to tune in to his sensibilities, but the genius of Malick certainly revealed itself to me this time.