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April 20, 2013

It’s probably no surprise that I like big-idea science fiction. But this is not to say that big ideas are essential for me to enjoy a science fiction movie. I loved both the original Tron and its sequel, and while neither one is all that deep, they’re both gorgeous. The design is a huge part of Andrew Niccol films like In Time, and the only thing I enjoyed about The Host. Besides, half of what passes for big ideas in sci-fi are awkwardly-executed clichés — The Matrix is a serial offender — and if big ideas are really essential you’ve gotta hate Star Wars.

So no, Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion is not really a big-idea movie. It is, however, a gorgeous film. And, in the absence of any howlers that fundamentally derail the plot, it’s not particularly stupid either. A decent story — if not a very original one — strung through beautifully glossy production design makes for a couple hours of solid entertainment.

As to the story, there’s been a war with an alien invader, and Earth has won a Pyrrhic victory; the enemy has been largely defeated, but the planet has been left all but uninhabitable. Most of humanity has evacuated to Titan, with just a small mop-up crew left to tend to the massive fusion reactors turning seawater into energy to be sent to the colony. The operation is run out of a giant tetrahedral space station called “the Tet”, with actual hands-on work being handled by the married team of Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). Victoria stays in their tower base, coordinating communications with their mission commander, Sally (Melissa Leo), while Jack flies down to service malfunctioning guard drones.

But there are still “scavs” — enemy forces living on the scorched Earth and causing trouble. Jack and Victoria have had their memories wiped to provide operational security, though Jack finds dreams of the old Earth he’s only seen in pictures leaking through. He is, you might say, saturnine about the prospect of leaving Earth for Titan. But it’s not until he discovers a scav homing beacon that brings down an old Earth spaceship that things really come apart. For in the wreckage of the ship he finds Julia (Olga Kuryalenko), who he recognizes from his dreams.

The story does basically hang together, though it’s not the tightest out there. There are a lot of loose ends that get explained away in an infodump near the climax, and even after that some of the setup doesn’t quite make physical sense. The main thrust is pretty straightforward, and the one big twist is all but lifted wholesale from an admittedly better movie which even naming here would constitute a spoiler. This is not intellectually challenging fare.

But what Oblivion lacks in originality it more than makes up for in design. Kosinski works with two of his Tron: Legacy crew: production designer Darren Gilford and cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who just won the Academy Award for Life of Pi. Jack and Victoria’s quarters, Jack’s ship, and their drones are all slick and clean, while the scavs provide a wonderfully gritty contrast. The team has taken and remixed the best parts of many other visually brilliant sci-fi films, not least of which is Kubrick’s 2001. Then it’s all shot in the middle of the Icelandic summer for some of the best and brightest scenery in the whole post-apocalypse genre, not to mention the fjords made up to look like the buried remains of Manhattan skyscraper canyons. And I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up the score produced by M83, which takes clear inspiration from Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy soundtrack with more than a little Vangelis in the mix.

I suppose the upshot is this: Joseph Kosinski makes gorgeous, slickly-produced sci-fi with mostly solid but not particularly original or inventive scripts. If you really want deep thoughts there are better films out there. If you want more action there are plenty of others that will deliver. But there are few others quite so pretty as what Kosinski and his team are turning out.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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