Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Oblivion: a world so devastated, there's nothing left but Tom Cruise(s).

Aliens, as I have had occasion to mention before, are dicks. It takes so much energy to move a worthwhile amount of mass from one star to another that there's no conceivable point in doing it; if you can get hold of that much energy, it makes more sense to use it to solve your problem wherever you happen to be. Yet, time and again, aliens come and invade Earth to get something which they could have got for a lot less trouble by just staying where they were. Thus, aliens are dicks. Incredibly rare element which only earth has? don't be stupid. If you've got the energy to move from star to star, you've got the energy to synthesise any element in creation. More lebensraum? Build it in orbit round your own star. And so on. So if aliens come and invade earth, it's because they're assholes doing it for the laughs.

It's worth bringing it up again, because the aliens in Oblivion aren't just dicks, they're incredibly spiteful dicks. We get introduced to them via Tom Cruise giving us a voiceover, as he explains that sixty years ago, aliens showed up, blowed up the moon, trashed the planet and attacked the human race to the point where the humans nuked the earth and headed off to Titan to wait out the fallout. Tom Cruise is now the last man left on planet earth and his job is to maintain the drones which patrol the ruins and safeguard the vast fusion power plants which are sucking up the earth's oceans and pumping power to Titan for the new world they're building there. Now, the background in SF movies is almost invariably hokum which doesn't make a button of sense, but not even Tom Cruise's character sounds as if he's buying this story. The only way to have made it sound less credible would have been to skip the voice-over and show the audience a huge blow-up of an email which began "Greetings, beloved sir. I am Lawyer Gregory Plantagenet, Barrister, a solicitor working for the Nigerian Bank of Alien Invasions….".

As I said, alien invasion? There's no plausible business model. Aliens can blow up the Moon, but the downsized 2017 Earth nuclear arsenal trims them back to nuisance level? The whole planet's patrolled by hundreds of drones, but they need just one (1) repairman? Repair drones are impossible? Humanity's figured out how to transmit power efficiently from Earth to Titan despite the fact that Saturn is so far away from Earth that even if the Earth sea was putting out the same amount of power as the Sun, the Sun would still be a better deal since it's on fire anyway. And, oh yeah, Saturn is right beside Titan and is pretty much MADE OF hydrogen and helium, thus a far better site for a fusion power plant than Earth. And best of all, Tom's character Jack Harper had had his memory wiped so that the aliens can't find their way to humanity's final refuge in Titan, despite the fact that the human HQ is an orbiting four-sided dice so big that it's visible from ground level, and that's beaming out a focused beam of energy towards wait, that's no moon. No wonder Jack Harper thinks there's something not quite right here.

Because all SF movies either hide the plot behind a screen of explosions or pull away the curtain in Act 2 to reveal that their bullshit is not what it seems, it will come as a surprise to no-one to hear that all is not what it seems. For example, that's Andrea Riseborough as mission control, when I was sure it was Emily Blunt, who fortunately had better things to do. Anyway, in a development which will astonish no-one following Tom Cruise's personal life, it turns out that he's been brainwashed to believe in a race of entirely fictitious space aliens, while in reality being the unwitting pawn of apparently human but actually much more alien malevolences. In a further development which makes it seem almost as though Tom Cruise is bending reality to his dreams, the whole world is carpeted with Tom Cruise clones, which is the point where we cross over into aliens aren't just dicks, they're downright spiteful.

The vast four sided dice (in a nod to the notion that there might just possibly be some people in the audience who haven't played D&D, everyone calls it the Tetrahedron) is actually some kind of weird alien intelligence whose preferred mode of engagement is to make multiple photocopies of the first passerby it finds (Tom Cruise), and then send them to invade the poor old host system on its behalf. Since the Tet can also make drones in truly industrial quantities, only playful malevolence can account for the preference for using clones, but it does give Tom a truly gratifying moment where he gets to sacrifice himself for the good of humanity while completely surrounded by copies of himself, also getting sacrificed for the good of humanity. Had the malevolent intelligence been slightly less of a dick about the whole plan, the invasion would have been safe. There you go, it always pays to be no more unpleasant than you absolutely need to be.

I have to admit, some of this surprised me, largely because I had been assiduously prepared by the trailer to expect that this was an adaptation of Tom's risible Samurai movie, and a million other dumb flicks where a lone hero realises that he is happier among the savages and rises to become their leader and saviour. Oh damn, I hope you've already seen Avatar, I don't want to give away the plot or anything. So when instead the movie spent its whole first half just following Jack Harper round his dreary life of drone repair and stiff dinners with his mission controller/wife, I wasn't getting what I'd teed myself up to throw popcorn at.

Oblivion takes its own sweet time to get to the point, is what I'm saying. And in other hands, that could have been fun. Even if I did spend the whole movie thinking she was Emily Blunt, Andrea Riseborough's actually pretty good as a repressed brainwashed clone, perkily staying chipper for no apparent reason. And there's something interesting about the underlying conceit; Harper's haunted and confused by his memories, unable to figure out who he really is, and setting himself up for a real crisis of identity when he gets to find out he's just a photocopy. Trouble is, Tom Cruise has too many miles of cocky smartass in his rearview mirror to convince as someone troubled by self-doubt, so that never gels. For much of the movie, the bobble-head mascot on his cool aircraft dashboard has a more nuanced personality. This movie also has Morgan Freeman in it, phoning it in as openly as I've ever seen him, and Nicolai Coster-Waldau taking a break from Game of Thrones and effortlessly out-cooling Tom in every scene even though he's got less dialogue than several of the props and they made him wear a pony tail. It also features Olga Kurylenko, who gets to react a lot and wear more clothes than she usually does, which is progress. Up to now she had to choose between clothes or dialogue, but she actually gets both this time.

It's all based on a comic book, a trend becoming so prevalent that it's only a matter of time before we get government policies based on comic books, assuming that isn't already the case. I did find myself wondering if the comic book faked out the tragic self-sacrifice climax quite as comprehensively as the movie did, or if that was Tom Cruise insisting that if he couldn't get the girl at the end, at least one of his clones would. 

If you were feeling like being openly cruel to liberal friends, you could recommend that they go and see this movie, since it contains a meditation on the character of identity and personhood, and the villains are drones, the mechanical hate figures of 21st century post-colonial warfare. In fact the drones are kind of loveable, because the prop designer made them look like scrunched up angry smiley faces with glowing red eyes, but I'm sure that's not supposed to be my take-away from the movie.

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