Monday, April 22, 2013

Does Oblivion Show SFR is Anything But?

Over the weekend, I had a real treat in viewing the new Tom Cruise SF flick, Oblivion. Despite opening to lukewarm reviews, the movie became an instant blockbuster on its premier weekend as this article highlights: Tom Cruise's 'Oblivion' Obliterates Competition with $38 Million Box Office. (Film clip included.)

I always love it when a SF is successful, but I was totally floored that the conclusion to Oblivion was not what I expected. It looked as if this story would end as so many SF seem to--with doomy, gloomy disaster. I was delightfully surprised at the twist that ascended from, well...oblivion. This high budget, well advertised flick is, indeed, a Science Fiction Romance of epic scale. And with only the kind of mind-bending finale that a SFR can deliver.

But that's not all the film has to offer.

The world building is spectacular. Taking place 60 years after "the end of the world" in 2017, when Earth was attacked by Scavs, the aliens who shattered Earth's Moon to trigger environmental disaster, upheaval, and nuclear conflict, thus ending civilization on their victim planet. Earth is a barren, cratered ruin under a broken moon, with the remnants of structures erupting from layers of ash and rock. Some of these visuals were a bit  reminiscent of Planet of the Apes.

Spacestation Tet (for Tetrahedron) offers shelter to the surviving population of Earth who have not already fled to Titan, the distant Saturn moon proclaimed as the most Earth-like body in our solar system even with it's deep cold and frozen methane lakes. The technology in Oblivion is convincing enough that suspension of disbelief is easy. I totally buy that the technology in this era could enable humans to survive on Titan. (Ah, but this is SF/R. This is what everyone is supposed to believe.)

The premise is sound and the tech is "gotta get me one of these" cool. A handful of male/female tech teams have been left behind on Earth with a mission. They live in lofty towers thousands of feet above the scorched Earth, equipped with mega-cool flattop Op Centers and amazing Bubble Ships that blend the capabilities of our beloved Firefly, Serenity, and Avatar AT-99 Scorpions, but add some really slick upgrades.

These teams are in place to tend to certain assigned water processors and the guardian drones that protect them from the nasty Scavs, who are doing their worst to destroy the drones and trash the processors. The processors are paramount to provide water for the hydrogen fuel cells supporting the Titan colony. At times, the Tech's mission takes him to Earth's surface to repair the angry-looking drones that have crashed while evading or engaging the diabolical Scavs. There are off-limit areas surrounded by electronic "walls" that define their sectors of operation on the surface.

One of these team techs is our hero, Jack Harper/Tech 49 who is paired with his communications officer/lover, Victoria. Five years earlier they were required to undergo a security memory-wipe that prevents them from disclosing sensitive information to the Scavs should they be captured. But Jack is having baffling recurring dreams of a time--and a woman--that existed before the holocaust sixty years in the past.

The Jack/Victoria team is in their operating twilight. They need only survive for two more weeks, and then their reward is to depart to Spacestation Tet and on to the Titan colony to join the rest of humanity. But then Jack witnesses the crash of Odyssey--a spacecraft with a human crew--including the very woman from his dreams. When the drones arrive to annihilate the crew, Jack is only able to save the mystery woman from being fried by the relentless drones. This is the beginning of Jack's downfall. And his salvation.

The characters are compelling. Tom Cruise is charismatic and effective as Tech 49 and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) is efficient at her job and sympathetic in her emotional journey. I'm sure there will be some protests why it's the male partner who gets to do all the gritty, adrenalin-inducing 'fun stuff' while the female remains in her cool, squeaky-clean techy tower to act as communication center and liaison with mission command. But the story wouldn't work otherwise.

The conclusion is startling. I'll spare you the spoilers, but this tale has some wicked twists, surprising turns and aha! moments. Some critics have called it predictable. I don't share that view. I knew something was up and had my suspicions, but couldn't pull all the clues together until the very climax of the story. Even so, it left one big surprise for the ending.

The story allows the audience to connect the dots. One of the things I enjoyed about the film is that it provides just enough facts for the viewer to form their own opinions about the wrap-up. Not all plot threads are tied up and force fed to the viewer in a neat, tidy package. You have to think about the outcome and the events that led to what happened...and why.

Last, but certainly not least, Oblivion shows how a romantic human connection can still take center stage over flashy tech and futuristic twists. The romance made the story, and caused the audience to long for that legendary satisfying conclusion.

Which, thankfully, it delivered.

I hope that Oblivion makes up for the disappointment that Upside Down became on the cinematic SFR front. Whether Oblivion will continue to be a success in the weeks to come is still up for grabs, but it passes my acid test of success:

Was is worth the ticket price? Yes, definitely.

Would I watch it again? I plan to.

Will I buy the DVD? Absolutely.

Now it's your turn to chime in. Are you planning to see Oblivion? Are you excited to learn it's SFR? Have you seen it already? Did you enjoy it?


  1. Arrghghh - Tom Cruise - I just can't. I really don't like to watch him.

  2. I'm not keen on Cruise BUT I enjoyed his performance in the Mission Impossible films despite that, and Oblivion sounded like something worth seeing at the cinema.

  3. Oh, and I had heard it was SFR but as usual the R aspect has been downplayed compared to the SF. Grrr!

  4. I enjoyed OBLIVION, but I wouldn't give it the glowing review you did, Laurie. On several points we might agree--the visuals were stunning--the drowned coastal cities of NY and DC, the ruins of familiar landmarks, the interior of Tet, the shattered moon across the sky--and the tech toys were lots of fun.

    But Tom Cruise just never works for me as an action hero. I'd have preferred Nicholaj Coster-Waldau in the lead role, frankly. And the women--all of them--were forced to sit in the background and watch the men be the heroes. This is the future, really?

    The romantic "heroine", in fact, has so little to do that it's hard to justify her role as an equal partner in the romantic arc. She's part of dream and memory sequences. She's the object of Jack's protection and love. But she, herself, is not active in the process, as Neytiri was in AVATAR.

    So, IMHO, this one ranked high on the SF scale, pretty low on the R scale, despite **SPOILER ALERT** the HEA ending.

  5. Sounds like a cool movie. I'll have to keep my eye out for it once it's on DVD/iTunes.

  6. Sounds like a cool movie. I'll have to keep my eye out for it once it's on DVD/iTunes.

  7. I'm not a Tom Cruise fan either, but I will be watching this movie when it comes out on video. There are other SFR titles coming out this year that I WILL be going to the theatre to see.

  8. Great post even though I had to skim it, LOL! I will probably catch OBLIVION on DVD or stream it, whichever comes first.

    I am another "non-Tom Cruise" fan and do have misgivings about OBLIVION because of that. It will be impossible for me to get past his face and into the character. But what can you do? Still, it's not enough to keep me from watching this movie.

    Donna said: "But she, herself, is not active in the process..."

    I would be *very* interested in finding out if the angle you describe was in the original story from which the film was adapted or if Cruise nudged the screenplay in that direction.

    My money would be on the latter. In terms of general celebrity image issues, I can see Cruise wanting to be the sole hero, as opposed to the dual hero dynamic found in many science fiction romance books. He's not one to share the limelight. So I'm not surprised to hear about the damsel-in-distress element (and I picked up that info from the trailer alone).

    That's the reason I'm keen to see more SFR films written and directed by women. Many women filmmakers wouldn't be afraid to give a hero and heroine equal status when it comes to saving the day. (Sure, James Cameron can do it, but he's in a class by himself and there's only one of him.)

    @Jessica Which ones?

  9. @Barbara I was surprised by the "I-won't-see-a-Tom-Cruise-movie" comments at work, and now to see them echoed here. He's definitely not my favorite hero, but I don't seem to share the shame anti-Cruise sentiments.

    @Donna I do have to agree with your comment that the heroine plays a more passive role, but on the other hand her ship has crashed God know's where (or when), her crew is dead, and she's as baffled as Jack (Cruise) about what the heck is unfolding. Her only advantage is that she has real memories instead of vague dreams.Yes, Neytiri was much more proactive as a heroine, but Neytiri was also in her own world and had a social standing among her people. Jake was the fish out of water.

    BTW, Morgan Freeman was awesome in his role, but I couldn't bring that up without major spoilers, so I didn't.

    @ Jessica The preview of coming attractions played before Oblivion had me bouncing in my seat. Looks like some great movies coming down the pike. Can I remember what they are now? Um...for the most part, no. Only the Star Trek sequel.

    @Heather Yes, only one James Cameron, but fortunately, there's also a Joss Whedon and a Peter Jackson. I do agree with you though. Would love to see more women in the big director's chair.

    Thanks also to @Rinelle and @Jessica for stopping by!

  10. I'm another "Tom Cruise - I won't watch it". And I also agree with the observation that he would insist on being the ONLY hero. It's sad, but I just can't see beyond this fellow, into the role he plays. I didn't like the MI movies (laughed out loud more than once) and his shambles of War of the Worlds... No, sorry. I can't bring myself to do it.

  11. Interesting thought, Heather, about Cruise's possible role in nixing any stronger female lead. But I suspect it has more to do with the graphic novel origins of the story. The predominantly young male audience and writers of graphic novels and video games give us movies like this (and SIN CITY and BATTLE LA and WATCHMEN and the like) with high visual content and women as secondary players. There are exceptions, of course, but fewer as time goes on.

  12. >The predominantly young male audience

    So very true. The entertainment world is still very much a patriarchy. Le sigh.

  13. Heather, your comment reminded me I forgot to comment on the surprising demographics of the audience. We arrived early at a matinee so were able to people watch as the rest of the crowd wandered in. I was expecting mainly young, mainly male ticket buyers. Nope.

    I'd say 50% of the audience was retirement-age (couples, or lone males or females), about 30% were in the 30-50 age range, about 10% were Moms with teenage kids (both sexes), about 10% were in the 18-30 age range.

    I'd say the male/female ratio across all age groups was pretty close to 50/50 and I'd guess the average age of the crowd would be around 55. It was far from what I expected.

  14. @Laurie I like to think those stats mean an increased interest in SF as opposed to people seeing OBLIVION because it's a "Tom Cruise" film. Fingers crossed!

    >anti-Cruise sentiments

    He's such a brand unto himself that I just can't get past his public persona and into his character. That's my experience with most A-list celebrities. I did enjoy his performance in Tropic Thunder, but he was buried under latex and makeup.


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