FRESH POUR: Oblivion (2013) / To the Wonder (2013)

Clint takes a look at two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal.

oblivion-poster

Oblivion / dir. Joseph Kosinski / Universal Pictures

Science fiction is an inherently incestuous medium, especially when it comes to big-budget genre flicks; homages and references to what has worked before can oftentimes be inevitable. When a film like Oblivion comes along, with nearly its entire genetic makeup being made of homages to previous films of its ilk, the viewer has a choice to make: are these homages or cliches? Does the film serve as an ode to its influences, or is it a shameless ripoff? In the case of Oblivion, I’m willing to wager the former.

The film (the second from Tron Legacy‘s Joseph Kosinski) follows Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), a drone repairman on a long-ravaged and abandoned Earth; an alien attack left the planet a wasteland, but he and his lover/partner Vika (Andrea Riseborough) remain behind to look after automated drones that look after the machines that scoop up the Earth’s remaining resources for the remnants of mankind, now safely living on Titan. Jack can’t remember anything beyond the last five years of his life, but little dreams and flashes of memory haunt him – particularly images of a beautiful brunette who seems to know him (Olga Kurylenko). As his five-year shift nears its end, however, Jack begins to learn more and more about the nature of his mission, his superiors, and even himself. To say more would be to spoil a fairly interesting series of twists, though many of them were already spoiled if you saw any of the trailers.

Kosinski’s abandoned Earth is beautiful; huge craters flatten Yankee Stadium, the Empire State Building has been reduced to a shell of its former self, and the sky is filled with both the ring-like, shattered moon and the haunting tetrahedron space station that acts as both paradise and an oppressive overseer for our protagonists. The future-tech is some of the prettiest I’ve seen in a recent film; Jack’s signature white suit and blocky, futuristic rifle are lovely, as are the design of his bubble-ship and the drones (whose sound design is comprised of a wonderfully dangerous series of warbles and sonic blasts). Kosinski seems to love creating very Euro-styled, minimalist technology, as evidenced by the ergonomic starkness of both this and his debut film. Electronica band M83 provide a wonderfully ambient and electronic score which augments Oblivion‘s adoration of 1970s and 1980s science fiction well, even if the cues are a bit repetitive and unambitious at times.

Where this film falters, however, is in its characterization and plot, just like with Tron Legacy. The homages are just fine, with everything from Planet of the Apes to 2001 to Silent Running to  Predator and much more being mined for visual and thematic cues, but the actual human beings we are saddled with sometimes come up short. I’m no detractor of Tom Cruise by any means – despite any behind-the-scenes craziness, I find him a highly entertaining actor who throws himself into his roles – but he did not impress me here, as Jack Harper is a fairly flat protagonist whose only quirks include a love of motorcycles and the forced quips he gives to his little bobble-head friend, Bob. Instead of feeling like natural affectations, they seem put-on, perfunctory (like much of the film).

I wouldn’t fault Jack for being a flat character (given the nature of his true identity, which is smartly revealed piece by piece in the most compelling moments of the film), if the other characters weren’t similarly robotic. Kurylenko doesn’t inject much life into her role as endangered survivor Julia, while Morgan Freeman is somewhat wasted as underseen and underutilized resistance fighter Malcolm Beech. The one bright spot is Riseborough’s controlled sadness and confusion as Vika; I would have loved to have seen her journey (and her exposure to the truth) played out a bit more than we are given. None of this is helped by script and editing choices that leave things somewhat weightless and blank, sometimes breezing through plot points and setpieces without giving us time to breathe.

By the end of the film, I was entertained, though not particularly thrilled and excited – in short, Oblivion doesn’t do as much with these borrowed elements as I would have liked, and I await a Joseph Kosinski film that brings as much to the characters and pacing as it does the worldbuilding itself. In the meantime, it’s still a reasonably watchable work that simply doesn’t reach far enough for me to praise outright.

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

Drinking Rules for Oblivion:

1) Drink any time you see the ‘Tet’ triangle symbol
2) Drink whenever Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) quips to his bobblehead friend, Bob (no, I’m not joking)
3) Drink anytime Jack asks a question

Finish Your Drink When:
Jack says, “Fuck you, Sally.”

to-the-wonder-poster-one-sheet

To the Wonder / dir. Terrence Malick / Magnolia Pictures

Terrence Malick’s films are more divisive than any other director I can think of; with few exceptions, you either love them or you hate them. This is mostly due to Malick’s own dreamlike aesthetic, which eschews traditional plot and characterization for overt presentationalism and a strong focus on theme to the exclusion of nearly all else. To the Wonder is no exception; it fits nicely as a companion piece to The Tree of Life (which we have covered before in our podcast), in that the film explores the nature of love, life, death and family through vagueness and visual beauty. However, while I was ambivalent about Tree of Life, I actually liked To the Wonder  quite a bit more. I am certainly open to the possibility I am simply more used to Malick’s aesthetic now, and knew what to expect, but I still believe that To the Wonder is simply a more polished, assured effort.

The film follows (as much as that word applies to a Malick film) a couple, played nearly wordlessly by Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko, as they navigate the complex and often chaotic nature of their relationship. Feelings are repressed, commitments are broken or never made, and tensions bring them together and apart in equal measure. Though Malick gives us very little to work with scriptwise, that is not Malick’s wheelhouse; his language is image, tone, symbols. What thematic content there is, the film provides us in whispered voiceover (another Malick staple) in which characters – Kurylenko, mostly – discuss their yearning for love, for belonging, etc. Malick tackles big issues in his films, and so he doesn’t have time for the nitty-gritty of naturalism and complex characterization: Affleck and Kurylenko are lovers personified, with their anxieties and simply joys being presented as universal.

Theirs is not the only journey we follow, however; the film also gives us glimpses of a lonely priest (Javier Bardem), who is frustrated at his own sadness and yearning for God to present himself to him, and at his lack of ability to deal with the troubled and the weak, who constantly look to him for solace. We also see, for a short period of time, Affleck’s budding relationship with a young blonde farmer (Rachel McAdams) during a time of separation between him and Kurylenko, showing the potential for happiness that is undone by his own indecisiveness and Kurylenko’s return.

The reason that I love To the Wonder while I only appreciate Tree of Life is fairly simple – Malick’s story here is more focused and universal, which I believe is where his unique cinematic tricks are best applied. In Tree of Life, the story stops on occasion to give us the the birth of the universe, and there are many other instances of outright  surrealism that undercut the simple aims of his stories. While these are strong themes, and Malick’s imagery suits them well, that film seems completely disjointed compared to To the Wonder. Here, the focus stays almost on Affleck and Kurylenko, with appropriate thematic asides to Bardem and McAdams. In this way, the human drama itself is elevated through Malick’s majestic visuals; I find that much more interesting than Malick’s treatment of The Big Question, which comes up short and doesn’t find a true compass.

In To the Wonder, images and symbols are repeated and contrasted: figures wandering through empty houses, tattoos on people’s chests, the rush of water over someone’s feet, the tall, ancient buildings of Paris contrasted with the empty plains of the Midwest, etc. This is how Malick speaks; not through dialogue, but through objects in space. The characters themselves are objects, avatars through which the themes are spoken. Affleck’s character is a commitment-phobic control freak, while Kurylenko is a culture-shocked woman in desperate need of excitement and Bardem is a lost soul who does not know how to help those who reach out to him. These flaws are not pitiable, but infinitely understandable; when Affleck refuses to marry Kurylenko, when Kurylenko has a one-night stand in a motel, etc., you know why without it ever being said.

It’s tough to truly quantify what makes Malick good when he really nails it, but To the Wonder captivated me with its ability to so perfectly capture loneliness and repression, and the nature of love.

Clint’s Verdict: Loved It

Drinking Rules for To the Wonder:

1) Drink for frolicking
2) Drink anytime you see a new source of water
3) Drink whenever you hear quiet narration in a foreign language

Finish Your Drink When:
You catch a brief glimpse of a hawk on Olga Kurylenko’s shoulder. (The movie’s mostly wordless, so we’ll make an exception for lines this time. That moment’s pretty cool, though.)

Next week, Clint checks out Michael Bay’s Miami Vice-inspired true-crime heist flick Pain & Gain, and likely suffers through the Robert De Niro-Katherine Heigl romantic comedy The Big Wedding!

Liked it? Take a second to support Alcohollywood on Patreon!

About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *