Oblivion – Joseph Kosinski celebrates 70′s sci-fi. (film review)

When the New York times reviewed Logan’s Run in 1976, it had this to say:

Just why and for what particular purpose Logan makes his run is anything but clear after you’ve sat through nearly two hours of this stuff. Logan’s Run is less interested in logic than in gadgets and spectacle, but these are sometimes jazzily effective and even poetic. Had more attention been paid to the screenplay, the movie might have been a stunner. ( Logan’s Run, a Science-Fiction Fantasy, a June 1976 review from The New York Times)

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In fact, similar reviews were constructed for Blade Runner, Alien and 2001 a Space Odyssey from reviewers at the time. One of the few space themed films that didn’t get accused of sacrificing plot and narrative for special effects was the first Star Wars (every other film of the franchise was accused of this after it). Star Wars was still charged with this, however the accusations were downed out by praise. On the whole it seems as critics, lay or professional, we are unable to watch a science fiction film without being distracted by the shiny things.

At least initially. In the cases sited above – even Logan’s Run – critical opinion reversed over the years and, one presumes, multiple viewings.

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Oblivion falls into this category. I do hope Joseph Kosinski has a thick skin, because it seems almost no great sci-fi pic goes unscathed when it comes to the initial reviews.  I suspect he is prepared to deflect barbs,  because he modeled Oblivion on space themed films from the 1970′s, a wonderful decade for the genre. It’s book-ended by the great 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Blade Runner (1982), but Tarkovsky, one of the great masters of sci-fi was in his element, making Solaris and Stalker in this decade, with The Mirror in between. For  Joseph Kosinski, an obvious fan of the decade, Oblivion has been a labor of love and devotion to a period of time that fashioned him as a film maker. He was working on the script, which started as a graphic novel, many years ago as a way to “stay sane” as he called it while he was filming the surprisingly successful Tron: Legacy. With the narrative firmly in place and the fiery passion for the decade behind it, one time film maker Kosinski was able to sign Tom Cruise without even a completed script. A fair feat, no matter what you might think about Cruise.

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It’s the passion that did it.  And it is that same passion that is the reason to see Oblivion. Some of the nods are obvious, some less so, but the film is a giant thank you to the wonderful and often unfairly derided sci-fi films that gave so much to the casual, and not so casual viewer.  This was the decade for the birth of the block buster, and perhaps one of sci-fi’s problems is that the gadgetry can often make us think narrative has been sacrificed. With Oblivion this is not the case but that doesn’t save it from typical sci-fi criticism. Some reviews suggest it is needlessly complex and others that the plot twists are so obvious it renders the film soul-less. This is another common theme in early reviews of great sci-fi films – polarization. Discourse is often stating the opp0site as folk settle in to getting to the heart of a complicated film. I wouldn’t have called sci-fi films complicated, but I suppose they are, always dealing with the large question of the value of human life and what it means to be human. Oblivion follows the lead carefully and respectfully adding in a nice philosophical twist around the notion of memory that reflects The Matrix (as a kind of futuristic backward/forward flow trick because that film wasn’t to hit our screens for another 20 years after this period).  Many of the great questions sci-fi asked in the 1970′s are the same asked by Oblivion.  It avoids the spiritual/religious component of Star Wars and sticks to the sci-fi questions we came to expect from Philip K Dick stories and Heinlein books.

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Much has been made of the visuals, and they are indeed spectacular. Kosinski is an architect clearly in love with 70′s design, so the rounded bubble edged white on white we come to identify with that decade (and the one that preceded it) deliciously dominates the textural imagery that splendid cinematography makes the most of. Its a very beautiful film to watch. It adds a component not available in the 1970′s – digital camera.  Oblivion is the first film to use the Sony’s CineAlta 24P HD, which is a 4K camera with an 8K chip so it provides extremely sharp detail. Kosinski tested different frame rates and thought about 3D before deciding on 4K 2D for the film. Because of the devotion to 1970′s imagery many of the instantly recognizable shots come to life in a new way under the careful eye of Kosinski and the brilliance of Claudio Miranda’s cinematography.  It’s a powerful way to pay respect and speaks to why Kosinski chose to keep many of the homage scenes so close to the original.

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Like the films it loves, Oblivion will be adored by geeks-in-the-know initially, its cleverness unrecognizable to the rest of us for a few years, and eventually seen as an important contribution to the genre. It is a film about cloning (sorry if that’s a spoiler) that is cloned from films mostly about cloning.  Its a film about how real is a human life when it is a mere copy of so many that have gone before it;  it is a film that asks the same question about itself as a film. Oblivion is asking us if we have reached the ‘future’ and if these questions remain relevant.  In the 1970′s we thought a soul-less science would take over existence with computerized minds running the information. Do we still fear that today?  Do we ever imagine that information technology will take over the role of a human creature?  Is it already?  Are human creatures adapting as fast as we are producing the technology? What does the sci-fi film of the future have to show us, reveal to us, allow for us in order to exist? Like all great films, it asks these questions of itself as much as it asks them of ‘us’.

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