A Film Review and some review expectations. What do you expect when you read a book or movie review? Do you expect a blow-by-blow précis of the movie from beginning to end? Do you expect to get some kind of Olympian pronouncement of the movie’s worth from a film school graduate, or how well it was written, directed, acted and filmed? Do you want to know how it all ends, who did the dirty deeds (“The butler did it!”), who died? Do you want an opinion on whether the reviewer—be this a Siskel or Ebert or a Joe-Bob Briggs—thinks you should spend your hard-earned shekels on it? Or maybe a combination of the above?
As a movie viewer, a “spoiler” review (who dunnit, how it ends, etc.) doesn’t bother me over-much. It drives my wife crazy—many modern previews give away 90-95% of a movie in a 90-second preview—because she prefers to be surprised. Many people don’t want to know what’s coming next, so she’s not alone. As a movie (or film—it’s probably a Bad Thing, but I use the terms “movie” and “film” almost interchangeably) reviewer I don’t like to give away spoilers, and so my reviews are sometimes not as long as they otherwise could be.
As a movie reviewer, I’m not the Olympian type, generally speaking—my pronouncements are usually personal opinion, and not necessarily couched in “lit’ry” terms; I don’t lay down the law most of the time about films, or actors, because although I have seen literally hundreds or thousands of movies, I don’t consider myself the—or even an—authority on what’s good or bad. I do, however, consider myself an authority on what I like or don’t like, and will gladly tell you what that is.
So I kind of expect those things from a review. In concert with most other people, I don’t like being told what to do, or what to think, or what to like. I much prefer it when the reviewer states something as opinion rather than fact—unless, of course, we happen to agree! (Isn’t that always the way?) That being said, I have certain expectations of movies (and of books) that come from a) being of a “certain age” (older); and b) having lots and lots of experience in reading or viewing. I’ve been doing both for well over half a century, and figure that gives me a leg up in having enough experience for an informed opinion.
And because I’ve been reading, and viewing, for so many years, I take certain things for granted that might not be shared by some of Amazing Stories’ readers—some kinds of things that are acceptable or not acceptable in writing or film-making, according to an older standard. So when you decide how much credibility to apply to my reviews, you’ll know that (for example) I don’t find Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell to be funny at all. Or movies like The Hangover Part II (not that I’d bother reviewing that piece of… film even if it were a genre movie which, thankfully, it’s not) and certain badly-written series books in our F&SF genre which are wildly popular with readers who don’t have enough background to know that a) they’re badly written; b) the characterizations are terrible; and c) the ideas and tropes used in the books are not only old hat, they’re just not used well. (No, I’m not going to tell you which series I’m talking about. Ask me over a beer or something and I’ll bend your ear, but here, gentle reader, I must be kind.)
So now you know: if you don’t like what’s in my review, consider it my opinion only—and while I might think it’s a well-informed opinion, you might have the opposite reaction. That’s okay; over time you will either refine your sensibilities so that my opinions/reviews make sense to you, or you’ll just decide I’m an ignorant so-and-so and not read my reviews at all. (Or, you might find them wrong but entertaining and read them anyway.) So there you have it.
That’s a very lengthy preview to today’s review, which is of the Tom Cruise movie Oblivion, co-starring Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. As opposed to many of today’s SF movies, some of which have a subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) fantasy component, I could find no fantasy in this straightforward science fiction film. Which is not to say that all the science was spot on, however. Because it’s based on an illustrated book, and because I doubt they had either a science advisor or a very good science background, much of the “science” leaves a lot to be desired—but superficially, it looks very good. And because Tom Cruise is the main star, you know that it will be competently, if not very inspiringly, acted. Because although his range is limited, and most of his characters appear to be the same person—guess who?—Mr. Cruise (né Mapother, if you cared) is very good indeed at what he does. He may not be, as Lee Child (author of the “Jack Reacher” books) called him, “one of the greatest actors of all time,” but he is still one of the most bankable actors of our time.
The main premise of the story is this: the year is 2077–Tom’s character, Jack Harper, says that “Fifty years ago, before I was born, the alien Scavengers blew up our moon,” and the Earth underwent not only an atomic war (“We won!” says Jack), but major tectonic upheavals because of the blown-up moon. According to Jack, the remnants of humanity have been moved to Titan, Saturn’s moon, except for a few clean-up crews on a giant satellite, “the Tet,” orbiting the Earth (shaped like a tetrahedron with all corners truncated or rounded). As soon as Earth’s remaining seas—which giant flying “hydro rigs” have been sucking up for fifty years to provide energy for the colony on Titan —are gone, Jack and Victoria, his teammate, as well as the rest of the clean-up crews on the Tet, will all go to Titan and let the Earth die. (“I still can’t help thinking,” Jack says in a voiceover, “that the Earth is still my home.”)
Jack and Victoria have two more weeks on fix-up duty, then they’re off to the Tet, and presumably thence to Titan. Daily, Jack—Repair Tech 49—goes out to check the hydro rigs and to find and fix broken drones—the drones “watch everything,” including the remnants of the Scavenger army, the “Scavs”—who are still trying to disrupt operations on Earth. And Victoria (the comm tech) talks to Sally in Mission (Control) on the Tet; the conversations go like this: Sally: “How are y’all on this beautiful mornin’?” and Victoria answers, “Another day in paradise!” Sally: “Are you an effective team?” Victoria: “We are an effective team.” (This last gets repeated every time Sally and Victoria talk, making us wonder why. That gets answered later.)
One thing I wondered about very early, was that Victoria couldn’t talk to Sally when the Tet was over the horizon; even when overhead, the video feed appeared blotchy and pixelated. Hadn’t these people heard of communications relay satellites? With the tech they displayed, surely that was a trivial problem. Another thing: the destroyed moon—which you see hanging in pieces overhead—probably wouldn’t give the gravitational and tectonic destruction that Jack says it did. But I digress.
Without going too deeply into the story, for fear of spoilers, I can tell you this (since some of it’s in the previews): things are not what they seem. Jack, in spite of a “mandatory memory wipe five years ago,” is having dreams of being on the observation deck of the Empire State Building before the war, something he couldn’t have done. He dreams of a woman (Kurylenko) he can’t have known, and he’s about to find out that everything he thinks he knows is wrong. It’s the telling of that tale on which the story hinges.
Scientifically, the story’s a mess, as I’ve mentioned previously—but visually, this is one gorgeous film overall. The repair Tower (49) that Jack and Victoria are living in is clean, functional and well designed; reminding me of the movie 2001 in many ways. The station is above the clouds, and consists of several modules with mostly glass walls. The vehicle Jack drives is a “bubbleship”—a sort of dragonfly-looking flier with rotatable “jet” engines; he’s clearly not only an expert flier, but also not subject to vertigo of any kind. The special effects in this movie are flawless—I can’t find fault with any of them; furthermore, they are not the reason for the film, they are the background for it. (Counter-examples: GI Joe, Transformers, almost any modern SFX-type movie with explosions.) The backgrounds—Washington (the capitol, not the state) transformed into a wasteland of watery mudflats or mountains; the hydro rigs, the drones, everything serves the story and allows you to concentrate on the story, not “how cool that blows up!”
They don’t give the subordinate actors, except for Andrea Riseborough as Victoria, a lot to do; even Olga Kurylenko serves mainly as eye candy. I can’t talk about Freeman and the others, because that would give away plot points. Jack talks—or Victoria does—about how most of the Earth is uninhabitable because of radiation or toxins, but then he finds a little cabin somewhere that appears to be in the middle of pre-war Colorado or something. There are lots of loose ends here that don’t really get tied up; but then, somehow, the movie seems to work as is.
I won’t say it’s the best SF film I’ve seen lately—it’s certainly one of the best-looking, however; but it’s deserving of a second look if you’ve been hoping for a moderately good science fiction film to watch this summer. I’d give it a full 8 out of 10 stars, with 5 being barely watchable and 10 being something akin to Citizen Kane (but less pretentious—“Rosebud!”).
Coming up: more fanzine reviews, fannish fandom, and other stuff. Till next blog entry!