Oblivion – 70’s scifi revisited

While watching Oblivion yesterday, I was struck by how Joseph Kosinski chose the look of his post-apocalyptic world, both the landscape of Earth as well as the interiors of Tower 49 where the two drone supervisors – played by Tom Cruise (Jack Harper) and Andrea Riseborough (Victoria) – work .

Let’s start with Earth; this is a world which has supposedly been rendered unlivable after a period of conflict between the armies of Earth and alien attackers (called Scavengers or ‘scavs’). The scavs broke up the Moon (which is still visible in the night sky in the years-long process of breaking up and distributing itself into an orbital ring), which resulted in out-of-control tidal waves, earthquakes and other mayhem. The remaining population of Earth has apparently been moved to Saturn’s moon, Titan and all that remains is a collection of giant automated machines (controlled by an orbiting station called the Tet) spread across the planet to extract whatever resources are still usable, including water. But for all that, Earth appears beautiful, even pristine, and only occasionally do we see remnants of buildings, much of them conveniently underground so as to not spoil the look of the film!

Then we come to Tower #49, where Jack and Victoria live and which provides communications and navigation support to Jack as he flies around in his cool Bubbleship, locating and repairing the automated drones which fly around mopping up scav resistance. The interiors of Tower #49 would not be out of place in the catalogs of European minimalist designers (Kosinski is after all an architecture graduate). Vika’s communications center is straight out of those ‘houses of the future’ videos from Living Tomorrow and Corning doing the rounds on Youtube. So, instead of the grungy ‘used future’ look made popular Star Wars and Blade Runner, the interiors have a clean antiseptic look…the film that came to my mind was Logan’s Run (1976), although Mr. Kosinski himself refers specifically to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running as his influences. The other link with ‘70s scifi films that he mentions is the ‘lonely man’ theme, which was very apparent in films like Silent Running, Solaris, and Omega Man. I can imagine that this look in the ‘70s was necessitated by budgetary constraints – scifi films were never big money makers in the days before Star Wars – and the studios would have tried to avoid having to cast hundreds of extras. But for a modern day scifi film like Oblivion, it is a very deliberate decision to adopt that look.

And I think Joseph Kosinski has used this ‘filmic anachronism’ to plant the thought of “this doesn’t feel right” in the mind of the viewer. After the first ten minutes, one starts wondering how it is that in this age of logical storytelling where novelists and filmmakers meticulously research the science behind their stories, a film maker could design a post-apocalyptic world that looks so beautiful. And sure enough, in due course, we find out that all is not as it appears with the big reveal in the last one-third of the movie.

Overall, Oblivion is an aggregated homage to a number of influential scifi films of the ‘70s. This doesn’t diminish the quality of the movie in my opinion; in fact, this is the fun part of having more than a century of cinema behind us – being able to spot influences and styles in a filmmakers work. When I watched Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy in early 2011, I had titled my blog post as “Tron: Legacy – A Neon Star Wars?”. This was particularly evident during the dogfight sequence involving Light Jets and the shuttle. I got the same sense of déjà vu watching Oblivion during the canyon dogfight involving 3 drones and Jack’s Bubbleship. One could almost imagine that we were watching Darth Vader and his two wingmen closing in on Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing as he flew through the metal canyons of Death Star.

Coming back to Oblivion – the acting, special effects and production design are all top notch. The story has genuine depth – it could have been called “the tragedy of Jack and Julia”, no matter that the movie itself ends on a positive note. I found myself genuinely curious to know more about this world. What happened between 2017 and 2077? What about the other technicians #1-48, 50, 51 and beyond 53? What actually lies in the radiation zone? What happened to Jack Harper? Mr. Kosinski has indicated that he may revisit this world, after all it is his original creation, based on his unpublished graphic novel. Meanwhile, he is waiting for 2 scripts to be completed at his home studio Disney – a remake of the 1979 scifi film The Black Hole and another sequel to Tron – to decide what will be his follow-up film. Whatever it is, I assume there will be a dogfight sequence in it!

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