Oblivion ***

The future of mankind is ripe and fertile filmmaking ground, always holding some potential intrigue and hopefully throwing up new questions about our possible destiny. The latter is a must in the sci-fi genre, but not to the extent that some questions leave you unnecessarily hanging, in terms of simple plot explanation.

It’s true to say Tron Legacy director Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion starring box office biggie Tom Cruise is very much an homage to all sci-fi greats, from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars and The Matrix to RoboCop, even mirroring Disney’s WALL-E with its strong environmental issues. Stylish and slick production design aside, it’s very much a case of déjà vu, turning into a ‘spot the original trope’ game. At least Cruise fans get value for money as the dedicated actor delivers an equally dedicated performance once again that’s hardly surprising.

Cruise is probe engineer Jack, living and working alongside partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) as an ‘affective team’ tasked with making sure battle-scarred and decimated planet Earth provides the last of its natural resources to the surviving population living in space. However, Empire State Building flashbacks, the harrowing rescue of crash victim Julia (Olga Kurylenko) and an encounter with the supposed ‘enemy’, the ‘scavs’, an underground group of resistance fighters, starts Jack questioning the real reasons behind extracting the remaining resources, as well as his own purpose.

Oblivion has an entertaining, timeless and ethereal quality to it that 2001 did, as well as a sinister, computerised control freak at the helm (voiced by Melissa Leo), pulling mankind’s strings and meddling with minds. What starts out as a foreboding viewing experience with all the mysteries intact and yet unexplored, plus Cruise as Jack, our willing and capable guide, begins to lose steam during its two-hour-plus run-time as you struggle to get past a mash-up role call of elements of legendary sci-fi flicks, all the while waiting (and longing) for some originality that would allow this film to join their ranks.

Even the true value and mindset of the ‘enemy’, led by the wise and all-knowing Beech (Morgan Freeman), feels inadequately underdeveloped, cultivating in the usual ‘safe’ monologue from the leader as to their journey and their goal, while visually, smacking of a re-worked version of Terminator films that depict the underground plight of mankind post the apocalyptic man-verses-machine nuclear war.

Admittedly, Kosinski is a big fan of gadgetry (and his love of bikes), allowing his agile A-list star to show off his acute action hero skills that made him a hit in Minority Report and Mission: Impossible. The writer-director also doesn’t miss a trick in reminding us of the importance of environment preservation and what could be lost by portraying Jack’s idyllic mountain lake hideaway that somehow has been left untouched (complete with drinkable fresh water) by the planetary conflict.

If one can get past the annoying question as to the primary reason for the systematic plundering of resources that isn’t quite satisfactorily answered at the end, Oblivion does offer another serene, futuristic outlook to be fully immersed in and simultaneously threatened by, as well as a keen platform to show off its talented cast. It’s just a shame that the script is somewhat lacking with important untied ends, sadly following the pitfalls of last year’s Prometheus. The question of mankind’s fate should always be a topic of lively debate post viewing, but not frustrated its audience. That said Oblivion is the kind of well-polished film that will undoubtedly do well, solely as it relies on Cruise to carry it up the box office chart, rather than providing a unique voice or idea.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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TRON: Legacy – 3*

The original Tron was silly, almost camp, with the programs’ skin-tight, luminous Spandex-styled suits and comical overreactions. But it was undeniably groundbreaking, especially in production design and imagination. It also helped to later produce an Oscar-winning actor in Jeff Bridges, who isn’t shy of playing an odd array of quirky characters, from Starman, Lebowski and Jack (Fisher King), to the character he revives in this latest episode, computer geek Kevin Flynn, inventor and master of The Grid and Tron. Flynn is back, but now there’s a son on the loose. But can we get exited, as we did the first time around, especially as it’s offered in 3D?

It’s fair to say that the production design on this is pretty spectacular, and at times, exhilarating to witness in 3D, especially the high-octane games sequences, when Flynn’s son Sam, played by a rather two-dimensional, but eye-pleasing Garrett Hedlund, gets beamed into the Grid and into the gladiatorial-style death event, after poking around in his dad’s old games arcade. The visuals are a sci-fi lover’s ideal fantasy – Avatar aside.

The problem is the basic CGI effects, especially on a supposedly younger-looking Bridges/Flynn as he tells his young son a bedtime story about Tron at the start, before he mysteriously disappearing from his life. The facial features are less than realistic and rather ghoulish, prompting even this critic afterwards to question whether it’s meant to be Flynn himself, or possibly, one of Flynn’s two incarnations/alter-egos, the evil Clu or Tron who have made it into the real world? But then there wouldn’t be a story, if Clu had succeeded. Therefore, a little more cash should have been spent on trying to get a youthful Bridges right, what with all the Hollywood wizardry out there now. And what about good old-fashioned make-up and prosthetics? Surely this would have fared a little better?

Even Bridges seems a trifle bored at times at being back in the Grid, delivering a confusing mix of Zen Master one minute, to superhuman being and Star Wars warrior the next in scenes resembling a Pet Shop Boys’ Go West video, particularly when Clu’s rising program army try to breakthrough into our unordered world and create order (good luck). If it weren’t for Bridges and a hilariously camp turn by Michael Sheen as the slippery underworld entrepreneur Caster/Zuse who looks like a cross between David Bowie and Mr Wonka, this film would be all lights and no action. Even the hedonistic and adventurous Hedlund – muscles, motorbikes and all – would fail to keep the interest of the youth audience for its entire duration.

What the film has in dazzling lightshows and Star Wars-styled battles, it lacks in content and purpose. Admittedly, it is a very interesting concept, in that a son-with-abandonment-issues goes back to find and confront his father, and it could have been a highly intelligent piece of sci-fi history in the making. Sadly, it’s all a little flat, and it seems to imply that who cares when we are dazzled by the imagery, which looked stunning on a standard cinema screen, let alone an IMAX one.

Throw in an attractive DNA-altered being in Quorra, played by the gorgeous Olivia Wilde, and you have even more reason to keep the geeks hooked. The problem was her ability to (warning: spoiler) enter the real world was still never fully explained, apart from some swirling DNA-style diagrams in a glass container. Also, there was something quite troublingly incestuous about her relationship with both father and son, implying ‘companionship’ of sorts with both, but with Sam getting to ‘share’ her in the end, which is very ‘arthouse French Cinema’, but just translates as seedy, here, and in such a film.

The problem with the sequel is fans of the old may not register or relate with the new – even their hero Bridges is not as enthusiastic, vibrant and verging on crazy as the younger Flynn of the 80s, almost like a burnout, former shell of himself. They won’t recognise the new 2010 surroundings either. A younger audience has been brought up on a diet of The Matrix films, so there are obvious similarities, which may prompt a blasé “seen it” attitude.

However, it is visually striking – creepy CGI Bridges aside – and super slick and sexy, transporting you into a world that is full of concepts and possibilities about a future, future time. But with all the computer and mobile technology around today, the film-makers could have run wild with their imaginations and channeled it in further to make it truly contemporary. Another real plus point is the cracking soundtrack from Daft Funk that sets off the action scenes perfectly, further energising the visuals. TRON: Legacy is like the bimbo of sci-fi films; all looks and no substance, but flatters you anyway.

3/5 stars

By L G-K