By Bob Clark
For the past thirty-odd years or so, we’ve seen a great many directors rise to feature filmmaking through the gruelling creative workshops of making commercials and music-videos, and a couple of these directors have even been good. The obvious examples that spring to mind are Ridley Scott and David Fincher, guys who cut their teeth on television and special-effects in background roles before rising to the lead position on ads for computers and luxury cars and shorts for MTV, the necessary quick editing and flashy imagery of those bite-sized units of visual information becoming vital instruments in their gradual assimilation into theatrical cinema, both of them becoming pioneering figures of world-building and digital filmmaking. As directors, they benefited greatly from the periods they rose up in– Scott coming to prominence in the 70’s and 80’s when so many of the polished production genre and period pictures he gravitated to were still fairly novel and open to interpretation (Alien and Blade Runner have both proven at least as influential to the longstanding trends in science-fiction as any big or small-screen franchise with the word “star” in its title), and Fincher coming of cinematic age in the strange confluence of independent and studio-driven hard-R sensationalism of the 90’s (it’s hard to imagine as willfully antagonistic of audience expectations as Se7en even being conceived of, let alone greenlit, in the gore-drenched, but thematically rote horror cinema of today).
We’ve seen more migrate from the short forms on the small screen since then, the ones with the highest profiles mostly coming up with middling results– in many cases it’s sad to observe that oftentimes a director’s best work might be a mere commercial (Michael Bay’s Got Milk? ad) or music-video (Madonna’s Bedtime Stories, courtesy of Mark Romaneck). And though most of these directors have climbed into the major leagues during the same era as Fincher, they’ve achieved more of their successes during subsequent periods in which studios have shown less and less courage and imagination in the projects they push through the system– it’s truly depressing when you can look at projects as creatively barren and philosophically offensive as Armageddon or Bad Boys and see them as relative high-water marks in the overall career of a filmmaker which includes The Island and three Transformers movies (and counting). A sad truth for any director looking to work in high end productions is that much of their output is not truly going to be representative of their talent or personal choices as a whole, but instead will also at least partly be reflective of the commercial landscape that they come to bear in (one of the reasons the Movie Brats were able to get away with as much as they did in the 70’s is thanks to studios being bought by corporate types who didn’t yet know how movies really got made, and therefore didn’t know to get in the way). As such, it’s necessary to look at a director like Joseph Kosinski and be mindful of his position as a filmmaker in the second decade of the 21st century, especially when looking at his sophomore effort, Oblivion.
Like Fincher, Scott and a murderer’s row of other directors nowadays, Koskinski’s first successes were chiefly in advertising (among today’s generation of gamers he may forever be known as the guy who made the “Mad World” comercial for Gears of War). He’s shown perhaps the oddest route of many first-time feature filmmakers, essentially getting the chance to make a short-form audition piece for Tron Legacy before production actually began on the official film, showcasing finalized concept art, special effects and original-star Jeff Bridges– there were days when the best that a director might hope to win over a studio to their vision might’ve been to have an illustrator sketch or paint what they had in mind to show to the executives in charge, never mind applying the pilot-process of television to film. It’s no great slight to say that the lion’s share of the virtues of the finished film can be found in that short– the dreamy aesthetic of neon glow and mirror-sheen surfaces in the digital landscape, the perfected form of the world and action set-pieces conceived of in Steven Lisberger’s 80’s original given fluid, dynamic form in the hands of CGI wizards of today– and though the whole feature itself glides with a crystalline confidence befitting its crisp, symetrical-sharp style, it’s impossible to deny that upon repeated viewings the chinks in its armor become more apparent. Though this new film definitely counts as a step up from the cool, yet rote Tron Legacy, in no small part due to its conception as an original story from Kosinski himself rather than a pre-existing media property from the Disney vaults, it bears observing that Oblivion, for all its high points, represents many of the same flaws and faults that Kosinski’s first feature suffered from, at times exacerbated.
Like so many big-budgeted studio projects of nowadays it screams of corporate second-guessing and micro-managing, with redundant exposition and hand-holding character development running over what might’ve been self-explanatory from the film’s visionary imagery alone, especially with a story and design choices that lean heavily on a baker’s dozen of a wide range of sci-fi films and trends from the past decade. Earth lies in ruins following an alien invasion that has left most of the planet destroyed, and all but a handful of its survivors emigrating to one of Saturn’s moon while a skeleton crew headed by Tom Cruise and some posh Brit gal harvest the planet’s remaining resources and fend off what’s left of the alien menace– layer this basic premise within the nesting dolls of two or three plot twists, visual steals and set-pieces borrowed from Moon, Wall-E, three or four Star Wars and Matrix flicks and god knows how many Triple-A video games, and you ought to have a basic idea of what to expect. To a certain extent, that friction between the film’s general lack of originality and its willingness to telegraph much if not most of its surprises early on has an odd way of canceling out the problems either condition creates– it really doesn’t hurt that much to spoil or spell things out a little too clearly if there isn’t that much to spoil in the first place. All of the big reveals have already been milled over by countless other films in the past decade and beyond before this point, and as such that allows for a certain kind of visual and even dramatic polish that can be lacking in even the most critically acclaimed forebearers to this picture.
This helps underline one of the premier advantages that Kosinski may have of directors in his generation– a distinct marriage between his talents with visuals and actors alike. Though he comes to directing from an almost purely production background of CGI effects, and before that architecture (I’d like to think that Fritz Lang and Nick Ray are smiling somewhere at the knowledge that their first professions still aren’t unheard of in filmmakers today), there’s a nuance and sensitivity to the way that he guides his performers that lends a weight to the high-concept hand-me-downs that he plays with here, and makes them feel just a little more real. When Koskinski aims his attention on the unlikely love triangle that begins to form between a pair of the last humans keeping watch over the planet and a mysterious woman in standard sci-fi sleep hybernation whose ship crash lands on the surface, there’s an intimacy and vulnerability to the emotions being played with that makes the best parts of the movie something of a sly study in domesticated suburban conformity, lending genuine stakes to a story whose only other worst-case scenarios have already been dealt with by all manner of Jedi Knights, Space Marines and Johnny Five look-a-likes. Those stakes are what keep the movie going even when Kosinski pivots his direction to the more truly recycled elements in his grab-bag of pop-cultural artifacts– when you start flying past fragments of skyscrapers and national monuments buried in ice and meet up with bands of desperate rebel soldiers whose fashion sensibility seem to have stopped moving somewhere between the last Mad Max movie and David Lynch’s Dune, you stop blaming yourself for looking at your watch and timing your experience between the next predictable plot-twist and a bathroom break.
It helps the movie break even, then, that the resources Kosinski marshals and the kind of restraint with which he utilizes them help Oblivion stand out, at the very least, as an absolutely astounding piece of visual craft, the likes of which rarely gets seen even in sci-fi nowadays without all manner of impatient faux-verite visual tactics that shake and blur everywhere to disguise the lack of momentum in anything other than the hand-held camera vis-a-vis the laws of physics. There are jawdropping vistas of immaculately presented devastation and coolly lensed portraits of futuristic interiors that breathe life into the situations and their depictions that one can sometimes be superficially left wanting of even in the most original of sci-fi visionaries. Kosinski rests easier with lived-in light and color in ways that even Duncan Jones seemed a little too uneasy to get close to in the more static and set-bound contours of Moon— there’s a quality to the way that epic location shooting on Earth and even the natural skyscapes above that make the film deserving of the crisp, Tangerine Dream-style score that peppers the soundtrack, making it feel something like the kind of showcase of style that Michael Mann might’ ve been able to make in the 80’s if he’d been turned on to sci-fi instead of true-crime (well, maybe if you try extra hard to forget about The Keep). It becomes easy to look past the majority of its faults as mere inevitabilities of how studios always seem to micromanage sci-fi movies (anyone remember how fans of Dark City always insisted on watching the first few minutes with Kiefer Sutherland’s narration on mute?) and see it as maybe not the best piece produced in the genre of the past ten years, but perhaps as good as you can expect under the current status-quo. It would be nice to imagine how Kosinski might’ve fared in past generations (he would’ve made a damn good Alien film, back in the day), but at least there’s always the future to look forward to.