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Posts Tagged ‘Joe Kosinski’

Waiting thirty-six years to do a sequel is fairly ridiculous – if the gap before Downton Abbey 3 is that long, it will be coming out in 2058 – but then again fairly ridiculous things do seem to be the wheelhouse of Tom Cruise these days. To be fair to the makers of Top Gun: Maverick, the inordinate delay is not entirely their fault – the film was originally supposed to come out nearly a decade a go, and was delayed by the death of the first film’s director, Tony Scott. (He has been replaced by Joseph Kosinski, who previously worked with Cruise on the good but derivative sci-fi movie Oblivion.) Then it was scheduled to come out in Summer 2019, only to be pushed back a year for technical reasons, and we all know what happened to the slate of releases for Summer 2020.

Hence the fact that the trailer for Top Gun: Maverick feels like it’s been a fixture at my local cinema forever; I’m actually slightly surprised it’s being released at all. Just let the trailer run indefinitely as a tribute to… oh, I don’t know what. It’s not a terrible trailer, after all. Anyone subscribing to the Muppet Theory (i.e. ‘everybody knows the sequel’s never quite as good’) could be forgiven for the odd qualm as the new film taxis into view – as I have previously observed, Top Gun is a bit like Dirty Dancing in that it is undeniably iconic, the subject of immense nostalgia, and not actually much good when you actually sit down and look at it properly.

The new film opens with virtually a carbon-copy reprise of the beginning of the 1986 film – same caption, same footage of planes trundling around on a carrier deck, same austere bonging on the soundtrack. This is a bit of a cheat as the aircraft carrier doesn’t properly feature in the film until well into the second hour. It soon becomes clear that, rather than flying a jet fighter off a warship, these days Tom Cruise has been assigned to Area 51: not because that’s where all the weird alien life forms get sent for examination, but because he’s now a test pilot for the Very Fast Planes Indeed Project. Here he promptly ticks off Admiral Ed Harris for flying one whole Mach faster than he is supposed to.

Harris is duly landed with the thankless task of reprising the scene where he supposedly wants to kick Cruise out of the Navy but ends up sending him on a special prestige assignment instead. This turns out to be teaching at the Top Gun school where most of the original film was set. No-one is pleased to see him there except for the landlady at the local pub, and this is not because Cruise is on the booze but because they have a romantic history together. She is played by Jennifer Connelly, who doesn’t get a lot to do to keep her interested, and the script attempts to finesse the awkward issue of parachuting in a new character with whom Cruise has an established relationship by making her someone who was mentioned but never seen in Top Gun.

Anyway, Cruise is there to train pilots for a suicidal mission to bomb a new uranium enrichment centre in enemy territory, which involves zig-zagging down a valley, flying over a mountain, hitting a thermal exhaust port with a bouncing bomb, etc etc. Being Cruise he accepts this assignment without batting an eyelid, but is finally given pause when he learns that one of his trainees is the now-grown son of his former buddy Goose, whose death provided what little emotional ballast the 1986 film possessed (the gosling is played by Miles Teller, who has been issued with what’s possibly the very same wispy moustache worn by Anthony Edwards wayback in the formerwhen). Can the pilots pull together and reduce the casualty risk from suicidal to merely insanely dangerous? Can Cruise bond with with his buddy’s kid and strike a blow for human pilots in an age of drone warfare? And can the film really get away with never mentioning exactly which country Cruise and the others are bombing?

I mean, really. The first film played a kind of nudge-wink game when it came to who exactly it was that Cruise was shooting down in the climax, but the new film keeps an entirely straight face on the topic, which feels particularly bizarre given a war is now in progress in Europe in which the US is very pointedly not participating. Admittedly, the bad guys are flying Su-57s, which are a primarily Russian jet, but they also have F-14s sitting around the place. Based on the landscape it looks like the Americans are bombing Norway, or possibly New Zealand. It’s undeniably problematic – it clearly wants to be a war film but it doesn’t seem that interested in what the actual war is.

It isn’t quite enough to properly spoil a slick and enjoyable action movie, which is – and this will surprise Muppet Theory adherents, even though the bar on this occasion is very low – appreciably better than the first one. It’s not just a vacuously good-looking film about how fantastic Tom Cruise and the US Navy are; it feels like there are proper stakes, the characters feel actually developed, and there is a genuine moral premise of sorts – the idea that human character and spirit have not yet been eclipsed by technology.

Admittedly, the film doesn’t handle this theme with a great deal of subtlety or nuance – the first two thirds of the film, and the beginning of the final act, are admirably restrained and gritty and everything is quite credible. But then the plot resolves through a sequence of such jaw-dropping silliness it’s hard to believe it hasn’t been edited onto the end of the film by some disgruntled junior producer as a prank. On the other hand it does feature some superb action and one of the best air combat set pieces I’ve ever seen. But it does feel like a film that was heading in a particular, quite sombre but nevertheless satisfying direction has been hijacked and sent somewhere a bit more cheery for the popcorn audience.

So in the end this is just a superior action movie rather than something which actually functions as a credible drama, for all that it is generally well-played and contains unexpected moments of humour and genuine emotion (that said, I found there to be something inescapably awkward about Val Kilmer’s cameo). Nevertheless, as an action movie it is often properly thrilling, which is what you want from this sort of thing, and I imagine it will satisfy fans of the original film and also those of Cruise in general. How the war-film element is handled is a bit problematic, but in other respects this is a fairly impressive piece of machine-tooled entertainment.

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All right, as you probably know, I try to avoid proper spoilers hereabouts – if I can, anyway. Every now and then, however, a film comes along which it is very difficult to talk about in any detail without risking giving the game away about its story. This is particularly the case with movies which help themselves to story ideas and concepts from other (usually low-budget) films willy-nilly, presumably in the belief that no-one will notice the steal – or nobody who matters, anyway. Joe Kosinski’s Oblivion is one such movie.

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Oblivion (the meaning of the title remains somewhat obscure in the context of the film) is not a sequel or a remake of a big-name property, nor is it a superhero or TV show adaptation. This may explain why it has slipped out ahead of the pack of big summer genre movies (summer movie season now starts in late April, apparently, which is frankly absurd), even though it stars a performer of the magnitude of Tom Cruise.

Cruise has shown an interest in science-fictional undertakings on and off for over a decade now (insert Scientology joke here if you wish) and this is his latest excursion into the genre. He plays Jack Harper, a repairman and one of the very last people on Earth. A catastrophic war with invading aliens has left virtually the entire planet a desolate ruin, and the task of Cruise and his partner Andrea Riseborough is to maintain the security drones protecting a network of power rigs generating energy for a colony of survivors on Titan.

The rigs are threatened by shadowy creatures nicknamed Scavs, with whom Cruise has various run-ins when not waxing lyrical about the good old days, being troubled by enigmatic dreams of a pre-war Earth featuring a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko), or hanging about the remains of famous buildings – the Big Book of Sci Fi Cliches axiom that the more iconic a building is, the more disaster-resistant it will prove is fully in force. But then a Scav signal appears to trigger the re-entry of an ancient spacecraft, and despite being warned off by his own mission control, Cruise discovers within the hibernating form of the woman from his dreams – and she appears to recognise him…

If you are partial to SF movies, and have yourself been in stasis for the last four years, then you will probably quite like Oblivion. It looks impressive, the performances of the four leads (Morgan Freeman turns up to give proceedings some gravitas, but the nature of the plot precludes me from saying in what circumstances) are all at least solid, and for a while it seems to be riffing on ideas and images from SF movies of the early 70s with skill and insight.

That said, it’s not nearly as subtle or clever as it needs to be – a clodhopping early reference to Cruise having had his memory wiped signposts very early on that the audience is being set up for a major plot twist, and so it proves. The twist in question is effective enough, and, to be fair, it’s followed by a few more which are also decent. Oblivion is not short on cleverness – the problem is that it does have a serious shortfall of new ideas, genuine thrills, and soul, and some of the plot does strain credibility just a bit (the ending in particular is an outrageous attempt at having cake and eating it).

I actually feel a bit guilty about not liking Oblivion more than I do, because for all of this there are some genuinely great things about this film – the production design is great, the soundtrack is interesting, and Andrea Riseborough blasts everyone else off the screen, as usual. The problem is that I liked this film even more the first time I saw it, when it starred Sam Rockwell and was called Moon.

I don’t think I’m overstating things if I describe Oblivion as a gargantuanly-budgeted remake of Moon which has had various action sequences, an alien invasion, and a love story grafted onto it without a great deal of elegance. The premise, atmosphere, and even a couple of specific scenes all seem uncannily familiar. If you haven’t seen Moon, then this probably doesn’t illuminate you much – but at least I haven’t spoiled Duncan Jones’ exceedingly fine film for you. If you have, then you now have a very good idea of the direction in which Oblivion ends up going (sorry).

For me the similarities were so numerous and so glaring that they really got in the way of my enjoyment of Kosinski’s film (which, for the record, purports to be an adaptation of an unpublished graphic novel – hmmm). Others may well have a different experience, which is fair enough – there are good things going on here. But I still think that if you don’t like SF, you’re not going to warm to Oblivion simply due to the film’s premise, and if you do, its derivativeness and arguable lack of real substance isn’t going to endear it to you, either. Judging it on its own terms, this is quite possibly a better film than I’m giving it credit for – but to do so seems to me to require wilfully ignoring just what a blatant knock-off it is.

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