What science fiction does best—and I mean real, aliens-and-alternate-timelines, spaceship-y sorts of science fiction here—is unsettle us, the viewers. Not because of how terrifying everything is (although let's never forget that moment of abject horror in Alien when the alien bursts out of Kane's chest and leaves everyone screaming): that kind of unsettledness is a given.
No: when science fiction is doing its job, it leaves us feeling uneasy not about the world it creates, but about our own world—and ourselves. Sci-fi is by nature about what could be, about things that might plausibly happen, given a little bit of time and maybe a wrong turn or two in the lab. It looks at the consequences of scientific innovations, and it makes us ask basic questions about identity, institutions, societal structures, desire, morality, and ethics.
From Star Trek to Alien to 2001: A Space Odyssey and WALL-E, science fiction always works best by taking the familiar (people, places, relationships) and putting it in the unfamiliar (outer space, other planets, the future). Thus defamiliarized, we silence our reflexive reactions to ethical dilemmas and prejudices just long enough to let them sneak past our defenses like (forgive me) so many shape-shifters and make us realize that we're empathizing with a morally reprehensible action or character.
So the only real problem with Oblivion—which is a perfectly adequate, shiny Tom Cruise-driven futuristic action flick—is that it never asks us to be unsettled. In fact, it seems calculated to make us feel comfortable. How much you care about that may be worth considering. But you'll get your twelve bucks worth.
Sixty years from now, the planet has been gutted, the moon smashed, and the war lost. The humans have left the planet for the Tet, a big tetrahedronical space station orbiting the earth, and a colony on the planet Titan. The planet itself is now in the hands of a bunch of alien Scavengers, referred to in the film as "Scavs."
Just a couple humans remain—Jack (Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who live together in a fancy sleek luxury pod, complete with its own pool (great for picturesque nighttime skinny-dipping). It towers high above the devastated landscape, which, we discover, is actually the ruins of Manhattan, the tallest skyscrapers still sticking through the dust (though, of course—contrary to reason but in perfect accordance with movie logic—a broken fragment of the Statue of Liberty pops up as well).
Victoria takes care of operations while Jack flies his nifty spaceship around and keeps track of the drones, part of a plan to extract resources for the other humans. It's a good life.
Victoria and Jack had their memories wiped as a security procedure before coming to earth. They live happily, not missing home, their only link to the Tet a little screen on which their boss Sally at mission control (Melissa Leo) appears every day to ask them if they're being an effective team.
Which they are, until Jack witnesses a crash and rescues a survivor. He's startled to discover that the woman in it, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), looks just like the woman he's been seeing in snatches of what might be dreams, or might be memories. And even more startling—she remembers him, too. All on this planet is not as it seems.
Writer-director Joseph Kosinski, who also wrote the unpublished graphic novel on which the movie is based, has said in interviews that Oblivion pays homage to science fiction films from the 1970s (he also directed Tron: Legacy). He's exactly right: this movie seems to pay homage to every science fiction film from the 1970s (it is likely no coincidence that in addition to the Tron sequel, Kosinski has also been attached to not one, but two remakes of sci-fi films from that era).
And he's got the look just right, which is why you definitely should see this in IMAX. The landscapes are barren and sweeping, the vistas are super cool, the chase scenes are heart-pumping, and just wait till you get off the planet. There's also something about the eerie quietness of much of the film, the perfection of Victoria and Jack's surroundings, and the half-buried ruins of once-majestic Manhattan that recalls an earlier era of filmmaking.
That homage is the film's downfall, though: In stringing together a whole mess of familiar tropes (drones! clones! spaceships! giant unblinking red lights!), the movie forgot to actually decide what it was about. It's just a pastiche of sci-fi references and ideas, a patchwork of other movies. That's totally fine—horror films and romantic comedies do it all the time—but it keeps the movie from actually being anything more than a greatest-hits album of science fiction.
Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed Oblivion. It pushed every button I want pushed when I'm watching sci-fi on an IMAX screen. But it's also eminently forgettable, because it never asked anything of me. It just wanted to fly me around a bit. And more's the pity: with this cast, and Kosinski's obvious talent for the genre, it should have done better.
Upstream Color definitely isn't here to make you comfortable, though the blur of images and almost (and probably inadvertently) zenlike soundscape might lull you to sleep. What's actually happening in the film, though, is unclear.
Writer/director/star/distributor Shane Carruth, whose first film Primer released nine years ago to widespread critical acclaim and a Sundance win, has made a sort of small, inverted, nightmarish Terrence Malick film. What little dialogue there is happens in voiceovers and is disconnected from any obvious relationship to what's happening onscreen. Where Oblivion is a graphic novel, Upstream Color is one of those Sigur Ros songs that isn't in any language at all but sounds vaguely Icelandic: you know it must mean something, but you're not sure what.
A lot seems to happen in the movie, but the central story is of a woman, Kris (the excellent Amy Seimetz), who is kidnapped and psychically linked by a shady character the movie credits as "Thief" to a worm. She is then hypnotized into giving him all her money, and memorizing Walden, and by the time she comes to, she's lost her job, her money, and her house—and she's left in a constant dazed state.
Meanwhile, a guy called the Sampler has gotten hold of the worm and transplanted it into a pig. There's a whole herd of pigs, in fact, each linked psychically to the person who is linked to the worm (hang in there). Kris's pig becomes attached to another pig, and Kris, in real life, is attracted to that pig's man, a nice guy who also has been victimized by the Thief. They're drawn to one another, so much so that their memories begin to blur. And from there, things get inexplicable.
Primer is a terrific, ultra-low-budget sci-fi movie about alternative timelines and metaphysical impossibilities, and in a sense Upstream Color is, too. But otherwise, it's tricky to compare the two. How much you like the film will largely depend on how ready you are to try and figure it out, and how committed you are to the idea that you have to figure it out.
While you can unravel Primer with enough work and a bit of digging on the Internet, Upstream Color staunchly refuses to be untwisted. Images appear and disappear—at times, it feels not unlike the sort of videos people make with the Vine app on their phones: staggered, even surreal.
That said, it's beautiful. The shots are beautiful; the sounds are beautiful; the acting is tight and natural and even the pigs are lovely, in their own ways. Carruth has a distinct vision, and he executes it relentlessly.
In interviews, Carruth has said that his film is about that eerie feeling in which you don't know why, exactly, you're doing what you're doing—that something beyond you is guiding and affecting your actions, whether it is an unconscious belief or inborn leaning or something else. I don't know: sure, you can read that interpretation into the film, or a bunch of other interpretations, too. Or you can just choose to not read anything into the film, to let it flow over you as an aesthetic experience.
Yet you probably won't be challenged to think of your own world and life differently; there's no thesis to Upstream Color. Carruth has nothing to say about that eerie feeling—just that it's there sometimes and it can be weird. That's fine: if beautiful, well-made expressionism is what you're after, see Upstream Color. But if you want thought-provoking science fiction like Primer, you won't find it here, despite the film's premise.
So can I make a suggestion?
If you want the experience of watching really great sci-fi—if you want to be challenged, if you want moments of recognition and promptings to think about your own life along with your explosions and aliens and spaceships—you might be best off looking to television, which is a medium that really lets you track with character and story development, that can fully develop its plotlines and make you think. I'd say to start with Battlestar Galactica, the show that made a convert out of me and that's ripe with ethical, moral, and cultural questions presented in ways that force you to think about your answer. It's worth your time, and it manages to find the sweet spot between entertaining and deep.
The Family Corner
Oblivion is rated PG-13 largely for a few curse words, typical sci-fi action, and a couple scenes where characters wake up in bed together, as well as one in which a character removes her clothing and swims in the pool at night (we see her silhouetted form, but nothing else). Upstream Color is not rated, but it has some scenes that viewers may find disturbing because of kidnappings, knives, and surgical procedures involving worms; unmarried characters also sleep together, though we don't see anything.