Short takes: ‘Oblivion,’ ‘Redline’ and ‘Lifeforce’

November 9, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 9, 2019

One could be forgiven for having forgotten Tom Cruise’s 2013 action vehicle, Oblivion, which sank into — well, you know — seemingly within days of its release. This was somewhat unjust, as the movie turns out to be a pretty zippy science fiction actioner.

Cruise stars as Jack Harper, technician for — tower? sector? something, anyway — No. 49 on post-apocalyptic Earth in 2077. As he explains in the opening narration, humanity has survived an invasion by a mysterious alien race, but only barely. Earth is in shambles, in part because the aliens smashed the moon, causing immense earthquakes and tidal waves, and in part because humans used nuclear weapons, converting vast swathes of the planet into radioactive wastelands.

What’s left of the population has decamped to the Saturnian moon of Titan as massive hovering machines rehabilitate the home planet. Harper and his communications officer/controller, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough, also of Birdman and the Nicholas Cage vehicle Mandy), who have had their memories wiped, help guard massive installations that convert seawater to energy. These facilities and the hovering armed drones that patrol the area are occasionally pestered by scavengers, menacing remnants of the alien force who tend to stick to the shadows.

As Harper freely admits, however, none of this information explains why he has incredibly detailed recurring dreams about meeting a woman in a New York City that was destroyed before he was born. Obviously, not all is as it initially appears to be…

Much of the fun here, of course, is figuring out along with Harper just what is going on. (Without giving too much away, Oblivion borrows more than a little inspiration from The Matrix.) The affair begins largely as a two-character play, with glimpses of the “scavs” and appearances from a supervisor in Earth orbit named Sally (Melissa Leo of The Fighter). Then Harper rescues a mysteriously familiar woman (Olga Kurylenko, probably best known for her turn in the 2008 Bond movie Quantum of Solace) whom he revives from suspended animation after her ship crashes to Earth.

Later we get Morgan Freeman, in a largely thankless role as Beech, attempting to emulate Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus with a haircut, costume and sunglasses that are all inferior to those sported by the iconic character from the Matrix trilogy; Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister in HBO’s popular Game of Thrones fantasy series) also shows up as Sykes, a glowering heavy who’s ill disposed to Harper.

The movie is competently directed by Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy and the forthcoming Cruise vehicle Top Gun: Maverick) from his own graphic novel; Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt, a.k.a. Michael deBruyn, (the latter of whom wrote Little Miss Sunshine and co-wrote Toy Story 3, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire). The pace falters around the three-quarters mark, as the characters explain (if not overexplain) some of the past, but things pick up again for the finale.

Oblivion, which was made for an estimated $120 million and grossed a little more than twice that worldwide after bombing domestically, features some strong design, costumes notwithstanding; the drones almost become characters in their own right, and the bubbleship in which Harper travels is a true marvel. Oblivion is a bit too derivative to be a great movie, but it’s definitely an enjoyable one.

Redline, the 2009 animated feature directed by Takeshi Koike, features a very different milieu than Oblivion. Humans and aliens and cyborgs share the galaxy more or less peaceably; a good many of them are fans of Redline, the anything-goes race that’s staged every five years.

The movie is pure adult cartoon, with all the good and bad that implies. The protagonist is “Sweet” J.P. (Patrick Seitz in the English adaptation), a young guy with a massive front-thrusting pompadour who goes by no other name that I caught; he drives a souped-up yellow TransAm that can more or less hold its own with much larger rocket-propelled wheeled machines.

J.P. fails to win the Yellowline, which would have gained him automatic entry to Redline; however, he winds up qualifying on a technicality after it’s announced that the titular race will be staged on Roboworld, which has announced its intention to kill all the contestants.

With the not-quite-constant aid of his mechanics, the mob-entangled Frisbee (Liam O’Brien) and the cranky crazy-limbed Old Man Mole (Steve Kramer), J.P. prepares to make a run for the Redline championship while also courting his pixyish blond rival, Sonoshee McLaren (Michelle Ruff). Forgive this awful pun, but the movie is a bit racy — we get to see the bare breasts of Sonoshee and two other racers.

Very little here stands up to the harsh light of logic, but that’s not the point. The thing to do is sit back and watch the show as the rocket-cars haul ass across a hostile landscape and the bad guys, led by Roboworld’s maniacal president (David Lodge) and Colonel Volton (Jamieson Price), chew scenery. If viewers switch off their brains, they’ll likely find that Redline — written by Katsuhito Ishii, Yoji Enokido and Yoshiki Sakurai, with an English-language script from Alexander Von David — is a real hoot.

That’s also true of Lifeforce, the 1985 directorial outing by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and sequel, the Stephen King TV adaptation of Salem’s Lot and the original Poltergeist). Admittedly, this science-fiction horror B-movie is much darker fare than Redline. As the film begins, Churchill, a joint British-U.S. expedition to Halley’s Comet, discovers a weird mostly dead spaceship. It contains some eerie, frozen and quite large batlike creatures as well as three perfectly preserved naked humans — two men and a woman — in what appears to be suspended animation.

A few scenes later, an apparently vacant Churchill approaches Earth. We find that everyone aboard appears to have been killed by a catastrophic fire, although the three slumbering comet travelers seem to remain in perfect condition. The heads of the European Space Agency, doctors Bukovsky (Michael Gothard) and Fallada (Frank Finlay), have the comet sleepers taken to London, where they come to life and start draining the, well, lifeforce of various surprised Britons.

Belatedly the Brits learn that Churchill’s commander, American Air Force Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback, later to play the title role in Ed Gein), has landed in Texas in an escape pod; he’s flown across the pond and is asked to explain what became of Churchill and how to hunt down the naked space girl (as the character is credited) who is stalking across England. Carlsen, who sweats a lot in his sleep, can’t shed much light at first, but then he’s hypnotized and begins to show a certain talent for telepathy.

Space girl’s main hunter, and therefore Carlsen’s colleague, is Col. Colin Caine (Peter Firth) of Britain’s elite Special Air Service, a sort of calm, disciplined Watson to Railsback’s wild-eyed and strangely intuitive Sherlock Holmes. Their quest takes them to a remote insane asylum headed by one Dr. Armstrong (Patrick Stewart, billed fourth despite having a limited role). In perhaps the movie’s most interesting scene, we see Stewart’s mug swapped with that of the space girl (French actress Mathilda May, at first nude, making a not-very-talkative English-language debut). Later, we’re treated to a climax in the iconic St. Paul’s Cathedral as vampire-zombie hybrids ravage London.

The movie is based on Colin Wilson’s 1976 novel The Space Vampires (his 51st book!) and was adapted for the screen by none other than Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Blue Thunder, Screamers) along with Don Jakoby (Blue Thunder, Arachnophobia, Vampires). Lifeforce is sheer nonsense, genuinely spooky at times and outright goofy at others. The entire exercise is elevated by a fine British cast and enlivened by special effects that range from impressive to cheesy. I watched it on a stormy Halloween night while suffering from a cold, and it was perfect for that.

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