M83 plus the soundtrack to ‘Oblivion’ don’t quite add up

I came out of “Oblivion” thoroughly entertained, though I think the film had a lot of flaws. It’s the magical in-between of not flat-out disliking the movie, but feeling like my general values in plot and character were compromised for the sake of indulging in something lavishly beautiful. I wanted a plot, or a core, and it ended up being a film that felt only vaguely human and incredibly staged.

That’s might also be the way I’d describe how I felt about Anthony Gonzalez and Joe Trapanese’s score for “Oblivion,” with partial credit going to Gonzalez’ performing name M83. The estimated budget for “Oblivion” was $120 million, so you’d expect a musical backing just as big. But big doesn’t have to mean bludgeoning, even if it’s a clobbering in mystical, iPod-white, bleating drums and slick, metered electronica.

This is not to say M83’s trademark is nuance and the movie didn’t any room for any. I’m partial to Gonzalez’ ability to heighten the mundane. I think Trapanese’s work with Daft Punk on Joseph Kosinski’s other recent sci-fi powerhouse “Tron Legacy” actually took that dance duo’s strengths and made them into something specifically Hollywood, and in that case I liked it. And “Oblivion” had many opportunities to have a cool-headed, surgical moments with their thoughts, like when Tom Cruise’s Jack gazed out at the Earth’s altered landscape beside a potted plant, or when Andrea Riseborough’s Victoria indulges in romantic, pool-bound foreplay, or when Jack prepares to meet his enemy.

In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Gonzalez revealed that the end-result was “frustrating,” becoming a cooks-and-kitchen problem.

“They needed something bigger, more orchestral; it was hard for me to be told that my music was too indie for the film. I was pissed most of the time, but this is how it works. It’s like, ‘Take it or leave it.’ And I took it,” Gonzalez told the site.

The scale of the film, it seems, interfered with what M83 naturally does, which made it a little curious why Universal would tap him in the first place (the reach of M83’s “Midnight City” makes this less curious: youth vote). Like Daft Punk, he hadn’t extensive experience with arranging orchestras. The finished product didn’t sound refreshingly updated on his sound, but more like a mash of Hans Zimmer’s “Inception,” “Tron” and even Don Davis’ “Matrix” scores, films themselves that add to “Oblivion’s” problems with redundancy. Maybe not a problem for an over-the-top script and exponentially outstanding visual effects, except that I hear no personality from Gonzalez and Trapanese combined.

Clint Mansell found this balance of organic orchestral scale and electronic sensuality with “Pi” and, ahem, “Moon.” Air worked their wares perfectly with “Virgin Suicides,” and Chemical Brothers in terrifically buoyant “Hanna.” Thing is, these were made for a fraction of a $120 million budgets.

“I’m stressed out because I know people are going to hate the soundtrack so much because it’s different,” he continued. (Yeah, but different from what?) “People are going to expect a new album from M83, and that’s not the case. But, I’m also super proud of it because Joe Trapanese and I worked so hard on it to make everybody happy at the studio.”

And that’s the hitch: as M83, he plays for himself, he plays for his fans. For $120 million budget movie, his audience is the studio. Or at least that’s how it sounds, when you take all the damn reverb off and turn the choir down and give the horns section a break.

Gonzalez will get another shot, and play with scale again: he’s scoring a small French film for his older brother next. Hopefully that will suit him better.