Fantastic visuals, a great soundtrack and yet another awesome performance from Tom Cruise sadly aren’t enough to elevate Oblivion’s disappointing storyline.
2013 seems to be a pioneer year for the revival of original sci-fi. Sure, we have seen instant sci-fi classics in recent years such as District 9, Inception and Looper, but in those respective years we didn’t see many attempts at creating unique science fiction films. This year is different though, for there are at least three or four original science fiction films coming out in 2013 that I can think of on the top of my head. The one I was most excited to see is Oblivion, the next project from Joseph Kosinski – the director of Tron: Legacy. Having enjoyed that film, I was eager to see how his great visual sense could be applied to something new and exciting. In the end, is Oblivion any sign of a sci-fi revolution?
The year is 2077, and it has been sixty years since a war broke out between humanity and an alien race known as the Scavengers. Humans ultimately won the war, but at a great cost. During the war, the Moon was destroyed – resulting in tectonic upheaval – and nuclear weapons were used as a last resort, so the Earth is left virtually incapable of sustaining life. In the aftermath, the survivors are either living on one of Saturn’s moons, Titan, or working as part of a massive operation to extract the remaining resources from Earth. Technician #49 Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his communication officer/lover Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are such workers responsible over drones protecting the resource extractors. Within weeks, their mission will be complete and they will be discharged to join the rest of the survivors. However, one fateful day Jack witnesses a crash landing of a spaceship named The Odyssey which is carrying human survivors. A nearby drone begins to fire upon them, and it only ceases after Jack intervenes. After Jack rescues a female astronaut named Julia Rusakova (Olga Kurylenko), he begins to unfold a sinister plot involving the truth behind the war and what needs to be done in order to finish the job.
There are definitely signs here of what could have been a great movie. However, I am very sad to report that Oblivion is ultimately a disappointment. The issue isn’t the dialogue, for Academy Award-winning screenwriters Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) and William Monahan (The Departed) penned some decent lines in the script. The problems are rooted in Joseph Kosinski’s storyline, which he adapted from his eponymous, unpublished graphic novel. I will not deny that the first 30-45 minutes of Oblivion intrigued me, because the film did indeed have me interested – partially due to the fact that there was much mystery surrounding the plot. However, once the story took many of its inevitable twists and turns, it began to lose me. What Oblivion eventually devolved into was an uninteresting, absurdly derivative, and for the lack of a better term, weird, sci-fi experiment. Honestly, it’s insane how Oblivion borrows from nearly every single popular sci-fi film out there – 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, and WALL-E to name a few. I can normally forgive this, but what’s upsetting about Oblivion is that it hardly manages to put these elements to good use. That’s beside the point, though, for the story also has major issues with its characters. Aside from Jack Harper, every character in Oblivion is unremarkable – none of them have layers to their personalities, so not only are they useless towards connecting the audience to some theme, it’s difficult to truly latch onto them and care when they become stuck in horrible situations. The last key issue with the script is that it tries too hard. I suppose that Oblivion could have been better if the story was simpler and more mysterious, but what we get here is a film with convoluted plot threads, along with odd thematic choices that are off-putting and nonsensical as opposed to thought-provoking. Oh, and did I mention that the ending is awkward? In short, the story of Oblivion may keep you entertained, but for me, I felt confused, disappointed and unsure of what I was supposed to have learned from what I saw.
At least Tom Cruise completely owns his role as Jack Harper. One can argue that he is simply playing the action hero side of himself like he does in most of his films, but in Oblivion it works like a charm. His broad range of emotion, enjoyable facial expressions and charisma all blend together for a very enjoyable experience. As for the supporting players, they are serviceable enough. Melissa Leo and Morgan Freeman have already established themselves as great actors (they’ve both won Academy Awards, after all), but I was honestly let down by how underused they were here. Andrea Riseborough also does nice work as Jack’s assistant, Victoria, for she brings genuine emotional power to some scenes and helps to reinforce the love triangle aspect of the story, although it also can be argued that she is manipulated into being a sex symbol in one brief scene. Olga Kurylenko is an interesting casting choice, though, for her performance is rather unmemorable. Her work in Oblivion is fine enough, but as opposed to Riseborough, her performance just felt stoic and bland.
The best part of Oblivion is undeniably its visuals, for there is some Oscar-worthy work being shown on screen in this film. This is of course can be expected since Joseph Kosinksi also directed the visual stunner Tron: Legacy. The film itself has a pristine look thanks to fantastic camera work, and everything is edited together nicely and lit to perfection. The computer-generated imagery is also fantastic, for throughout the entire film I was convinced by nearly every single digital creation I saw on display – chiefly the drones, which are sort of like a cross between HAL 9000 and the Imperial Probe Droids. Also, whenever there are action scenes in Oblivion, they are fun, cohesive and intense. At times it was a little repetitive to see blatant references to real-life architecture such as the Empire State Building and Brooklyn Bridge, but on the whole Oblivion has a finely detailed fictional world with high production values and truly stunning camera work. Joseph Kosinski made a smart move with Tron: Legacy by hiring electronic experts Daft Punk to score that film’s music – a truly amazing soundtrack – and he does the same here by having M83 onboard. While not as memorable as the score for Tron: Legacy, M83 still managed to bring intensity and excitement into Oblivion in many of the same ways, while also complimenting the wonder that comes from some of the visual backdrops. Unfortunately, the fantastic production values and purchase-worthy soundtrack don’t do enough to elevate the story.
I may be judging Oblivion more harshly than others, for I recognize that there is entertainment value laced across its two hour running time. For me personally, I definitely enjoyed the few action scenes, immaculate visuals, soundtrack and Tom Cruise’s performance. However, in my opinion these four elements still did not mix well enough together to improve a disappointingly weak storyline. From the trailer I definitely expected a lot from Oblivion, but what I ultimately saw was an imitative, convoluted, thematically empty misfire. If you want to see a thought-provoking sci-fi film that also has a major excitement factor to it, it’s not hard to find past examples of such films. As for Oblivion, it may entertain you, but otherwise it will likely leave you scratching your head for all of the wrong reasons.