Movie Review – Oblivion

This handsomely mounted, strangely antiseptic sci-fi opus is eminently watcheable, yet comes complete with hints and echoes of other, often better, films before it. Cruise is his typically resolute self – he never phones in a performance – and Andrea Riseborough is eminently sexy, in a thoroughly clinical kinda way, and where the story does slip into mediocrity, the visuals are stunning and more than enough to maintain interest.


– Summary –

Director :   Joseph Kosinski
Year Of Release :   2013
Principal Cast : Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Melissa Leo, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Zoe Bell.
Approx Running Time :  124 Minutes
Synopsis:  A drone repairman on post-apocalyptic Earth discovers that all is not right with his mission to protect massive fusion generators feeding power to the now off-planet human civilization. His recurring dreams of a mysterious woman lead him to believe that the local scavenger population has more than just guerrilla tactics on their mind, and the puzzle of why they keep stealing energy pods will lead to a revelation that will shake his very core.
What we think :  This handsomely mounted, strangely antiseptic sci-fi opus is eminently watchable, yet comes complete with hints and echoes of other, often better, films before it. Cruise is his typically resolute self – he never phones in a performance – and Andrea Riseborough is eminently sexy, in a thoroughly clinical kinda way, and where the story does slip into mediocrity, the visuals are stunning and more than enough to maintain interest.


We are no longer an effective team.

Regardless of what you may think of his couch-jumping, Scientology-spruiking, Katie Holmes-divorcing antics, there’s no denying that Tom Cruise is one of the gradually diminishing number of legitimate movie stars currently getting working today. In an age when fame and stardom is as transient as a Kardashian wedding, and the A-List ranking changes almost weekly, Cruise remains a powerhouse in the Hollywood firmament, mainly thanks to canny decisions in which projects he takes on, and an unwavering commitment to providing a top-tier performance regardless of the material. The missteps along the journey have largely been minor (save for Far & Away, perhaps) and the Cruiser’s personal life doesn’t appear to really have had too much of a bearing on the success of his films. Mostly. I’m not a Cruise apologist – I think the Scientology religion to be an evil, corrupting influence on many fine people who would otherwise be completely normal – and nominally I tend to overlook the tabloid junk in favor of a bias-free look at whatever films people choose to make (Mel Gibson might be a complete f@ckwit, but his films remain compelling), so I approached Oblivion not with the rambling, ranting Cruise in front of mind, but the committed, top-flight screen star he’s spent his career becoming. Is Oblivion a misstep in that career? Or is it a quality genre film that will stand the test of time, outlasting even Cruise’s Ikea-couch fame?

One of Tom's balls dropped.
One of Tom’s balls dropped.

Plot summary courtesy of Wikipedia (because I’m too lazy to type it out myself): In the year 2079, Tech 49 Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is one of the last drone repairmen stationed on Earth. According to Jack, the planet was nearly destroyed sixty years earlier, during a war against a race of alien invaders known as Scavengers (“Scavs”). The Scavs destroyed the moon, causing massive earthquakes and tsunamis, and then launched their invasion. They were only defeated by the use of nuclear weapons, which left most of the planet irradiated and uninhabitable. The few surviving humans migrated to a colony on Titan, which is powered using energy harvested on Earth by giant ocean-borne power stations that generate fusion power from seawater. From Tower 49, a base standing above the remains of the northeastern United States, Jack and his partner and lover Victoria “Vica” Olsen (Andrea Riseborough) work as a team to maintain the autonomous drones that defend the power stations from the few remaining Scav bandits. They receive their orders from Sally (Melissa Leo), their mission commander, who is stationed on the “Tet,” a massive tetrahedral space station that orbits the Earth. Jack flies recon and repair missions to the surface, while Vic supervises from Tower 49. The two expect to leave Earth and join the other survivors on Titan in two weeks. Although Jack and Vic had their memories wiped five years prior for security purposes, Jack has recurring dreams about meeting a mysterious woman at the Empire State Building in a time before the war, which occurred before he was born. Additionally, Jack keeps a secret retreat in a forested area he sometimes visits. A Scav signal beacon transmitting coordinates is followed shortly by the crash of a pre-invasion American spacecraft. Drones come and kill much of the crew, but Jack rescues a woman, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), recognizing her as the woman from his dreams. Julia says her ship—the Odyssey—was a NASA mission, the objective of which she refuses to reveal, and she and Jack retrieve the ship’s flight recorder. They are captured by Scavs, who are revealed to be humans living in an underground stronghold. Their leader, Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman), claims that the alien invasion was a lie and demands that Jack reprogram a captured drone to destroy the Tet by delivering an extremely powerful nuclear weapon. When Jack refuses, Malcolm releases the captives but urges them to seek the truth in the so-called “radiation zone” that Jack is forbidden to enter.

The look of angry lust.
The look of angry lust.

Science fiction is easy. Set your story in the future and that’s all you need to qualify. Add in some laser beams, or some advanced technology that we currently do not possess, and you have a film marked as “science fiction”. Quality science fiction, however, is a lot harder. Expecting techno-babble and future speak to cover plot deficiencies, or a smattering of cool futuristic CG effects and a post-modern electronica score to paper over issues with the characters, in today’s modern cinema-blogger world, will see you ultimately fail. While audiences of decades past might have overlooked issues with character and story development in favor of whizz-bang effects, modern audiences are a lot less forgiving: we expect Citizen Kane with our Star Wars these days, and anything less is usually met with fanboy derision. Joseph Kosinski, the director of Oblivion, came to world attention with his sequel to Disney’s Tron, Tron Legacy, a few years ago. Tron Legacy was more science fantasy than fiction, although the success of that film gave him leverage to helm Oblivion, and the resulting film is, by and large, quite good.

Look grandad, I'm not going to stand here and look like this any longer. I'm going back inside to make a sandwich.
Look grandad, I’m not going to stand here and look like this any longer. I’m going back inside to make a sandwich.

And by good, I mean it’s not jump-out-of-your-seat great. Oblivion has problems, sure, but on a purely popcorn level, it’s adequate enough to not be a total dog. Kosinski’s a director of definite vision for his films, and you can see it leeching out of every frame; both Tron Legacy and Oblivion are shot with that crisp, assured visual acuity I admire about Zack Snyder’s work – every frame is dazzling and beautiful, even if the story and characters feel uninspired. I know, a film needs to be more than just beautiful (after all, it’s only skin deep) but Kosinski’s palette and crisp, brisk cinematography give Oblivion a definite sci-fi edge. It’s just a shame the story can’t quite match the look of the film.

And you thought Windows 8 was bad....
And you thought Windows 8 was bad….

The film has been derided in many critical circles as being somewhat derivative of other genre films, and in many respects, those issues are correct; Oblivion has elements of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Independence Day, Waterworld and even Duncan Jones’s Moon (and those are just the parallels I spotted on first watch), but one must ask just how different a film can be when the ones it appears to have cribbed from are landmarks (in most respects) of the genre? The film is based on Kosinski’s own graphic novel, and while one might notice similarities to other films, I think Oblivion is unique enough in its own right to warrant discussion on its merits. The script, written by Kosinski, Kurt Gajdusek and Michael Arndt, isn’t what one might term “flabby” – it gets to the point, has minimal tolerance for humor (which is probably why a lot of people had mixed feelings about the film) but also has a predilection for exposition that comes out of nowhere. Once Jack is captured by the Scavs, and meets Beech, there’s a lot of mumbo-jumbo approaching Morpheus-levels of obscurity, that threatens to overwhelm the movie. Morgan Freeman’s character is particularly thinly developed – he’s the obligatory father figure of the surviving Scavs, and it’s a shame he wasn’t developed further because Freeman deserved better. Still, it could be worse.

When Ikea take over the world, everything will look like this.
When Ikea take over the world, everything will look like this.

Cruise, as Jack (his second Jack in recent times, after Jack Reacher) is – as expected – solid in the leading role, and as such is given the bulk of the emotive and dramatic content. His arc, from the whisper-dreams of Julia and he on the Empire State Building, to the unexpected revelation about the radiation zone (although, come to think of it, it’s a revelation that isn’t really unexpected considering viewers will be suspicious of “exclusion zones” in sci-fi) to the final fate of his character, is fairly rote, although Cruise imbues his character with enough latent charisma to overcome many of the scripting and narrative shortcomings. His main cohort in Oblivion, Andrea Riceborough as Vica, has the ice-cool yet fragile-under-emotional-strain down perfectly, she’s sexy as hell when required and coldly snarky when things go wrong. Riseborough lacks the meat in her role to really deliver a solid performance, but her rapport with Cruise is genuinely pleasing to watch, even if her character suffers from a lack of background information. What little background we get on both Vica and Jack comes well into the final act, and while it’s an “ohh, so that’s what it’s about” moment, the previous hour or so of film hasn’t built up the reveal well enough to make much impact.

I'm sorry, but that singlet is distracting me.
I’m sorry, but that singlet is distracting me.

Olga Kurylenko, one-time Bond Girl and co-star of films such as Hitman, Centurion and Erased, is beautiful to look at but weirdly distant from the emotional connection needed with Cruise. It’s a shame her character, which needed to be stronger than the minor-supporting-role she’s given, is so lifeless and ambivalent, because the mystery surrounding her arrival via the crashing pod is one of the better elements in the film’s narrative. Melissa Leo plays the on-screen display of Sally with that wanna-punch-her-in-the-face distance of somebody living the high-life, and while it’s a nothing role, Leo is delightful as the cheesy “mission control” with ulterior motives. Watch out also for minor roles to Game Of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as one of Beech’s lieutenants, and stunt-woman poster-girl Zoe Bell as a rebel fighter.

I've got nice.... shielding...
I’ve got nice…. shielding…

Joe Kosinski directs this film to an inch of its life – it’s simply gorgeous to look at, and the production values are nothing short of spectacular. The set design – particularly of Tower 49 – is sublimely cool, and evocative of an almost Kubrickian spartan futurism. The visual effects are seamless, and at no point do you ever feel like you’re not living within the world the film presents. The editing is slick and effective, the camera shots are – like Tron Legacy – perfectly framed and designed to a T, and the thunderous musical score once again evokes Tron Legacy’s electronica for rattle-crash aural pleasure. The story moves briskly, which I think allows the deficits in the writing to be minimized to some extent, although the expense of brevity results in a less cohesive narrative outcome. Kosinski might have been wiser developing both Jack and Vica, rather than predominantly Jack (although no doubt Cruise played a part in that) but as it stands, there’s nothing eye-clawingly bad about the movie.

Sittin' on top o' the world, ma!!
Sittin’ on top o’ the world, ma!!

Oblivion will never be regarded as a classic in the vein of the films it so obviously cribs from. While I’m not adverse to a director paying homage to other genre pieces in small ways, to outright plunder other films’ concepts and rework them into your own film does smack a little of plagiarism. Kosinski has influences from the films of his generation, of that there’s no doubt, and I would go as far as to say that Oblivion’s major detraction is in its innate refusal to offer something we truly haven’t seen before, in spite of its Cruise-centric storyline; instead of just throwing up a hodge-podge of recycled ideas with a new coat of varnish to make them look shiny. Oblivion stands by itself as a good film – not a great one – and for those seeking a bit of harmless entertainment, there’s a bit to enjoy; for those hoping for a more intellectual ride into sci-fi, you’ll be disappointed. Still, Oblivion is enjoyable for the performance of Cruise, and the absolutely beautiful way Kosinski has filmed it.


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7 thoughts on “Movie Review – Oblivion

  1. With the feeling that there are never enough science fiction movies out there I have to say that this one might not be amazing, but overall quite a good time.
    My recent post The Crash Reel (2013)

    1. The more I think about this film, the more ambivalent I am to it – it just felt flat, almost "constructed" rather than moulded and created. Still, for what it is, it's pleasant enough….

    1. Glad you liked this one, Ruth. I really had hoped to be impressed with Oblivion, but visuals aside, it's nothing special. The film needed a better story – or just better ideas – to make it truly memorable. It didn't deliver.

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