Oblivion is a very small movie executed in a very big way, and it’s somewhat puzzling as to why. A tentpole science fiction flick like this had some very big producers behind it to snag the kind of budget necessary to depict an Earth ravaged beyond recognition, and the trailers played before this movie for Elysium and RIPD (which is Ghostbusters meets MIB and can’t possibly measure up to such potential) make it seem like we’re on the verge of a real sci-fi bonanza. I’m loathe to look such a gift horse in the mouth because sci-fi movies take a lot of work to get off the ground and take even more work to do well. And Oblivion is a very well made film.
There are twists in this feature that are integral to its story, both obvious and unexpected, but the basic premise is that Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is technical support for Earth, circa 2077. There was a war between humanity and the alien Scavengers, and after the Scavengers destroyed the moon and threw the Earth into chaos, the humans won. In Jack’s present era, five years after a mandatory memory wipe, he and his communications officer Vicka (Andrea Riseborough) are in charge of patrolling for lingering Scavengers. Most humans live on the colony of Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, with Jack and Vicka serving as a cleanup crew. Vicka can’t wait to go to Titan but Jack feels bound to Earth. He doesn’t want to abandon it. And there’s something else, something not quite right…
This is one of the few films where the voiceover seems necessary, as there is a lot of exposition to get through and Jack’s wary narration colors the unease that dogs his patrols (though personally it would have been a much more soulful experience without it). The movie feels much longer than it is because of its sparse cast and its long and wandering panoramas of the desolate remnants of New York.
Credit given where credit is due, this is the first movie in recent memory whose special effects are almost universally seamless. The practical and computer generated sets are integrated very well and there is a real feeling of immersion in the obliterated landscapes. The film’s tours over this ruined America are incredible.
Jack is haunted by memories or dreams of a woman in the old New York, and Vicka clearly knows more than she lets on. And the relationship between the two and soon three of them is understated nicely but explored only barely. And such is the case for the film as a whole.
There is nothing offensively bad about Oblivion. The effects are good, Tom Cruise is a fine actor, Morgan Freeman and Olga Kurylenko are serviceable, and Riseborough gives a terrifically nuanced performance. The script is fine, there are questions left unanswered but nothing egregious. And yet I must return to my opening query, why go to all this trouble for this film?
If you’ve seen the trailers the major twist is not spoiled, and the major twist is a good one. But if you’ve seen the trailers, you already know the plodding pace the movie takes, and the major twist has no effect on that. Usually a major twist has an effect on something. Tom Cruise and his magical 50-year-old face does look a little sadder afterwards, but…
A tentpole film is one in which big stars meet big special effects for a big payoff. There are big stars in this and big special effects. But honestly, the payoff is not so big. Oblivion is a very small movie executed in a very big way and all of its beautiful scenery cannot help the fact that it’s a bland story after all.
The best contrast I can think of is last year’s Looper. Director Rian Johnson threw so much into that film, not all of it practical or integrated but running on a kinetic energy that was fun and dangerous. It was noir thriller as much as it was sci-fi, a chase and a time traveler. Oblivion is simply a sci-fi story, a tale of lost identity, pretty but not terribly interesting, not groundbreaking. Even its sudden swells of music never quite sync up with what or who we’re supposed to care about.
It’s not a bad film by any stretch. It’s just there.
Based on the graphic novel Oblivion by Joseph Kosinski, Arvin Nelson and Andrée Wallin
Directed by Joseph Kosinski
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