Director : Joseph Kosinski
Screenplay : Joseph Kosinski and Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt (based on the comic book by Joseph Kosinski and Arvid Nelson)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2013
Stars : Tom Cruise (Jack), Morgan Freeman (Beech), Olga Kurylenko (Julia), Andrea Riseborough (Victoria), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Sykes), Melissa Leo (Sally), Zoe Bell (Kara)
Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion is really no more derivative a science fiction thriller than most these days, it just has the unfortunate tendency of seeming to be more obvious about it. Although he originally conceived of it as a graphic novel in the late 2000s, Kosinski has managed to transform his story about clean-up workers maintaining drones on the decimated surface of Earth into a mega-budget cinematic spectacle, replete with big effects and the presence of Tom Cruise. The story is assembled out of bits and pieces of sci-fi lore, which isn’t a problem in and of itself. The genre is, like most well-worn modes of storytelling, inherently cannibalistic, and the real test is how well the storyteller puts the familiar pieces together. Oblivion is both a success and a failure in this regard, as it manages to maintain interest despite overt familiarity in virtually all areas, although its primary achievement is keeping some degree of mystery despite a marketing campaign that gives away one of the film’s best twists.
Cruise, in his first sci-fi outing since Spielberg’s traumatic blockbusters Minority Report (2002) and War of the Worlds (2005), plays a man named Jack who, along with a woman named Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), are the only human beings on Earth after a rogue alien race known as Scavengers (“Scavs” for short) destroyed the moon, throwing the planet into chaos of earthquakes and tidal waves before their actual invasion. Humankind finally turned to nuclear weapons as the only line of defense, which won the war, but left the planet largely uninhabitable. The surviving members of the human race have fled to one of the moons of Jupiter, while a few others have remained on a massive space station orbiting the planet. Jack, who does the physical work, and Victoria, who acts as a communications officer, are responsible for maintaining the technologies that have been put in place to make the Earth inhabitable again, namely giant transformers that use sea water to heal the atmosphere and weaponized drones that patrol the planet and kill off any remaining Scavs that might threaten the endeavor.
Of course, as the old saying goes, not everything is at it seems, as the purpose of Jack and Victoria’s mission is called into question by that plot twist that the trailer gives away. Pretty soon, Jack is questioning not only what he’s doing there, but who he is, thus merging the genre’s tendency toward both conspiracy theories and identity crises. Part of the plot turns on the crashing of another ship that contains a woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko), whose presence undercuts the stability of Jack and Victoria’s daily routines (in addition to being co-workers, they are also lovers). To say much more would risk ruining what secrets the film does hold, although savvy viewers will probably have it figured out pretty quickly, which saps the film of much of its intrigue.
Kosinski, whose feature debut was the visually stunning, but narratively muddy Tron: Legacy (2010), proves once again that he is an adept visual stylist. Replacing Tron’s mix of black and neon with whites, grays, and dusty earth tones, he and recent Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi) create a compelling, IMAX-ready sense of presence in the shattered remains of human society, whether it be a crumbling football stadium or the tip of the Empire State Building peaking out from the Earth (cue comparisons to Planet of the Apes’ image of a half-buried Statue of Liberty or A.I. Artificial Intelligence’s depiction of a semi-submerged Manhattan). Part of the appeal of the postapocalyptic subset of sci-fi films is the creative license filmmakers are given to envision our own destruction, and Kosinski and his team have succeeded admirably. He also again demonstrates an intuitive feel for how electronic music can enhance the otherworldly feel of science fiction, and his work here with the French duo M83 is almost as good as his work with Daft Punk on Tron.
Unfortunately, Oblivion is saddled with a preponderance of voice-over narration that explains too much too quickly. One might imagine what a more fascinating film it would have been had Kosinski and co-screenwriters Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt simply dropped us in the middle of the apocalyptic scenario and let us figure out gradually what had happened. Instead, for the first five minutes we get to have Tom Cruise give us a guided, step-by-step run-down of how he came to be where he is, which is efficient, but not terribly interesting. It’s not a detrimental flaw, but it’s one of many small, nagging issues that keep Oblivion firmly earthbound.
Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick
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