As an unabashed fan of Tom Cruise, sci-fi, and post-apocalyptic thrillers, Oblivion was destined to be a must-see in my book. Directed by Joseph Kosinski, whose first feature was Tron: Legacy, a sleek, visually stunning sci-fi pic that did fairly well at the box office, Oblivion is the perfect venue for his style. One of the primary complaints of Tron: Legacy was a lack of depth or characterization, but I felt that criticism was pretty extreme. Kosinski put his heart in the picture; it just didn’t always translate as genuine or raw as we typically prefer our emotional scenes. If anything, I think Kosinski’s biggest drawback is that he’s too neat and orderly, which is something that comes through in Oblivion as well.
Set in the year 2077, where the Earth has been destroyed by war with an invading alien force, Jack Harper (Cruise) is one of the last remaining humans on the planet. Piloting his “bubblecraft” throughout the ruins of the planet, Jack is assigned with repairing any downed drones, which are controlled by the TET, a large orbiting triangular space station where humans have evacuated to live as they prepare to inhabit one of Saturn’s moons. The drones are fully armed bulbous pieces of machinery that exist as guards to a series of machines that are sucking up seawater to fuel an energy source. Think of them as EVE from Wall-E on steroids.
Sound confusing? Well, it’s not really. It’s just ambitious, which is something I can certainly appreciate in the face of so many recent films not even attempting to be anything more than loud, obnoxious and simple. If you’ve seen more than a few sci-fi films in your life then you should easily be able to settle into Oblivion’s premise as it echoes so many before it, but never to the point that it’s a blatant rip-off. Far from it. In fact, there are many layers to Oblivion, some more obvious than others, but still with enough mystery and intrigue to keep you on your toes throughout.
Jack’s operating base is a tower atop a spire, which seems to float on the clouds, allowing breathtaking scenery throughout the film at various times of the day (all of the footage was shot atop an actual volcano in Hawaii and later projected on set to add to the realism). He is partnered with Victoria, played by British actress Andrea Riseborough, who gives a tremendous performance as a woman who is torn between her duty and her love for Jack. She’s a marvel to look at with big, glassy eyes and red hair, dressed predominantly like a business professional at an office.
Victoria acts like a sort of mission control operator who communicates with the TET to coordinate daily drone repair operations. She talks regularly to “Sally” played by Melissa Leo, who is your typical smiley-faced operator that never shows an iota of emotion. She’s suspect from the get-go, but you never quite know exactly how until the very end.
Jack and Victoria are two weeks out from “joining the others” on the TET and preparing for re-colonization on their new moon planet, which seems to weigh heavily on Jack. He can’t shake the feeling that he belongs on Earth. It doesn’t help that his mind has been “wiped” so that he can’t supply any valuable intel if he’s captured by the alien Scavengers (or, Scavs) left on Earth. It all sounds far-fetched and convenient, but it plays perfectly into the mindset and world of Jack and Victoria as the plot unfolds and we understand their true nature.
From the first frame we are introduced to electronic band M83’s score (working alongside Tron: Legacy’s Joe Trapaneze and Anthony Gonzalez) and it absolutely elevates the film into broader territory. Like Tron: Legacy, which had a similarly pulse-pounding score from the electronic band Daft Punk, the score to Oblivion is fast, frenetic, moody, emotional, and awe-inspiring. It fits the film to a tee and makes every scene and sequence stand out well beyond the traditional score you would expect for a film like this. It’s completely functional in that it serves every scene and is noticeable instead of lost as background noise. When a filmmaker pays that kind of attention to the blending of images and music, I take notice, and Kosinski deserves kudos for making that connection.
The sound design is every bit as big, bold, and exciting. Kosinski has an ear for what works and doesn’t use repetitive motifs we’ve heard a thousand times before. When we meet our first downed drone and it is “awakened” the sound rocks the house, the deep bass horn squelch of the drone reverberating throughout the theater. Throw in every other aspect of the film, from explosions, the bubble chase, laser guns, etc., and you have a magnificent sounding film if nothing else. One of my biggest annoyances is when filmmakers fail to heed this call and like the score Kosinski makes the audible experience a priority.
In the first major shake-up of the film, Jack investigates a downed drone signal only to find that the Scav’s were attempting to trick and trap him. Rescued by the drone he just repaired, Jack leaves the site perplexed as to why they would want to ensnare rather than kill. It seems, however, that Jack has a lot more going on in his head, as we later see that he keeps a makeshift cabin deep in a cavernous region, chock full of relics from the “old” world. Out of range from Victoria, Jack sinks into a different identity where he feels at home in his cabin, furthering along the question of who he is and what he’s doing there.
So, when Jack sees a craft fall from the sky and quickly goes to investigate, we know that something deeper is going on. Jack is quick to disobey orders to stay away from the crash site and discovers a number of life pods with living people inside, one of which turns out to be a woman (Olga Kurylenko) who continues to plague his dreams in a continuing sequence of flashbacks. Again disobeying orders, Jack brings her back to the tower, much to Victoria’s dismay, where she immediately recognizes him, again causing Jack to suspect all he’s ever known. She later convinces him to head back to the crash site so she can recover the flight recorder, which she says he needs to hear.
This leads to Jack’s first capture, where the Scavs capture both him and Julia, bringing them back to their lair. It’s then revealed that the Scavs are actually humans, disguised as something alien in order to hide from the true aliens (the drones). The leader of the Scavs is Beech, played by Morgan Freeman, who acts as the all-knowing “Morpheus” of the film, giving Jack all the exposition and mystery he needs to convince him that he’s on the wrong side, even letting Jack and Julia go to prove he’s telling the truth. This is also where we first meet Sykes, played by Game of Thrones Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who is completely wasted. He’s a great actor who deserves more of a spotlight. In fact, so do Freeman and the rest of the Scav’s for that matter, as we don’t get to know any of them. The problem with this is that it defeats any sort of sympathy for the human fight and negates a big sacrifice at the end.
Once set free, Jack and Julia travel to the ruins of the Empire State Building, a place that haunts Jack’s dreams, and he makes a startling discovery that unlocks his “erased” memories. However, his awakening is interrupted by Victoria who has sent a replacement bubbleship to bring him home. Jack wastes no time when he returns to the tower and tells Victoria that they must leave, but she’s too hurt seeing Jack with Julia.
What transpires is a drone attack that sends Jack and Julia through the ruins of Earth in the film’s action highlight. Jack navigates the treacherous terrain of Earth in the bubbleship, while engaging three attacking drones in a well-executed chase battle that will rattle your senses. The bubbleship, for all its simplicity, is actually a super cool vehicle that offers some nifty aerodynamics not seen too often on film. The sequence ends with Jack and Julia crashing into the “radiation zone,” an area that is never to be ventured into.
It’s here that Jack makes the most mind-boggling discovery that had me letting out an audible WTF in the theater and features one of the most original mano y mano fights of Cruise’s career. At this stage in the film your brain is on full tilt boogie trying to put the pieces together. My mind immediately shot off in multiple directions with various thoughts and theories as to what the hell was going on and it made me happy to feel that way for a change. Jack scoops up Julia and decides to head back to Beech and his band of Scavs, ready to know the full truth and face his reality.
Unfortunately, the truth is laid out in exposition by Beech, rather than a series of reveals that would’ve given it more impact. However, if you’re going to have exposition, it’s best to have it delivered by Morgan Freeman. Once Jack is armed with the real story of who he is, the movie took on a whole other level for me and that was a good thing. It was a bold choice, if not necessarily original, and it made me respect the film that much more.
From here the endgame begins and it kicks off with an attack on the Scav base by three drones that wreak some real havoc in another well-executed battle scene. Kosinski keeps the action refined, clear, and exciting, never falling into shaky cam antics like many filmmakers lean towards today. Even as much as I respect that, I do think that Kosinski could loosen up a bit and allow some imperfections, which I think would accentuate his style that much more. It’s a silly nitpick, I know, but there it is. Sometimes you just gotta dirty it up some.
The finale is a mixed bag. I thought the execution was solid, but the reveal of the “alien” villain wasn’t quite up to par with the rest of the film. It wasn’t bad, just not the best incarnation I would’ve imagined. Split between a flashback reveal and the final confrontation, the film comes full circle, that shows it hand in those final seconds, painting a picture of ah-ha moments that tie it all together.
The film ends on an ambitious, but imperfect note. On one hand it’s perfectly fitting, while on the other it leaves a lot of unanswered questions that really needed to be answered for me to fully appreciate its impact. And, perhaps that’s the problem with the film overall. It poses a lot of questions and set-up: Who are the aliens? What do they want? Why do they need energy from the oceans? What’s their master plan? And a bigger question lies in a major spoiler I won’t get into here, but involves the fate of Cruise’s character. Or characters. Those lingering questions hinder the film from reaching into awe-inspiring territory.
I think the other thing missing from Oblivion, which has been noted before, is some humor. There are bits of it here and there, but overall it’s a mostly joyless affair in terms of laughter. Granted, it’s not a comedy, but in a film that wants you to root for humanity, I think it’s important to show more of it than just people in love. You can relate to the love of two people to a point, but you need to show more of their interactions than just longing stares. Look how that worked out for Twilight. Five movies and not one moment of brevity. Ouch.
Oblivion is a fine slice of sci-fi cake. It’s got all the ingredients that make up the best of the genre, even if it tastes familiar. That’s not a bad thing at all, though. It’s still cake and damn delicious at that. Cruise delivers his brand with everything you’ve come to expect and proves yet again why he’s the leading male actor working today. He’s the safest bet in Hollywood and it’s all about his consistency. The film may feel familiar on many levels, but again, that’s fine. I think in many ways audiences have gotten spoiled in terms of expectations. A film doesn’t have to be revolutionary to be good. The problem may be that Oblivions seems like it wants to be revolutionary when really it’s just really damn entertaining. Do we need more than that every time? I don’t think so.
This is what you go to the movies to see. Spectacle, entertainment, mystery, and action. It’s also well worth the IMAX splurge as the audio/visual impact is top notch, in your face, in-your-ear holes awesome. Don’t go into this expecting a full-on action romp or a revolution of the genre. Go into this looking to be entertained in all the best ways and you’ll be glad you lived in Oblivion for a few hours.