REVIEW: Oblivion (2013)

Has the director of TRON: Legacy finally mastered his sci-fi craft?

Helmed by Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy), 2013’s Oblivion is a striking visual feast, displaying a remarkable attention to detail in production design and cinematography. It’s a pleasure to watch the effort unfold on a large screen, as the picture’s aesthetics are a marvel to behold. And despite Oblivion being marketed as an action fiesta, it’s more of a patient, old-fashioned sci-fi film which only indulges in a small handful of blockbuster moments. Kosinski’s film possessed all the right ingredients to become an instant genre classic, but unfortunately it falls far short of its potential. In spite of its nice ideas and lavish visual construction, it’s a thoroughly hollow effort, and the screenplay is cobbled together from so many other familiar movies that every plot point and twist is visible from a mile away.

In the year 2077, Earth is a desolate wasteland as the result of a war involving aliens that poisoned the planet. The majority of Earth’s population now reside on the moon Titan, while a corporation oversees the rehabilitation of the planet, using drones which patrol the land in search of leftover alien invaders. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are tasked with maintaining the drones on Earth, while their superior Sally (Melissa Leo) watches them from afar. The daily rounds are growing tedious for the pair, though only two weeks remain before their tour is over and they can join the rest of the human race on Titan. Despite having his memory wiped, Jack dreams of life before he was born, and of a woman he’s never met. When a deep-sleep capsule crashes nearby containing Julia (Olga Kurylenko), the very woman he’s been dreaming about, Jack’s life is suddenly thrown into turmoil, leaving the worker baffled and desperate for answers.

If Duncan Jones’ Moon was created on a $120 million and was aimed at the blockbuster market, it would look exactly like Oblivion. In fact, Oblivion comes across as a beat-by-beat remake of the earlier film, right down to the main narrative twist, the message of the greed behind corporations, the ostensibly isolated setting, and even minor plot details (in Moon, the protagonist was nearing the end of his service contract, and so is Jack here). Although Kosinski reportedly pitched his film in 2007, it’s hard to ascertain just how much of this stuff was in his initial pitch, as it’s been a full six years. Sure, it’s hard to tell an original story since practically everything has been done, but there’s a difference between reusing clichés and reusing big twists. It’s the equivalent of someone using the twist of Psycho or The Sixth Sense for their thriller. Unfortunately, the rest of Oblivion is just as derivative, taking cues from Planet of the Apes and WALL-E, while the climax is a mix of Independence Day and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unoriginality is not a big problem by itself, but Kosinski never enlivens the material; it’s lacking a touch of soul.

On the positive side, it’s easy to be impressed with Claudio Miranda’s superlative cinematography, which makes good use of the beautiful production design and eye-catching Icelandic locales. The score by French outfit M83 is a solid inclusion as well, though it sounds distinctly influenced by Hans Zimmer. Certainly, Oblivion is competent enough, engaging for isolated sections of time and containing a number of standout sequences. The script is a misfire, but at least the finished picture is easy to consume, and unfussy movie-goers may find something of worth, especially since the film is not as brainless as Hollywood’s regular output. Yet, the experience as a whole remains underwhelming, as it’s an emotionally empty experience and the deliberate pacing does not always work. It’s quite astonishing that the film is as flat as it is, considering Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) and William Monaghan (The Departed) were involved in the writing process.

Cruise may now be fifty years of age, but he’s still working furiously to maintain his movie star status. Oblivion allows the actor to pull off the usual action movie stuff: driving fast, posing while beautifully lit, running away from explosions, using firearms, and so on. There’s even an aerial chase that reminded this reviewer of Top Gun. Cruise haters may dislike his performance, but he’s good enough as Jack Harper. Meanwhile, unfortunately, Morgan Freeman is not the lead he was marketed as being, showing up in a phoned-in performance that takes up fifteen or twenty minutes at most. And whenever he’s on-screen, Freeman just delivers obvious exposition. It’s a wasted opportunity. The rest of the actors are serviceable if unspectacular.

As an exercise in production design and sound effects, Oblivion is a success, as the movie always looks handsome. In fact, it’s surprising that the film wasn’t in 3D, especially considering Kosinski was responsible for the 3D TRON sequel. In spite of the movie’s visual strengths, the lack of imagination in other areas brings down the overall value. It’s too distractingly familiar and empty. Moon was produced for a substantially smaller sum, yet it contains humanity and soul, two things that are lacking in Oblivion.

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