Oblivion: Yet Another Heady, Action-Fueled Science Fiction Epic Falls Short of Its Ambitions

Credit: Tom Edwards
Credit: Tom Edwards

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VQcgiZwLxVM&w=570&h=321]
Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion (2013) is a love letter to every science fiction film you’ve already seen, and a pretty beautiful one, at that, but it nearly collapses under the weight of its own ambition. Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable movie, filled with the kind of eye- and ear-candy you’d expect from the man who directed Tron: Legacy, and it convinces you to truly care about the characters and their various conflicts—even if it has you scratching your head occasionally, uncertain what you’ve just seen, and leaves one massive thread hanging loose in the end.

Tom Cruise seems right at home on the set of yet another heady, action-fueled science fiction epic, playing the role of drone repairman Jack Harper. He lives in the raddest apartment on post-apocalyptic Earth, looking a bit like an aging GQ model, living and sleeping with a woman he doesn’t seem all that interested in, despite her apparent admiration for him; instead he dreams constantly of another lovely face, replaying the same prewar memory fragment over and over.

We’re spoon-fed a bit of heavy exposition at the beginning of the flick, in typical Hollywood fashion, but it somehow feels more authentic, less hammer-to-the-head than even more successful examples, like Avatar, et cetera. Cruise’s voiceover works because, like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s in Looper, he is an actor with the chops to really sell it.

You come to believe in Kosinski’s worldbuilding, even if it looks too alien to accept—a real testament to Cruise’s abilities. Not to mention those of Andrea Riseborough, Morgan Freeman in a role reminiscent of Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus (The Matrix), a stoic but likable Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, an underused but competent Olga Kurylenko, and the incomparable Melissa Leo in a haunting turn as Harper’s mission controller. Her character lives aboard the mysterious Tet, a colossal tetrahedral orbital habitat we’re told houses a number of post-nuclear-war survivors awaiting final transport to humanity’s new colony on Saturn’s moon Titan.

Did I mention our Moon is gone? Yeah, she’s basically an oversized shaft of debris in the sky. It’s a lot more beautiful than it sounds.

For reasons that aren’t immediately clear upon a first viewing, command (Leo) informs Victoria (Riseborough) and Harper that they’ll be transferred to the Tet in two weeks’ time, and then rerouted toward civilization on Titan.

But—in keeping with the basic Hollywood SF formula—Things Begin to Go Horribly Wrong. Drones malfunction and misbehave; one of the Tet’s water-extraction stations explodes in a fiery nuclear blast; scavengers are afoot. The literal girl of Harper’s dreams falls from the sky, the last remaining crew member of a heretofore unmentioned NASA spaceship dubbed the Odyssey.

The less you know going into the theater, or before popping in the inevitable Blu-ray, the better.

Kosinski’s treatment of the material—his own original script, co-written with comics writer Arvid Nelson—from here on out is fairly deft, given what a laughable mess a less capable director might have made of things . . . but the plot does sag at times, and I would have preferred to be given more time for certain key information to sink in before moving on to the resultant, somewhat gratuitous action.

Overall, it’s a satisfying moviegoing experience—the kind of thing that overreaches a bit, maybe, trying to do too much in too short a time span, with too little development of certain ideas. It also suffers from a couple glaring plot holes, barring a medical miracle. But you can’t help but admire the confidence and passion of the screenwriters, and the actors required to bring it all to life. While it may ultimately fall short of timeless-classic status, it’s an excellent collage of classic-SF film homages and ideas that might pave the way for more mature, far better works from Kosinski and Nelson at some point in the future.

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1 Comment

  1. I feel like I can recommend this movie on a number of it’s strengths, but am overall less positive about it than you. The plot holes and inexplicable backstory were too unsatisfying for me in the end. My wife liked the romantic element, but thought long stretches were ultimately boring. Looked fantastic, however, with some great design elements.

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