Directed by Joseph Kosinski
Screenplay by Joseph Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek, Michael Arndt
Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
How long is Oblivion? 126 minutes.
What is Oblivion rated? PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, brief strong language, and some sensuality/nudity.
Visually spectacular adventure that lacks intellectual vigor.
In every film critic there is – or should be – a constant internal struggle with each film we encounter. On the one hand, we should be analyzing the film’s strengths and weaknesses; drawing comparisons to the director’s other works or other films in the genre; and taking notes on specific points we want to make in our review. On the other hand, we desperately just want to enjoy the movie for what it is: a piece of entertainment that might move us or thrill us. This mental battle is perfectly exemplified on screen with Oblivion, a spectacular visual achievement from a talented filmmaker that also features a script so ludicrous, so insultingly dumb that it doesn’t warrant a serious discussion or critique (though, of course, one will follow below).
Director Joseph Kosinski, who helmed the vapid and cartoonish TRON: Legacy, uses every frame of Oblivion as a canvas on which he can project the massive adventure he wants audiences to experience. Kosinski, who made a sizable impression on the industry with his commercial work, has a background as an architect and his eye for details and contrasting imagery is front and center in this film. Adapted from his own short story and graphic novel, Kosinski worked with writers Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt to expand his original concept into a feature length film. It’s quite clear the story should have stayed in the abbreviated form.
In the year 2077, Earth is a burnt out shell of its formerly lush and beautiful landscapes, a result of a brutal war between humans and an alien race. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is a security repairman tasked with protecting the enormous hydra-filters that are harnessing Earth’s water supply which is to be sent off-planet for the rest of the human race who have been relocated to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. Jack’s only companions are Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), his girlfriend as well as his communications officer, and the massive space station that hangs in the sky, always keeping watch over Jack. The ominous, Big Brother-like entity is Jack’s last remaining connection to the rest of the Earth’s population.
Kosinski paints a planet that has been scorched by war and is devoid of all apparent life. With Jack as our guide, we travel back and forth between the post-apocalyptic terrain of the planet and the ultra-sleek, almost translucent apartment in the sky that serves as his and Victoria’s apartment and command post. This dichotomy is a wonderful visual feast for the audience and works as a slight nod to Metropolis (a film which has a heavy influence on Oblivion). The desolate landscape, though, is more treacherous and deceitful than Jack first thinks possible.
If Kosinski had been under no pressure to make a Hollywood blockbuster, Oblivion might have been a superb science fiction film that echoed the sentiments and style of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris. If Jack was allowed to simply exist in this strange yet familiar world without artificial plot developments the film could have been something much more special. As it is, though, Gajdusek and Arndt turn an existential crisis into a bland action movie with so many attempted plot “twists” that the script is constantly overflowing with dialogue that only serves to explain to the audience the ridiculous leaps in logic that must take place. The horrible speeches occur from the very opening, with Jack giving us a play-by-play of what has happened to Earth over the last 60 years. Never mind letting the audience discover things for themselves; the writers are going to make sure to spell everything out in detail leaving no room for surprises or ambiguity.
Things go off the rails quickly when Jack encounters Julia (Olga Kurylenko), a survivor of a spaceship that crash lands in one of the Earth’s ubiquitous deserts. With Julia, we get a completely overwritten backstory for Jack and some sort of unexplained memory wipe that was given to all humans five years before the film starts. (Why? We don’t know and apparently we’re not supposed to notice this gaping plot hole.) Julia has secrets of her own and we know she is just going to explain them in minute detail when the time is just right. Everything surrounding Jack and Julia’s relationship is terrible.
Admirably, Kosinski opts for practical sets and effects whenever possible, including casting a leading man (Cruise) who insists on doing his own stunts. Kosinski and Co. built an enormous replica of the New York City Public Library for one of the film’s early action set pieces. The set pulses with authenticity, something CGI and green screens could never achieve. Filmed in the U.S. and Iceland, as well as other locations, the scenery is vibrant and terrifying, something that was sorely lacking in TRON. Even the modes of transportation used by Jack were built by hand and operable.
With all this dedication to creating a fully-realized world, it’s surprising that Kosinski would so blatantly overlook or ignore that his film steals – not even borrows in a Tarantinoesque manner – key plot points from films like Moon and The Matrix. Again, this can be attributed to the writers, but Kosinski is still culpable.
Oblivion is extremely enjoyable as a piece of popcorn entertainment, especially since it was filmed on a brand new ultra-high definition camera that was meant to be shown in IMAX. If you’re able to check your brain at the door, you will have a great time in the theater. Will I see it again? Yes! But I’m not proud of it.
Matthew Newlin lives in St. Louis, Missouri and has been a film critic for over six years. He has written for numerous online media outlets, including “Playback:STL” and “The Weissman Report.” He holds a Master’s of Education in Higher Education from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and is an Assistant Director of Financial Aid. A lifelong student of cinema, his passion for film was inherited from his father who never said “No, you can’t watch that.”