How Not to Write a Review (or, “Oblivion isn’t about Tom Cruise, dumbass…”)


In a recent New York Times review of the SF action adventure film, Oblivion, Manohla Dargis opens with the following:

If only it were less easy to laugh at “Oblivion,” a lackluster science-fiction adventure with Tom Cruise that, even before its opening, was groaning under the weight of its hard-working, slowly fading star and a title that invites mockery of him and it both. The agony of being a longtime Tom Cruise fan has always been a burden, but now it’s just, well, dispiriting. You not only have to ignore the din of the tabloids and swat away the buzzing generated by his multiple headline-ready dramas, you also have to come to grips with the harsh truth that it no longer actually matters why and how Tom Terrific became less so. No one else much cares.

This opening paragraph is followed by another much like it, in which Dargis argues pretty much the same thing:  Tom Cruise is on the way out because he’s nuts.  This train of thought makes up most of the review.  There’s little time spent actually defending why Oblivion is lackluster or why,
as Dargis suggests, there is something wrong with the film mashing together a number of different SF ideas (this is a charge that applies to basically all SF films these days, so it seems like a pointless argument if you can’t add something, well, original to it — ha!).

This is not how one writes a review.  When you come into a film with a pre-loaded bias — in particular, a bias against an actor/director as a person rather than as an actor/director — your ability to assess the quality of that film will be greatly diminished.  Dargis suffers from this problem.  Because she cannot see beyond Cruise as a person, she cannot honestly assess Oblivion on its own terms; she’s assessing the film as a reflection of an individual.  In other words, Dargis’ review is about why she doesn’t like Tom Cruise, not Oblivion itself — not “Tom Cruise” the actor, but “Tom Cruise” the person.  That Dargis cannot set aside the tabloids and Cruise’s various eccentricities is telling.  Anything she can say about a movie involving Cruise will be tainted by her personal biases, something made apparent by her desire to front-load the personal barbs over an honest assessment of the man’s work.

Many of the other reviews I’ve read have not done this.  David Edelstein made a Scientology joke in his review on Vulture, but it was not the central “thesis” of his argument about Oblivion.  Others might drop a hint at Cruise’s personal life or nothing whatsoever.  But most of them justified their critiques of Oblivion by addressing the film itself.  They wrote actual reviews, not character assassinations.

That is exactly what Dargis did — she went for the jugular and forgot to actually write a review.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

3 thoughts on “How Not to Write a Review (or, “Oblivion isn’t about Tom Cruise, dumbass…”)

  1. Regardless of her focus on Tom Cruise, she did make mention of the problems with Oblivion. And said problems seems to be echoed by the other reviewers you mentioned. So…

  2. Curt: Which begs the question — if she is identifying things that many reviewers seem to see as clear problems with the film, what purpose does front-loading her review with attacks on Cruise as a person offer?

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