(This review is as spoiler free as I can make it. In doing so, there are a lot of things that I’ll say without context, as the particularities of certain characters or plot elements have not been revealed in the trailers and are rather important to the viewing experience — mystery!)
Tom Cruise’s new science fiction action adventure has been in theaters for a week-ish, and it has already opened the taste debate. A great deal of “average viewers” have come out of Oblivion with positive feelings, remarking that, while far from a perfect film, it succeeds as entertainment with a sliver of substance. Critics have not been so kind. They’ve called the film self-serious, absent of self-awareness, a ponderous mess, and so on and so forth.
I couldn’t disagree more.
While far from perfect, Oblivion is what Prometheus promised to be last year: a high concept, thrilling exploration of the human condition through the lens of science fiction. Where Prometheus failed to deliver (see here and here for my take), Oblivion has filled in the blank, offering the same visual awe of 2012’s “big film” with a far more coherent and cohesive plot, consistent (though incomplete) characters, and a few decent twists and turns. Most of all, Oblivion gives us a few answers, even if it never quite explains everything in the end. All this combine to make a film that, in my mind, deserves a little more credit. After all, it’s not
often that we are given action-oriented science fiction that also has a little something to contemplate, right? For that reason, I see Oblivion as an attempt to revitalize action-oriented SF with just a smidge of actual substance — a film that, despite its flaws, is entertaining and a tiny bit cerebral.
If you don’t know already, Oblivion follows Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), haunted by strange dreams, and Victoria (or Vika; Andrea Riseborough), his companion and communications overseer, as they monitor the “strip-mining” of Earth’s resources for use by humanity off world. From the opening moments, we learn that Earth was invaded decades ago by an alien species called the Scavs; humanity responded by nuking the Earth, forcing the surviving humans to move off world to Saturn’s moon, Titan. Jack and Victoria have been tasked with maintaining a fleet of defensive drones as remnants of the Scav forces attempt to sabotage the operation. But Jack’s dreams are not what they seem: they are memories. And as everything Jack knows about the world is uprooted by his discoveries, he will reveal an even more terrifying truth than the destruction of Earth.
Sure, the film’s central conceit is certainly not original. Post-apocalyptic SF is almost always cliche before you get into the particulars, and inserting an alien invasion doesn’t help with originality points. Even the somewhat hokey voice over is so painfully common in genre films that it’s difficult to take it seriously (in the case of Oblivion, the voice over is actually important, but it does feel out of place, even by the end). However, what I found most compelling about Oblivion was its method for exploring familiar territory: fusion. Cross-genre narratives are not unheard of in SF, but they are less common (at least in explicit form). Here, Joseph Kosinski (the director behind TRON: Legacy — my review here) fuses post-apocalypse with alien invasions and cyberpunk (an element I won’t discuss here for fear of spoiling the narrative). Part of telling good stories with old material is finding a different way to approach that material. Oblivion does just that, pitting the “man on his own” trope on the same stage as a cyberpunk-ian identity crisis.
It’s perhaps for this reason that I didn’t find myself bored while watching Oblivion. Kosinski’s writing and direction, while flawed in places, provides a deliberately measured approach to these familiar concepts, refusing to resort, as a standard, to visual or action antics for the sake of furthering the plot — though you’ll find some of that here too. Rather than become trapped in a long, drawn-out action sequence, Oblivion takes a slower approach, unfolding the layers of mystery piece by piece. While there are certainly plenty of pretty (if not sexy) action sequences in Oblivion, they are, if anything, necessary components to the narrative, rather than mere eye-candy (in my mind).
Equally arresting is the dramatic contrast between the natural and the artificial — a visual aesthetic as much as a thematic one, which is made apparent from the start, with extensive scenes involving Cruise, well, cruising around an “empty” Earth in advanced aircraft. It shouldn’t surprise, then, that so much of the film is concentrated on the visual aesthetics of both the post-apocalypse and cyberpunk, blending the relative order of technology into a world of natural chaos. From a purely visual perspective, Oblivion is absolutely gorgeous — even more so, in places, than last year’s Prometheus. Several minutes are spent presenting vast natural wildernesses, rocky “deserts,” the natural encroaching upon the remains of human civilization, buried buildings, forgotten ships resting on dried seabed, and so on. Even the action sequences — high-energy and, at times, emotional — are well-rendered, and themselves as visually arresting as the natural and artificial environments that dominate the set pieces. It is unmistakably a gorgeous film.
Cruise performs well in this environment, bringing a sense of heartwarming nostalgia in one moment and deliberate confusion in the next. Contrary to what other critics have said, I see Cruise’s performance as nuanced, reflecting a character torn between two realities: the one in which he is living and the one that lingers in the background like a ghostly echo (the one to be uncovered). The film is undeniably about Jack’s journey to find himself and his place in the new world awaiting him, and Cruise plays well to this theme. Truthfully, this is not exactly outside of his artistic territory, as some of his previous films have pitted one man (and his secondary character set pieces) against a new reality (War of the Worlds is a recent example). He seems well-fitted to this sort of role, and here delivers a performance that, while not on par with Will Smith in I Am Legend (a far more challenging role, I think), is far from weak or forgettable. I wouldn’t say this is Cruise’s best performance, but it is certainly one I will remember.
Oblivion‘s two biggest problems, however, are pacing and secondary characterization. The film seems motivated by two separate concerns: a desire to explore the human condition through a deliberate and nuanced “man on his own” narrative and an equally powerful desire to provide an action thriller replete with some familiar SF trappings. Sometimes, these desires do not mingle well, resulting in huge action sequences that are offset by canyons of slow material. In the case of Oblivion, the extreme rise-and-fall motion feels like it is delaying the conclusion, adding more “mysteries” to be solved for later. While these reveals are clearly crucial to the ending, I get the sense that a little trimming or re-organizing of some of these sequences could have helped better pace the discovery process. Alternatively, perhaps Oblivion simply tries to bite off more than it can chew for a two hour movie. There’s simply too much rising-and-falling here; at times, it is almost exhausting. The problem, however, is that there probably isn’t a solution for this — at least, not one that wouldn’t gut some of the film’s major conflicts.
Related to this is the problem of character development. ]Jack Harper understandably receives the bulk of the attention, while the secondary characters receive are themselves sometimes merely set pieces. In particular, the two primary “love interests” — Victoria and Julia — receive little attention, despite playing a crucial role in Jack’s growth as a character. Oblivion is, essentially, a film of the “one man against the world” variety. The female characters, in that model, aren’t necessarily crucial for Harper’s development. In some sense, Victoria and Julia (Olga Kurylenko) are only a few steps removed from being pure objects, which is unfortunate when placed in the context of Jack’s “awakening.” All the same identity crises and worries hit them too, yet because of the film’s central focus on Jack as “male center,” their development as characters is unfairly stunted. While both Kurylenko and Riseborough put on great performances, they unfortunately have less material to work with than Cruise. None of this, of course, should be a surprise, considering how action-oriented films often portray secondary characters — as caricatures or set pieces.
Despite these flaws, however, I see Oblivion as a bit of a sleeper classic. It may not change the way we view SF cinema, but it certainly fills in a gap left behind by the existing variety of mind-numbing SF action flicks (G.I. Joe and Transformers 2 and 3, I’m looking at you). With just the right amount of substance, Oblivion provides both heart and entertainment. I, for one, enjoyed it a great deal. You just might, too.
Overall: 3.9375/5 (78.75%)
Inflated Grade: B (for solid action, compelling ideas, a decent plot, and gorgeous visuals)
Value: $7.50 (based on a $10.50 max)