by Daniel Rester
Not every science fiction film needs to be either an amazing groundbreaker like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or a dopey action-fest like Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011). In fact, many get caught in the area between the great and the not-so-great – lost in the stars and often less-remembered than the masterpieces or the train wrecks. Though many sci-fi pictures such as those described are released nowadays and often tossed to the side, some are actually quite entertaining and above “the average.” One new example of this is Oblivion.
Oblivion stars Tom Cruise as Jack Harper, a repairman who must fix drones on Earth in the year 2077. Nearly sixty years earlier, the destruction of the Earth’s moon (which caused many natural disasters) and the invasion of Scavs (aliens) caused the planet to become desolate. The humans won, but the planet was ruined. Now Harper and his partner, Victoria Olsen (Andrea Riseborough), work with the drones to secure machines that mine the last of Earth’s resources. The resources are then sent to the Tet, a massive space station where the rest of the surviving humans live. But Harper soon begins dreaming of strange things and starts questioning he and Victoria’s mission.
Based on the graphic novel by Joseph Kosinski, the film is directed by Kosinski himself. However, writing credits go to Kosinski, William Monahan, Karl Gajdusek, and Michael Arndt. With Kosinski being a directorial talent with visuals (he directed TRON: Legacy (2010)) and Oscar-winners Monahan and Arndt helping with the script, Oblivion did have the workings to be a great sci-fi film. Instead it is an enjoyable one that falls in that middle area because of one big reason: it relies too heavily on past sci-fi material.
I’m all for some classy homage, but Kosinski and team seem to go beyond that and just commit “cinematic theft” at times. Instead of just being meta and commenting on past sci-fi films (like The Cabin in the Woods (2012) did for horror films), Kosinski’s Oblivion uses story and visual references in abundance and seemingly to support his own ideas as if they were highly original.
The film actually does have an interesting premise and a few nifty surprises, but as a whole it seems more like a big beast made up of the DNA from other films. During my viewing, I noticed things in Oblivion that were similar to ideas or visuals from the following films: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Moon (2009), Blade Runner (1982), Inception (2010), Predator (1987), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), The Planet of the Apes (1968), Wall-E (2008), The Matrix (1999), Prometheus (2012), Total Recall (1990), and Star Wars (1977). Take a breath. I’m sure those probably aren’t all of the films, either.
Even though Kosinski makes the mistake of mixing so many past film elements together without commenting on them much further, the results of such a derivative blend are somehow rendered as more entertaining than frustrating. Perhaps it’s because Kosinski dared to touch on so many films at once. Don’t get me wrong, it is wrong that he pretty much took parts of other movies and made them his own. However, the writers and director seem to have enthusiasm for their premise and movie-mixings and deliver just enough exciting/original turns to keep things fun.
Oblivion may not fully work on the story level (though I liked how it refreshingly focused on human drama more than action scenes or mind-bending turns), but it has a lot of other things going for it. First off, the visual effects are stunning. With the aid of production designer Darren Gilford and an army of visual effects and art direction people, Kosinski establishes a magnificent vision that expertly displays environments and presents nice variations of blues, whites, and grays. And it is obvious that Kosinski spent a lot of time deciding how his characters would interact with such a desolate but striking world — and it pays off.
All of this is made even better by the work of cinematographer Claudio Miranda (who just won an Oscar for Life of Pi (2012)). Miranda’s photography here is top-notch, capturing the richness of Kosinski’s world so that it is sleek and eye-filling – with amazing attention to light and wide-angle shots. He really knows how to make things so smooth so as to never make the action or visuals distracting (kudos also to Editor Richard Francis-Bruce for never trying to make things too rapid or flashy).
The visual majesty is paired with a terrific soundtrack as well. Much of the score, by electronic/shoegaze group M83, pulsates with tunes that embrace both techno-like sounds and Hans Zimmer-like ones. The title song is particularly affecting, with Susanne Sundfor belting out vocals against M83’s slick sounds.
Also adding to the film’s strength are the performances. Cruise once again proves his star-worth by throwing himself into his role both dramatically and physically. It isn’t a powerhouse performance, but it is an excellent one. Riseborough is also very good as Victoria – who does a lot with her eyes. Also joining the team are Olga Kurylenko (whose character plays a big part in the second half), Morgan Freeman, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and Melissa Leo, who all give adequate performances for what they are given.
Oblivion isn’t good enough to break into the “great” section of sci-fi affairs, stuck in that mid-section where many will forget about it in the future. It will also piss off some people because of its constant uses of other sci-fi material. While that is a big problem with the film, I still somehow found Oblivion to be highly entertaining and somewhat absorbing – with it getting even better the more I thought about it. It’s a film that just clicked with my sci-fi tastes, I guess. The film won’t rank high for everyone, but it has enough splendors to make it a worthwhile view for anyone in the mood for something like it.
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: B+).