We live in a golden age of original science fiction unlike anything seen since the seventies. In Oblivion the Earth has been ravaged by war and only Jack Harper and his companion, Victoria, remain behind to serve as maintenance for the energy gathering operation in preparation for humanity’s emigration to Titan. But strange, impossible memories and odd goings on point to a greater mystery at work.

Is the film a worthy admission to this new pantheon?

Oblivion is structurally sound albeit a tad hollow. It’s absolutely stunning to look at, from the beautiful vistas of the decayed planet Earth to the elegant industrial designs of the tower that houses the so-called mop up crew, played by Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough. The story itself, stemming from an unpublished illustrated novel by director Joseph Kosinski, is great; the concepts and ideas at work could even be called fantastic. Existentialism, love, war, sacrifice and, most importantly, control over history are all themes at play here.

There is however a severe problem: The script by Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt just isn’t very well written. The scenarios themselves are well realized, action doesn’t feel out-of-place or forced and the story and narrative actually venture in to areas of greatness, always commanding your interest as events unfold but much of that good work is undone by the dialog.

Large swaths of dialogue just don’t come off right, it sounds too wooden and frequently feels like completely miscued attempts at meaningful and poetic writing. These problems extend to the characters, preventing them from becoming truly memorable people. Tom Cruise is a serviceable protagonist. He doesn’t overshadow the film with his stardom and his presence isn’t distracting but he just seems too detached for the film’s more emotional moments to work completely. Of course he delivers when the need is for him to be intense or partake in action, but you can’t help but feel that he wasn’t really the right choice for the role.

Riseborough’s character arc suffers perhaps most of all as it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. She’s a terrific actress and you can clearly see where her character could have been taken, which would’ve rescued the hollow romance between her and Cruise and explained the lack of compelling chemistry. The fact that it develops as it does simply compounds the relationship’s problems.

Olga Kurylenko does a perfectly fine job in playing her part but is, much like the others, done a disservice by the writing on display. Her relationship to Cruise far outpaces the one between Jack and Vika, giving the audience at least a sliver to latch on to between them.

What’s most disappointing is that they could have so easily written themselves out of this trouble, and in fact for a while it seems to be the direction the film is heading in, but they fumble it, not going far enough into the areas of human existentialism. In and of it self that would’ve completely rescued and elevated the performances of both Cruise and Riseborough.

There’s also a palpable sense of distrust in the audience, as there is a seeming need to spoon-feed them every detail. Tom Cruise’s rather dry narration bookends the film, the former serving as set-up (perhaps needed for such a big budget film in this day and age) for forthcoming events and the latter feeling completely unnecessary. The greatest offender however is Morgan Freeman‘s diegetic recap of events up until and including the very scene he’s delivering it in. It’s completely superfluous; everyone knows what happened and what is happening. Trust the audience to keep track of things, you come off smarter and you make the audience feel smarter.

Oblivion is chock full of stunning visuals; the Tetrasect in the distant sky, the broken moon loosely hanging in orbit and the repurposed Icelandic wilderness are images frequently breathtaking in their majestic beauty. This is one of those films where you can see every single dollar spent up on the screen; the effects are fantastic, seamlessly blended with the desolate landscapes and the practical elements, delivering a comprehensively thought out and realized world which is entertaining to inhabit and a joy to simply look at, especially through the lens which Kosinski provides.

All the good of the visuals goes doubly so for the music. M83, the musical project of Anthony Gonzales, is no stranger to emotionally intense and soaring music, with his previous records already sounding like scores to imaginary sci-fi films. For his work on Oblivion there’s a greater focus on strings but the 80s retro futurism synths are still there and it ultimately delivers a memorable central motif. It’s a fantastic score that never misses a beat; frequently sending shivers down the spines of listeners, leaving hairs standing on end. It owes a lot to Daft Punk‘s work in Tron: Legacy and Hans Zimmer‘s Dark Knight scores but it absolutely stands on its own.

The title track that plays over the end credits deserves a shot at the Oscar for Best Song, that’s certain. It, like the majority of the score, actually possesses more emotional gravity than the characters themselves. There are instances of complete emotional dissonance, best exemplified by a passionless love scene in Tower 49’s swimming pool, the most beautiful one you’ll ever see, set to the explosive StarWaves. It looks beautiful but as Oblivion is all too often the beauty is only skin deep.

Yet, despite all these negative things Oblivion is still a film worth seeing and is even a truly good film. Underneath all the explanatory exposition and stilted dialog there lives a smart film. It’s over two hours long and holds the viewers attention for the entire duration as it goes in some great directions, it’s never even close to being boring. In a sense it is also a rather brave film, being a major Hollywood blockbuster with an unconventional finale. It’s really how close it comes to greatness that brings out the brunt of the criticism.

Joseph Kosinski has great promise and if he can find better scripts to work with he could blossom into a great filmmaker. He’s a man of great ideas and when he can finally get an airtight script, he should have all the essential pieces for a true classic.

Final Verdict: Oblivion is a problematic but all together good sci-fi action film. It has nods to and is respectful towards the masters of the genre but doesn’t take its place among them. There’s a distinct lack of a solid emotional core to pull things together completely so it remains an exceedingly interesting, outstandingly scored and beautifully designed and shot film.

Join the discussion below, and make sure to follow @Filmophilia and @Sveppi on Twitter.

 

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Written By Sverrir Sigfusson

Tall, dark and handsome. Student of film theory at the University of Iceland. Purveyor of news and reviews. Consumer of fine music, quality films and fantastic video games. Opinionated and brutally honest yet totally nice and a huge fan of colorful pants.


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  • Great review. Not many surprises, unless you haven’t seen a single sci-fi flick in your entire life.

  • shimbo

    Tiene razón, los escenarios son fantásticos sin embargo, se me hizo un poco predecible y la música es simplemente igual a la de Tron, no es mala pero no me asombra

  • Dan

    To Filmophilia: I assume you paid nothing to this reviewer for what he sent you. At least in return you could have edited his submission.

    To Sveinr: You may be a high school or early college student, but please reread your submission. It does not make sense internally. By that I mean read sentence by sentence.

    To anyone reading this and considering watching the movie on screen — see it!! — The clowns writing these early negative reviews will follow the original reviews for Blade Runner or Star Wars:
    http://rogersworst.blogspot.com/2011/01/3-blade-runner-1982.html
    http://www.craigbe.com/movieblog/2005/04/original_1977_s.html

    I suspect this movie will end up being a classic.

  • Stu

    Explain to me what the purpose of the big triangle thing in the sky draining the ocean to produce power? Power for what? There are no humans on earth and the whole Titan thing was a ploy, so what was the point?

  • Hi Dan,

    Thanks for your comment.

    The fact is, nobody gets paid to write for Filmophilia. We are simply a group of film enthusiasts who convey our love for film through commentary on the world of cinema, through reviews, features, lists and articles, projecting our inherently and inescapably subjective views into the cosmos and hopefully creating a dialog with others and ourselves in the process. As such an endeavour, though, we we take pride in the professional frame we strive to build around our site, in sense of editorial vision, peer reviewing of articles and presentation to the reader. Sverrir’s review was proofread by another writer, and on re-reading it now, I noticed only a couple of minor spelling errors. His review is on the longer end of the spectrum for our film reviews, that is true, but my opinion is that he’s making a valid point in each paragraph, regardless of whether I agree with his opinion.

    Sverrir is a university student in Iceland, studying film theory, among other things, and I found it relatively easy following the meaning of the text without encountering any internal paradoxes or logical inconsistencies. Of course, the very nature of meaning is a fluid term and completely subjective to each reader, so I can not make any claim that you should understand any sentence in the same way I understand it. No matter how syntactically simple it may be, the slightest differences between people, their culture, background, language, gender, identity, social standing and an endless array of factors, can contribute to an entirely different understanding. That said, this text’s syntax, looked at from a grammatical standpoint, is straightforward and easily decoded, and the argumentation is internally logical, to the extent any critical text can be, of course.

    I saw the movie myself and liked it, but found it too derivative of too many other sci-fi films that have become classics in their own right for Oblivion to ever become its own entity. Whether my opinion or yours will end up closer to the film’s eventual legacy, only time can tell. But that’s the beauty of cinema, isn’t it? Its inherent subjectivity makes it an endless fountain of dialog, criticism and even philosophy.

    Best,
    Erlingur Gretar Einarsson
    Editor, Filmophilia

  • Sverrir Sigfusson

    Hey Dan,

    Personally, I’m open to any opinion on a film. I’m glad you liked it more than I did, I never want a film to be bad nor to I want people to not enjoy films. However I find it disheartening that you saw fit to personally insult me over my, generally positive, views on this film.

    This isn’t a negative review and I actively recommend that people see it, despite the flaws that I saw in it.

    I’d love to discus the film with you if you’d be less hostile.

    Regards,
    Sverrir
    News Editor, Filmophilia

    P.S. Blade Runner wasn’t very good when it came out, due to all the studio mandated tampering. It wasn’t until Ridley Scott got to show us his original vision that the film became a masterpiece. Perhaps the same will ring true of Oblivion, as the opening narration feels like something the studio forced into the film.

  • atlisig

    *SPOILER* – Power for the aliens themselves?

  • Sverrir Sigfusson

    SPOILERS.. Yes, what Atli said. ‘Sally’ was moving from planet to planet syphoning energy and leaving them in ruins.

  • Jean-Paul Labadie

    Firstly, what an excellent reply. Professional, courteous, passionate, philosophical. Wise. Well done.

    My own opinion is largely in step with your’s and Sverrir’s. The movie is wonderful and worth seeing for its intentions and individual merits. The music went beyond my expectations. It could easily be an homage to many great composers, including Zimmer , Vangelis, Shorter, Howard, Horner, Silvestri and maybe even a little Sigur Ros. We should keep watching Joseph Trapanese.

    The visuals are breathtaking and believable, you scarcely can distinguish the props and set elements from the CG effects, (though I was disappointed with the interior of the Tet.)

    In my opinion, the story demanded more time than a single film could offer – and certainly not in 2 hours. There is the sensation that Jack transforms over time from a cold worker-bee to something more human, that Victoria lags behind his transformation, that Malcolm Beech has been watching him for years, etc. Yet instead of showing us these transformations and the passage of time, we are simply told that they have happened – which robs the audience and the actors a chance to feel the catharsis that is the heart of the story. The movie attempts to quell this retroactively several times (most notably the flight recorder towards the finale), but it’s only effective in delivering story details, not emotional/psychological relief.

    The expansive trailers did not help, revealing key plot points that cheapened the story a bit.

    It’s still a great movie, giving those with an imagination ample art to play with in their heads.

  • Thanks for the comment. It’s obvious that at least this film is getting people talking, which is way too rare in cinema these days.

    I agree with most of your points. The trailers reveal almost the entire mystery of the film, which doesn’t help the leisurely plotted story, and there is entirely too much spoken exposition in there, especially for a $120 million dollar film. But the design is sublime, especially the Earth-bound action.
    It seems though that I might be in a vast minority regarding the music, which I wasn’t too impressed with. Maybe I was expecting a dominant soundtrack in the vein of TRON: Legacy and am projecting my disappointment for it being auxiliary to the visuals, instead of ingrained into them, in this way. I don’t know. I might have to see it again to fully realize what it was that disappointed me there.

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