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 The story itself, stemming from an unpublished illustrated novel by director Joseph Kosinski, is great; the concepts and ideas at work could even be called fantastic.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.