A hard-boiled science-fiction in this day and age is somewhat hard to come by. We’ve had the cerebral Inception, among others, but nothing truly pure sci-fi for some time. Oblivion then is, at the very least, a promise of a science-fiction adventure with a big budget. Heck it even has the director of Tron: Legacy backing it up, so it already has some science-fiction credibility. I’m a sci-fi geek myself so the prospect of having a film like this alone is pretty interesting.
It’s a shame then that Oblivion fails to capitalize on what makes science-fiction truly special. For most of its run it either dulls or meanders around big ideas while waiting until its next twist unfolds. Oblivion has a lot of problems and, though it may be fun in parts, it is a very flawed effort with a brilliant aesthetic, much like Tron: Legacy.
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Release Date: April 10, 2013 (UK), April 19, 2013 (US)
Rating: 12A (UK), PG-13 (US)
Oblivion follows a bloke called Jack Harper, former military guy, who in the near-future becomes a fancy ‘Tech Support’ guy. His job is to fix and maintain the drones that defend various Rigs which suck up the Earth’s water. They do this to convert it to fusion and it is Jack’s mission to keep this fusion flowing upwards into what’s left of humanity. Yeah, this is a post-apocalyptic thing. After a war with an alien force, which humanity won, they have escaped a destroyed planet and it’s Jack’s job, along with the help of Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), to protect the last resource gathering efforts from the remnants of the defeated alien forces known as ‘Scavengers’. There’s however a bunch of twists and turns along the way which all guide Jack towards a search for a nostalgic truth.
This is an incredibly promising film and there’s a lot to be said for what it does realize. The vision of post-apocalyptic Earth is well crafted and often gripping in its warped picturesque view, the pieces of the ‘old world’ that Jack picks up throughout the story each also convey some great environmental meaning. The aesthetic from the cold, white ‘drone’ machinery, which Jack uses, is further enhanced by some excellent sound design. Much like Tron: Legacy, however, the absolute standout is the roaring soundtrack which is here composed by M83. It does wonders to make some bland action set-pieces appear like first-class thriller chunks.
The stellar presentation unfortunately doesn’t redeem a very confused film. The blending of 2001 references with computer-generated action pieces never seems to mesh cleanly. Some of the writing is also incredibly spotty in places, with the whole of the first act seemingly too bloated for its own good. Morgan Freeman’s character also barely gets any screen-time before he has to deliver mouthfuls of exposition in order to move the story along. There’s also a ton of plot holes to deal with, though then we’d be getting into spoilery territory. Let’s just say, by the end, you won’t be confused but you’ll just have this tasteless disappointment.
I do want to say that it’s not necessarily a ‘terrible’ movie by any means, it just seems to have a very confused vision of itself. One moment is spent inside the genre tropes of the science-fiction as twists and technology interlink to create some good pieces of filmmaking. The next minute, however, you find yourself in a dull action sequence that has robots throwing computer-generated stuff in each other’s faces. There’s also a heavy lack of any attempt at trying to make any of the main characters likable, with the whole first act soaked in trying to create a mystery rather than create characters. Good science-fiction, in my opinion, has the ability to do both.
Tom Cruise’s appearance in this feature will probably divide a lot of people. Slotting an action lead into a science-fiction jumpsuit always does wonders for box office receipts, but I’m really not sure that he comfortably fits in with the rest of the film. I can only remember him smiling a little but, otherwise, he just runs about and pulls a growly face whenever something mysterious happens. Which happens a lot. Olga Kurylenko’s character, who appears during the first twisty bits, just seems to be absolute filler in some places. She literally just stands there and nods while the plot moves forward. There’s never a chance to get into her story and her head or her feelings. She’s supposed to be this mystery in Jack’s life but instead just ends up being a blatant plot device that brings about some of the twists whenever the story deems it relevant. It’s a shame to see, for the billionth time, a useless female heroine who is there just to jump around and lunge after the hero’s gonads while telling us the twists in-between.
Some of the twists do hit their mark, I have to admit. The 2001 imagery also helps to create a good sense of the world’s uncanny feel. The main villain, once revealed, is also surprisingly quite chilling at times. The effective aesthetic also helps counter-balance some of the later action pieces, as they become more close-encounters rather than giant robots shooting things. There is a good amount of fun and cleverness underneath Oblivion but it simply fails to connect on a cerebral and emotional level. You just don’t have time to be involved in the story due to the mountains of exposition and story-building that gets in the way. The direction and general aesthetic just can’t help a story that just can’t seem to find its audience. It’s all one big superficial sheath for a very muddy core of a film.
Oblivion is not a bad effort. Its aesthetic, soundtrack and some action beats help to create a mood and tone that is very distinct. I’m not sure, however, it’s an atmosphere I want to buy into. Alongside some explicit 2001 references and some Blade Runner nods, there just isn’t any decent connective tissue or ‘originality’ inside the film. It fails to capitalize on a multitude of levels, but what really catapults it into the mediocre charter is this heavy storytelling that has to spread out its many twists across its two-hour running time. The film, by the end, feels like a stretched and soggy piece of what could have been a very worthwhile endeavor. It has a powerful aesthetic and soundtrack but just doesn’t deliver on any of its grandiose promises; it simply fails to amount to its own grand vision of itself.