Oblivion (United States, 2013)April 18, 2013
We don't get many idea-based science fiction films these days so, when one comes along, it represents a welcome change of pace from the fantasy space opera that has co-opted the genre. Despite being tarted up with enough action to stave off boredom for inattentive viewers, Oblivion is still more of a "true" sci-fi offering than 90% of what Hollywood passes off as such. It's not "hard" science fiction from the Asimov school but it feels more genuine than a lot of what tops box office tote boards, and that may hurt it when it comes to the bottom line. Despite various shoot-outs, dogfights, chases, and crashes, Oblivion is not a teen-friendly film. The storyline is too dense and the pacing too uneven.
It's easy to nitpick Oblivion to death. There are a lot of little holes and inconsistencies. The problem is related to the ratio between content and running time. There's far too much material to be crammed into 126 minutes. The backstory alone could take up that much time. As a result, things get glossed over and explanations are omitted. It's easy enough to rationalize most of what isn't clarified but annoying that the rationalizations are necessary.
Oblivion is about the nature of identity - a common theme in more literate science fiction works. Is an individual defined by his/her DNA? Is it the sum of one's memories? What constitutes essential "humanness"? Star Trek (especially The Next Generation) frequently addressed this question as did the reboot of Battlestar Galactica. Oblivion also draws upon other common science fiction themes (which I will not discuss here due to the "spoilerish" nature of mentioning them - the narrative contains a few surprises).
The year is 2077. Earth is a barren wasteland, the result of a conflict with aliens that happened 60 years ago. Humanity won the war but lost the planet - the survivors fled to Titan where they established a colony. The irradiated remnants of the "home world" are watched over by a series of drones and their human caretakers. Meanwhile, the enemy hasn't been completely eradicated. Isolated survivors skulk around in the ruins of old cities and occasionally attack and cripple drones. Huge hovering conversion stations have been set up to turn water into steam power and funnel it to Titan to provide energy for the colony.
Jack (Tom Cruise) and Vic (Andrea Riseborough) are a "team" nearing the end of a tour of duty as Earth-watchers. With their memories wiped before the mission, neither boasts recollections of their days before inhabiting a high-tech apartment overlooking the East Coast. They aren't married but their relationship is like a marriage. Vic stays in contact with Sally (Melissa Leo), her remote commander, and Jack flies around in a high-speed craft, locating and repairing damaged drones. But, while Vic isn't interested in the past and wants to return to Titan as soon as possible, Jack dreams of a beautiful, mysterious woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko), and claims the dreams are more like memories. What's more, he has become enamored of Earth and wants to remain. He has even built a make-shift cabin in a safe zone where he sometimes lands his craft for some R&R.
In the '00s, Tom Cruise developed a penchant for appearing in science fiction movies, although this is the first one he has made since 2005's War of the Worlds. He brings what's needed to the role: the same ruggedness and physicality that served him well in the Mission: Impossible series. Andrea Riseborough essays an emotionally vacuous character; the shallowness of the portrayal is likely more a reflection of intent than an indication of her ability. While she and Cruise never connect, the same cannot be said of Cruise and the ethereal Olga Kurylenko. Her performance here is more "earthy" than the one she gives in To the Wonder, but the expressivity of her face is as much an asset in this film as in Malick's and she works well with Cruise. Morgan Freeman (chomping on a big cigar) and Nikolaj "Jaime Lannister" Coster-Waldau have supporting roles as human refugees living on Earth.
The visual effects work is first-rate. Most of this involves creating a post-cataclysmic New York and D.C., including such landmarks as the Empire State Building, the Pentagon, the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Obviously, this isn't the first time we've seen this sort of thing - Planet of the Apes set the standard - but it's done as well here as anywhere else. The sound effects, including a throbbing score, are "punched up" enough to be memorable, although there are times when they call too much attention to themselves.
This is the second directorial effort from Joseph Kosinski, who made his debut with the much-heralded TRON: Legacy. Here, he's working from a screenplay he co-wrote based on his own graphic novel, so he has to take blame for the film's failings, especially the narrative shortcomings and pacing problems. At the same time, he can claim credit for bringing to the screen a story that is intriguing enough to engage viewers who are interested in more from futuristic stories than explosions and space battles. Much like Cloud Atlas, Oblivion is imperfect but some of its imperfections result from being overly ambitious. And, while one could argue that characters are secondary to the ideas and storyline throughout Oblivion, I found myself caring about what happens to the people at the end and what that last moment signifies for the concept of identity.
Oblivion (United States, 2013)
Cast: Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Morgan Freeman, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo
Screenplay: Joseph Kosinski and Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt
Cinematography: Claudio Miranda
Music: Anthony Gonzalez, M.8.3
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures