Director: Joseph Kosinski
Stars: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko
Review by Joshua Starnes
One of the few remaining drone repairmen assigned to Earth, its surface devastated after decades of war with the alien Scavs, discovers a crashed spacecraft with contents that bring into question everything he believed about the war, and may even put the fate of mankind in his hands.
No, it's not the big screen version of the hit video game. That would be awesome. It is Joseph Kosinski's follow up to 2010's "Tron: Legacy" featuring Tom Cruise as one of the last survivors on a post-apocalyptic Earth who is beginning to discover not all is right with the world (apart from said post-apocalyptism, we assume) whether he wants to or not.
Which is decidedly less awesome than the video game thing but not free of enjoyment in and of itself.
Based on graphic novel by Kosinki which was never actually produced (and you can just roll that contradiction around in your head for a bit), "Oblivion" is big screen science fiction filmmaking at, if not its finest, at least its most beautiful.
Fans of the visual acuity Kosinski showed on "Tron" are in for an even bigger treat with "Oblivion" particularly on IMAX where every inch of the film's often stunning images are on view, lovingly rendered by "Tron" co-horts Darren Gillford and freshly minted Academy Award winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda ("Life of Pi"). Together they have created an impressive moving version of Kosinski's vision. The beauty of the IMAX presentation combined with the epic imagery involved is the greatest joy "Oblivion" has.
It's not just a travelogue of course, though you'd be forgiven for thinking so at times. "Oblivion" is still more of an action film than not and once the plot gets out of the way and the set pieces can get going it is a highly effective one. An epic dog fight between Cruise's bubble fighter and some robot drones is one of the highlight's of the film, helped along by some masterful editing from Academy Award winner Richard Francis-Bruce ("Seven").
Of course we're used to big screen effects epics like this which are all beauty and very little if any brain (cough *Tron* cough). In that sense "Oblivion" is something of the Platonic ideal of the modern tent-pole film, providing not just the requisite beautiful images but also a script which has passed through the hands of four credited writers (and who knows how many uncredited ones) along the search for the most entertaining, least likely to turn away paying audiences version possible.
For once, however, it has not been a wasted effort, at least in part due to the caliber of screenwriters - Oscar winners William Monahan ("The Departed") and Michael Arndt ("Little Miss Sunshine") among them - trying to bring this Frankenstein's monster to life. The plot offers not just well designed and executed action beats but plenty of twists and turns which, no matter how silly they sometimes get, will keep you waiting to see which direction Jack will go next. "Oblivion" manages to pack a surprising amount into a movie that is just two hours long. It feels a good bit longer, but in a good way.
It's not just the twists that help though. The writers have tried to tie as much of the action as possible to the characters themselves – who they are, what they want, how will they react to each of the new impossible situations they find themselves facing?
Having essentially five speaking parts does make that a lot easier, but Kosinski has shown good casting judgment, filling his role with actors able to make the most of often very little, creating whole people out of very little. Andrea Riseborough as Vickey, Jack's girl Friday, is in particular responsible for most of the films real drama, and Morgan Freeman is as sturdy as he usually is. Even Nikolaj Coster-Waldau makes a strong impression despite less than 15 minutes of screen time.
The end result is not perfect by any means but is certainly a huge leap forward over Kosinski's last film and fairly entertaining more often than not.
The ‘than not' part usually stems from the center of the film, unfortunately, and as such is on view most of the time. "Oblivion" is by no means a complex drama, but even on the fairly simple terms it operates on Cruise is not up to the level of performance the script calls on. His character might be more artfully named Dull Surprise, as that is frequently the only expression he can come up with.
Kurylenko isn't much better, but maybe that's why they fell in love in the first place - they're unemotive soul mates.
Some of that is the fault of the script. The story, as it goes along, becomes as much of a handicap as a help. For all the good qualities it has it is still a hodgepodge of science fiction clichés thrown into a blender and merged into a not entirely homogenous whole. Sure it's an entertaining re-arranging of well-worn tropes, but not so entertaining that you aren't constantly aware of its influences. It doesn't so much wear them proudly as hide behind their skirts.
And for all the visual majesty on view there is a decided lack of confidence in showing over telling, resulting in some pretty horrendous information dumps. The worst comes at the climax as the film, desperate to make certain no one is left behind, cross cuts between both the beginning and the end of the plot in a way which could almost be experimental and interesting if it didn't come across so clumsily and desperate.
No, Kosinki is not yet a good enough director to tell stories the equal of his impressive visuals but so far he seems to be getting there. If it's not original, "Oblivion" is at least a well-meaning piece of entertainment that would like to be more. For second effort that's a big step up and suggests even better things to come.