When I think about a movie, sometimes my inner critic and my inner geek go to war with each other. So it was thus with Joseph Kosinski’s OBLIVION. Oddly enough, the last time that happened to this extent was Kosinski’s TRON: LEGACY, and that time the critic won. While the visuals of TRON: LEGACY are amazing, the character work, the acting, and the story simply didn’t work for me. I’ve revisited the film a couple of times (mostly when it showed up on cable) but it still doesn’t hold up in my mind.
With OBLIVION, the geek gets to win out this time. There are plot strands in OBLIVION that are derivative of practically every science fiction film released in the last twenty years – from THE MATRIX, to MOON, to WALL-E, to THE TERMINATOR, you name it. OBLIVION is a hodge-podge of ideas that have already been explored by many other movies. The plot to OBLIVION folds like origami under close scrutiny. And yet, it’s confidently directed by Kosinski, the visuals are stunning (especially in IMAX, which is probably the best way to go if you plan on seeing it), and the performances, for the most part, treat the material reverently and overpowers the clichés. There are scenes in OBLIVION that make no sense in the story, but are so visually compelling I couldn’t help but give them a pass.
Any science fiction geek worth a damn will crack the plot within five minutes of the beginning of the movie, but OBLIVION remains enjoyable despite that. Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are the last man and woman on Earth, having both had their memory wiped before starting their mission. They’re the cleanup crew; after a devastating alien attack leaves the Earth uninhabitable, the rest of humanity has left Earth for Titan, Saturn’s moon. Jack and Victoria are there to make sure that the water converters keep running – it’s these converters that provide the energy for the survivors on Titan. Every day Jack flies in his bubbleship, surveying the converters to make sure everything is working properly; he’s assisted by mechanized drones that pick off the remaining aliens, called Scavengers, who have moved underground.
But Jack isn’t content. He dreams of a life on Earth, a life he’s never lived. He frequently goes off the tracking scanners, going to a private sanctuary in the mountains, and although their mission is almost over, he’s reluctant to leave Earth. Then, a signal comes from a beacon placed on top of the remains of the Empire State Building, bringing to Earth a spacecraft that has seemingly been in orbit for over sixty years. It crashes, and the only survivor left is Julia (Olga Kurylenko). What happens next, and what Jack discovers, I shouldn’t spoil, but again, this is well-traversed ground for science fiction films.
Shot by Oscar winner Claudio Miranda, much of OBLIVION is beautiful to behold. The IMAX screen shows off his camerawork in true splendor, with some amazing shots. There’s something very pleasing to the eye about the world that Kosinski has created here – from the drones, to the home where Jack and Victoria live (down to the suspended swimming pool), to the vehicles and weapons, to the surrounding world. Much like Ridley Scott’s future visions, OBLIVION’s used future aesthetics feel genuine. The score by M83 provides some great awe-inspired moments, and I’ll go so far as to say I prefer it to Daft Punk’s work in TRON: LEGACY. I love Daft Punk’s score as much as anyone, but in OBLIVION, M83’s music complements and serves the film instead of calling attention to itself. The script, by Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek, and Michael Arndt, tries hard to find its own voice, but it relies too much on science fiction tropes that are instantly recognizable.
And yet, through the clichés, through the blatant plot lifting, OBLIVION still works. It works because Joseph Kosinski directs with supreme confidence in his story, and the performances by Cruise and Riseborough are believable and emotional. Kosinski’s visual skills have grown even more since TRON: LEGACY – there are moments that are pretty jawdropping, especially in IMAX. When Morgan Freeman shows up, basically playing Morpheus from THE MATRIX, he seems to be enjoying himself. The weakest performance has to be Kurylenko’s – mostly she just reacts to things, and it’s difficult to imagine why Jack would be so compelled by her when Victoria is a far more interesting character.
As for Tom Cruise , he does good work here. As his understanding of his world unfolds, he’s convincing, and he pulls off the action as well as he’s ever done. Cruise’s best moments are his interplay with both Freeman and Riseborough, and when the movie has its OMEGA MAN moments when Jack explores the ruined Earth. As the star, Tom Cruise obviously commands the most attention in the movie, but often the other characters feel like templates and not genuine people. The exception to that is Andrea Riseborough, who gives a heartfelt performance in a difficult role.
I want to be harsher on OBLIVION but I can’t. The action is really well done, the movie has impressive visuals, and even though the ideas are all cultivated for the most part from other movies, watching OBLIVION felt oddly relaxing, like slipping into a comfortable robe. Yes, we’ve seen most of this before, but when it’s told so confidently you almost don’t mind it. Under close examination, the movie’s central themes and plot cannot sustain themselves, but for some reason I didn’t want to poke and prod at it while I was seeing it. Perhaps I’m getting soft in my old age. OBLIVION is a perfectly enjoyable science fiction movie, provided the audience isn’t there with needles to pop the balloon.