Oblivion is this year’s first “summer blockbuster”, a term coined for Jaws back in 1975 that gets attached to any commercially successful tentpole action-adventure film released by a major studio between the months of April and August. Oblivion fits nicely into the blockbuster mold; it features action, romance, a great soundtrack and a PG-13 rating. It also showcases an eye for a unique visual style that writer/director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) continues to demonstrate in his work. Although it doesn’t break any new ground, Oblivion has just enough complexity within its mash-up of original content and popular sci-fi references to be a thoroughly entertaining sci-fi adventure. Yet it’s the film’s abundance of visual artistry that is most memorable.
Joseph Kosinski has stated that one of his intentions with Oblivion was to bring the science-fiction genre back into the light. What he means by this is that many recent sci-fi films have taken place in the blackness of space and in the dark corridors of spaceships. The majority of Oblivion’s narrative takes place amongst the daylit expanses of a devastated post-apocalyptic Earth. As told in the film’s opening voice-over, the moon and Earth were attacked by an alien race known as Scavengers (or Scavs), who were bent on extracting all available natural resources. Sixty years later, in the year 2070, the battle was won but Earth was demolished in the process, with all survivors evacuated to a new colony on one of Jupiter’s moons. The now desolate Earth is rendered in a rich palette of whites, greys and blues, punctuated by natural orange hues and bright robotic reds. The tower in which Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) resides with his teammate/romantic partner, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), is exquisitely designed from the glossy interior to the accompanying outdoor glass pool. It’s a dream home in the clouds yet the cold futuristic design also enables an ominous sense of solitude to pervade every tower scene. The film’s style is very much a part of the story, and it’s gorgeous to behold.
It’s hard to miss the influences of Independence Day and Total Recall in both Oblivion’s style and plot. It’s also impossible to miss the parallels between Oblivion and Pixar’s Wall-E. Decked in a fashionably white utility spacesuit, Jack Harper is a drone repairman tasked with helping keep the excavation of Earth’s resources safe from remaining Scavs. Like the character Wall-E, Jack Harper seems to be tasked with “Earth cleanup”, and both characters desire a higher degree of life fulfillment. Whether the similarities with Wall-E were intentional or not (my guess is they weren’t), it was a bit distracting to “re-live” familiar scenes, even though the context differs between the two films (though not that much different, but I’ll save that for another opinion piece). There are also segments of Oblivion that could potentially lend themselves very well to Kubrickian pathos if they were under the helm of a different director, one seasoned in telling more thought-provoking tales. As I watched, I yearned for moments of deeper contemplation and reflection. A slower pace would’ve enabled Jack’s character to evolve in a more thoughtful way, compared to achieving the same by having him run or shout or by filming a close-up of an intense expression. Oblivion is fast-paced to a fault. It’s a rare case where an additional ten to twenty minutes may have been crucial in allowing the film to function on a deeper than “popcorn flick” level.
But this doesn’t mean the running and shouting isn’t fun. Cruise does indeed get to flex his leg and vocal muscles. Known for his abundance of energy and willingness to play actor and stuntman simultaneously, Cruise again gives it his all. Also no stranger to tightly choreographed action set pieces, Cruise maneuvers through exhilarating fights and chases with gusto. He commands the screen as he has effectively done for over thirty years. Even when the script takes a dive for the simplistic or illogical for the sake of dramatic effect, Cruise grabs hold and runs with it (pun intended). His chemistry with Victoria is especially noteworthy. She is a woman helplessly tied to her mission and frightful of what may come to those that disobey. Their scenes together run the emotional gamut and are some of Oblivion’s high points.
Tying the scenes together is a pulsating score by electronic band M83. Joseph Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy was scored by Daft Punk, so the theme here is: Get a rock group to pump out an energetic and atmospheric score that fits nicely into a stylized sci-fi experience. M83’s score is striking and resonant, though it does at times feel disconnected from the scene being played out. The music will crescendo to an emotionally powerful melody but the accompanying scene didn’t execute the same emotional shift, so it takes a moment for the two to match up.
Oblivion is, in sum, a modern sci-fi flick. No more and no less. Audiences ready to think on a level demanded by Kubrick or Aronofsky will be disappointed. Oblivion plays its cards safely without taking any chances. Some safe choices backfire when they turn out to be predictable or sappy. If Oblivion wasn’t so carefully gift-wrapped with a shiny bow on top, we’d pass it over for other ways to entertain ourselves. A stronger human tale at it’s core could’ve warranted legitimate replay value. As it is, Oblivion represents the type of gift you open and play with for ten minutes before jumping to the next distraction. In the end, though, how much can one complain when treated to such visual panache? Answers may vary.
Oblivion opens in Bay Area theaters today.