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Oblivion Review: It's Got a Good Beat, and You Can Dance to It

By Daniel Carlson | Film Reviews | April 19, 2013 | Comments ()


Oblivion-review.JPG

It makes a certain kind of sense that Oblivion is based on a graphic novel that doesn't actually exist. Director Joseph Kosinski originally plotted the story with comic book author Arvid Nelson, only for the concept to be snatched up around the time Kosinski's first film, Tron: Legacy, was prepping for release. Kosinksi then wrote a screenplay with William Monahan, and that script was subsequently rewritten by Karl Gajdusek ("Dead Like Me," Trespass) and then again by Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3). The book itself never came out and likely never will, and the film that resulted from all that planning and shuffling often feels big and conceptual, as much about the picture as the narrative. It's like looking at a pitch book assembled from stories and places culled from the history of sci-fi movies. It's a little insubstantial, yet it's also pretty entertaining. Kosinski, who got his start in ads, is still a skilled visual artist who knows how to choreograph some beautiful chaos, and the film's got a nice blockbustery rhythm that never gets dull. It's also vastly better than Tron: Legacy. Part of that's because the film isn't a reboot or a spinoff of some other franchise (and because Tron: Legacy was just really bad), but it's also because Kosinski seems to care more about this story. It's his, after all, or it started out that way. If it wears its influences a little too proudly, it does so in good faith. It floats along on the strength of its ideas, even if you've heard them before.

The ideas that film intends to be the most radical are actually its most commonplace thanks to the recent resurgence of post-apocalyptic stories. When Kosinski started outlining the story in 2005, he was probably at the leading edge of the wave, but now it feels like a requirement for genre movies to be set in the burned-out husk of an Earth gone to ruin. (This year will also see the release of After Earth and Elysium, which share similar settings.) As such, the film's sun-blasted 2077 is oddly familiar, which can't have been what Kosinski intended. Conversely, what was probably the least spectacular part of the early concept turns out to be the most interesting: the movie's all about a drone operator and repairman who periodically engage in remote warfare with an alien race. Jack (Tom Cruise) handles repairs on the ground and necessary physical combat while his partner, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), monitors the action from their home base and tasks support drones as needed. They're among the last people left on Earth after everyone else has vacated in the aftermath of a nuclear war that defeated an invading species but left the planet barren and dying. Jack and Victoria are in charge of the drone squadron that monitors for more invaders and protects the giant machines that are funneling the oceans dry and turning the water into some kind of generic hydrogen fusion MacGuffin. It says something weird and almost undefinable about modern culture and entertainment that futuristic wastelands are predictable and boring but remote-controlled killer robots are eerie and relevant.

Jack and Victoria function as an autonomous unit, guided only by regular contact with the Tet, a giant space station in low Earth orbit that's home to mission control and the planet's last survivors, who are preparing to ship out to Titan, the Saturn moon where new colonies are being established. Kosinski imbues these early scenes with believable sadness and wonder, and the visuals are often stunning. The slick layout of Jack and Victoria's base and quarters bounces nicely off the harshness of the rocky landscape around them, and Jack's daily excursions in his personal recon ship are never boring. Jack and Victoria have both had their memory wiped to prevent them from divulging sensitive information in the event of enemy capture, so the beginning of the film finds them comfortably chugging along even though they're due to head home to the station in two weeks. You know something big has to be coming -- and something is -- but Kosinski doesn't rush it, and in fact spends a nice amount of time establishing the daily routine of what might as well be the last man and woman in the universe. It's nice to find a film that's committed enough to its fictional world to lay the foundation for what's to come. Oblivion isn't groundbreaking or anything, but it does feel like some thought went into it. If that sounds like faint praise, I guess it is. It's easy to stand out from the genre pack when you aren't based around a pre-existing franchise or toy line.

A big part of the film's success is Cruise. He turns 51 this year -- it's been three decades since Risky Business -- but his energy and charisma are unflagging. He is, as always, utterly committed to the role, and he's as good as you'd imagine at projecting a kind of panicked desperation into Jack. Cruise is always at his best when he's playing someone backed against the ropes, and that serves him well here. A weaker actor might not have been able to anchor the film this well, but Cruise is almost ideally suited to the quasi-blockbuster concept.

Jack's life is about to get a lot more difficult of course, as he winds up battling the remaining invader forces and learning things that, predictably, make him reevaluate his own purpose and his place in humanity's plan. The film's story and action beats come along at a nice clip, and Kosinski manages to make the most of quite a few of them, like a chase sequence involving Cruise's ship, a trio of enemies, and a series of narrow canyons. Kosinski also puts his own spin on the sound by using an electronic band for the score, with French group M83 providing more pop-influenced hooks than you'd usually get in a movie like this one. Their sound isn't quite as compelling as what Daft Punk brought to Tron: Legacy, but then, that was great music paired with an awful movie, while this time both picture and soundtrack are closer to the middle.

Oblivion is heavily influenced by standard genre ideas like destiny, control, and one man's battle for the fate of etc., and some of those influences go past broad themes and into specific movies or stories. I don't want to mention any of them, though. Part of it's the reluctance I always feel about anything that might spoil a movie for someone or reveal too much of the plot of something they haven't seen. But mainly it's because I'm not totally sold that such influences and echoes are always a bad thing. Oblivion doesn't retell anyone else's story, though it does have a good deal in common with some other sci-fi movies. Rather, it's that the film is working within a certain subset of sci-fi and only has so many directions to go. What makes the film work as well as it does is Kosinski's investment in the material. I wasn't surprised with anything I saw here, but I did care about what I saw. I was invested in the story and interested in what would happen, and when the ending arrived, I thought, "I'll buy that." More importantly, the story never forgets where its headed, and Kosinski ties everything up nicely in the end. It's may be a pastiche, but it's a good one.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.


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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Walter Ray Choi

    "It’s easy to stand out from the genre pack when you aren’t based around a pre-existing franchise or toy line." -- easy yet rare distinction indeed.

    However we are left with the remains of an otherwise watchable movie ruined by the gritting and eternally nervy Tom Thumb.

  • QueeferSutherland

    It's really interesting to see the lengths critics will go to nitpick a Tom Cruise movie. Saw Oblivion over the weekend, and while it's not a sci-fi classic, it's quite well done and far less derivative than most critics made it out to be. To me, the laziness wasn't in the choices Kosinki made, but in the way critics chose to deride the movie. "DERP, it's just Moon and The Matrix and Wall-E and Planet of the Apes all smashed together." No, it's not, and characterizing it in that manner really makes the critic -- not the filmmaker -- seem incapable of thinking originally.

  • Fantastic score by M83 whose last album Hurry Up, We're Dreaming is a must have. Top tune Midnight City http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

  • Buck Forty

    This review provides an interesting conundrum. At which point can those of us who have seen it start discussing its spoilerific points? Because I saw it and I don't agree with what some other people who have seen it said. But to debate those points would spoilt it for those that haven't seen it.
    Given the churn factor of the Internet might I suggest that three days after posting one can discuss the reviewed film?

  • Buck Forty

    Oh, and I enjoyed the film too, like the reviewer. It's not going to be a classic, but it didn't leave me wanting a ticket refund after seeing it (as many of the mainstream multiplex offerings I fall for do)

  • STARK

    A perfectly summed up review. Kosinski did a good job with this visually stunning movie, it would be interesting to see what he can do with really great material.

  • Simulacrum 1138

    Colonies on... Titan? A moon so cold it rains methane? There are better choices in the system.

  • Oblivion is a mash up of WALL-E, Moon and The Matrix to my mind. There are scenes almost straight out of Moon and The Matrix. Uh, and WALL-E. But it is beautiful to look at and makes me want to visit Iceland again. It also has a superb score. And a redheaded lead. Also, points for the scene in the library (although the librarian in me was worried about how many books were destroyed creating the set) and the whole 'reading as a symbol of humanity' motif was appreciated (again, librarian). I wasn't best impressed by Olga Kurylenko, her acting or her character, as all our sympathy was built up for Andrea Riseborough's character. Although I don't think I would wear high heels if I was in her situation. Whilst he gives me the creeps (especially when he talked to that doll in the spaceship) I have to begrudgingly admit Tom Cruise was in his element here.

  • John G.
    like looking at a pitch book assembled from stories and places culled from the history of sci-fi movies.
    a little insubstantial
    wears its influences a little too proudly
    The ideas that film intends to be the most radical are actually its most commonplace
    isn’t groundbreaking or anything
    is heavily influenced by standard genre ideas

    There, I've pulled out all the relevant details from this review. Unfortunately, even these few poor phrases are too kind. This movie is worse than a "pitch book" culled from every sci-fi ever made. They forgot to take the stories from all the work they borrow from. I don't know, Daniel how anyone could care about the characters in this thing. No one has a single real moment. it's just 30-second ad spots strung together. Nothing is earned. Everything just happens in or around the normal point in the running time when they're supposed to happen. Yes, it's beautiful, exactly like an ad is beautiful, stunning visuals, limited story, get in, get out. Only this isn't a 30-second ad spot. This is a 2 hour plus feature length film. The camera sweeps here and there, we see some fancy sci-fi toys (everything looks like it was designed by Apple), but the plot points just occur, not really tied to anything, not built or crafted, just flopped down at the 20-minute mark, then the 40-minute mark, etc.

    I love Sci-fi, so I went to see this movie. I didn't know what to expect. I didn't need great art, but I just don't understand. What is going on? Have they actually stopped hiring writers, and they really do base their movies on "pitch books?" I know all big movies now are designed to be as broad as humanly possible, so they can appeal to the broadest audience possible, offend no one and get a good return on investment in international box office, but surely everyone everywhere appreciates having a movie that's actually a movie, as in the whole piece works together as a single thing, where maybe there are themes, characters that one gives a shit about, and their lives do something or go somewhere or fit together in some way. This movie is what storyboards would write, if storyboards could write their own movies.

  • TrickyHD

    As a science fiction fan, I do appreciate when movies like this get made, however, the plot and twists of this movie, which would have been amazing in 2005, now seem "borrowed". Still an enjoyable time waster, but will not be in my rewatch cycle. Just lacked humor and originality, which makes me want to fire up better movies again, e.g. The Fifth Element, V for Vendetta, and even Starship Troopers.

  • Slash

    I like Cruise better as an actor now than I did when he was younger. He's aged pretty well. The weird Scientology crap aside, he's a good actor. The TV commercials for this, oddly, make it look sorta boring. But this review has, against the odds, piqued my interest in seeing the movie. Not the first weekend or anything, but sometime in the next month or so, maybe.

  • Dave Dorris

    Geeze, all religion is a little weird. Some is just a little more familiar. Cruise always works his ass off and gives you what you pay for. I happen to think Majority Report is a modern classic. Looking forward to this.

  • clancys_daddy

    "Majority Report"? Methinks your Cruise crush is affecting you in ways we would prefer you not share.

  • Dave Dorris

    Sorry, slip of the fingers led to erroneous spell-check correction. Thanks for the serious discussion of the content of my post though. Also, you're a little homophobic, aren't you?

  • Nosio

    I really disliked it. The main twist seemed more like a blatant rip-off than an homage/evidence of influence, especially considering that the movie it was ripping off wasn't exactly a commercial success (I'm guessing Oblivian will gross more this weekend than the film I'm referring to did during its entire theatrical run).

    Also, the last 3 minutes of the film were utter nonsense. As soon as the voiceover started I knew any redeeming qualities it had were gone.

  • Irina

    I can't say exactly why because *spoilers* but the last minute of the movie was so dissapointing... it ruined the whole thing for me. Until then it was an above-average, decent action/SF flick, which we don't get enough of. I suspended disbelief, I ignored some plot holes, I actually enjoyed Cruise's performance... and then the voiceover started and eugh! If you saw the movie, you know what I mean.

  • Buck Forty

    I don't agree. But I can't explain why without spoiling the ending. There's a reason that what happens happened (the way it happened). It made sense to me. There was one BIG thing that didn't make sense, but...

  • Zirza

    Between the booming sound of the cinema, the incessant yapping of the spotty teenagers sitting in front of me and the repeated crunch of popcorn and crisp bags, I still managed to go to sleep during Oblivion.

    Which is quite impressive, if you think about it.

  • Buck Forty

    You were oblivious to your surroundings?

  • TherecanbeonlyoneAdmin

    A decent science fiction movie? I'm in.

  • toblerone

    Wait, so this isn't a live action remake of WALL - E? (Sure WALL - E from the original could portray more honest and real emotion then Cruise but this versions got Morgan Freeman and that chick from Magic City.)

    No thanks. Stop making movies Mr. Cruise.

  • Uriah_Creep

    It might as well be a live action WALL-E, since Tom and WALL-E are the same height.

  • toblerone

    WALL-E's taller.

  • Uriah_Creep

    Oh sure, but I hear WALL-E wore lifts to appear taller than Eve (unsuccessfully, I might add.).

  • Repo

    Kick ass snark, here's your cookie. Did you even read the (very well written) review? Daniel praised Cruise for his performance and deemed Oblivion a pretty decent flick. Your response is "Cruise sucks, stop making movies"? Ok then.

  • toblerone

    Oh I read it and yes the review was positive. I am just predisposed to disliking anything involving Cruise.

    I wish that wasn't the case but at this point it's just too late.

  • BWeaves

    You said what I was thinking.

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