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Review: ‘Oblivion’ is a Black Hole of Borrowed Sci-Fi Ideas

By  · Published on April 12th, 2013

Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion is a lot like a fireworks display on a Tuesday. It has no real reason to exist, and while the visuals are exciting, they only impress for fifteen minutes before things get faulty and repetitive. In other words, leave it to Kosinski to make fireworks boring.

In the film itself, those fifteen minutes are scattered unevenly through a wasteland that feels much longer than its runtime. Around the third hour of the two-hour-long movie, Morgan Freeman’s gruff survivalist character describes an outside threat as without a soul, without humanity, merely a beautiful machine.

He might as well have been talking about this movie.

Jack (Tom Cruise) is a handyman soldier stationed at a beautiful house that stands above the wreckage that used to be the planet. His job is to repair drones that have malfunctioned or been brought down violently by Scavengers – the enemy that destroyed the Moon, that doomed mankind to head for an interstellar refuge and that still lives in small numbers despite the utter devastation caused by earthquakes and floods. That war was sixty years ago, but Jack and his romantic colleague Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are doing a tour of earthbound duty to ensure that a few giant, floating rigs are able to suck up the remaining sea water in order to harvest energy.

However, Jack is plagued by dreams of a woman (Olga Kurylenko) standing atop the pre-war Empire State Building and can’t shake the feeling that he knows her. Eventually, that woman falls out of the sky, Jack is captured by the Scavs, and he starts to question everything about his mission.

While all of that sounds both thrilling and familiar, it takes an egregiously long time to get the engine going here. The entire first act is a wasted chore where we learn all of post-2017 history in a convenient expository mouthful (that’s done bonus-style as a voice over narration) while learning next to nothing about our two main characters. Instead of building people or relationships, everything is done shorthand. Jack wears a baseball cap, has a Bobblehead doll on his dash, and we’re told that he doesn’t strictly follow protocol. Victoria is an unnecessary presence who seems to exist solely to slow down communication between Jack and a control center located on a space station called the Tet. She also utilizes a table-sized iPad and goes skinny dipping just as musical scores start to swell.

Oblivion’s failure to launch is mostly due to Kosinski’s inability to stop staring at his own visual set ups. As a result, the movie feels like it’s trying to be a Tarkovskian art-house exploration of futuristic loneliness when it’s really a big dumb action movie wearing the Emperor’s new clothes. It doesn’t have the dialogue-writing acumen to excel as the former, but it’s too emptily slow to be a summer blockbuster. To be fair, the contemplative visuals of our doomed world (as photographed by Claudio Miranda) are excellent, but neither Jack or Victoria are very interesting, so we’re left with shots that could be condensed to a 5-minute sizzle reel that would feel at home on National Geographic 2077.

The best example of the problem is the opening voice over itself. It’s all information that’s immediately obvious delivered by a movie that doesn’t trust that its audience is smart enough to connect the dots. Cut it away, and we’re exploring the landscape alongside Jack instead of riding shotgun with a generic hero tapping his toes until his journey can begin.

Plus, the movie doesn’t have a whole lot going for it beyond the half dozen ideas it’s borrowed from other science-fiction films. Oblivion doesn’t cover any ground that hasn’t been trampled before. To mention the specific movies Oblivion cribs from would risk spoiling it, but think of 5 sci-fi movies from the 1970s and the past decade, and you’re probably already there – from the blunt use of those already popularized tropes to the inches-away-from-copyright-infringement of HAL 9000’s design. On a similar note, what they make M83 do to ape Hans Zimmer’s scoring style is close to what producers told Ray Parker Jr. to do to Huey Lewis in order to get the Ghosbusters theme song. The near-xeroxing of it all is really conspicuous and disappointing, but it will probably blow the minds of anyone who’s never seen a sci-fi film before.

That also means that everything that happens plays out exactly how you know it will, even though the script is trying desperately to throw curve balls.

To that extent, all of the revelations that drop are either handled clumsily or done by outright lying to the audience in order to manipulate some kind of emotional response later on regardless of what it does to the plot’s logic. The tricks that are pulled on the characters (including the biggest (illogical) trick of them all) are all also pulled on the audience without any kind of grace or ability. This isn’t the kind of movie where things are too perfect or where something just feels off before the core puzzle piece falls into place. It’s also not the kind of movie where reality is shrewdly presented from a different angle so that when we see it from another side, the result is shocking. Instead, it’s the kind of movie that has to deceive its audience solely to tack on the hollow benefits that come with employing twists.

By the midway point, that motive isn’t surprising anymore because nearly everything done in the movie is done in service of its design – even to the detriment of the direction of the plot or the motivation of the characters. Freeman’s character Beech, as a cosmetic example, wears sunglasses purchased at the Mad Max outlet mall at all times (even underground in complete darkness) and smokes (no kidding) a cigar that somehow hasn’t been turned into a shriveled husk after six decades.

These are small problems, but there are a ton of them, piling on top of one another until it’s abundantly clear that Kosinski and company didn’t bother much with making anything make sense. That lack of concern flows understandably to the plot itself – including Jack’s entire reason for existing. At one point, one of the Scavs is asked why he thinks Jack will actually do what they need him to do, and his answer might as well have been, “Because the script tells him to do it.”

It’s almost torturous to imagine what the movie would be like without the assembled cast. The talented Riseborough unsurprisingly does as much as she can with an inessential and barely-written character. She and Kurylenko are both fascinating to watch, so it’s a shame they weren’t given more to work with. That goes for Cruise as well who shrugs his way through everything with the confidence of a seasoned action lead stuck in world that inexplicably won’t let him toss down the yoke and go get something done. Freeman smokes those impossible cigars and collects a paycheck.

All of it would add up to a gorgeous yet forgettable trip through a viewfinder if it weren’t for a truly insulting final fifteen minutes that sees all the connective strands from previous scenes either fall apart or refuse to come together. Sputtering beyond a false-start of a climax, Kosinski then throws everything at the wall in an attempt to make something emotionally stick. Three endings and a dishonest twist later, the movie closes out with a whimper.

The key message of Oblivion is that it’s far better to look good than to feel human.

The Upside: Awe-inspiring visuals laced throughout, a small section in the middle that feels like it’ll actually achieve some momentum, interesting performances

The Downside: A confused, heavily-borrowed plot with plenty of holes, bland characters, a non-existence concern for story and a truly insulting finale

On the Side: It’s already open in Germany (which is how I saw it). The movie utilizes the new Sony CineAlta F65 camera, and it’s an excellent commercial for it

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.