Though i was excited to see it i was unsure going into Oblivion whether or not it was going to be worth my time since the trailers do such a strange job of advertising it. They all start slow, meditative and in most cases even monochromatic; showing us protagonist Jack Harper as he goes about his business as a sort of live-action Wall-E, cleaning and maintaining a post-apocalyptic future earth. These shots fascinated me but of course they aren’t all that it contained, after a minute or so the cutting becomes more frenetic and we start to see flashes of Cruise fighting, shooting and otherwise causing an overload ruckus. These I could take or leave, but I feared that they forecasted a shallower film than the first half suggested.
Well, does it make the same slip-up as that aforementioned animation during its second half into Transformers territory? No, the film is fairly consistent in its slow pace and small scale, which was a really refreshing surprise. Is it shallow? Yes, but its also got the most beautiful surface of any film I’ve seen this year and I’m not just talking about Tom Cruise. So if you thought, like me, that those trailers were concrete evidence that Oblivion was going to be a simple blockbuster you were mistaken, but they are right in so many other ways…reprehensibly so. Almost spoiling the film singlehandedly.
The promo’s ruin much of the plot, the footage within them from up until ninety minutes into the movie; ninety minutes that plays out more as a mystery than it does straightforward sci-fi and so going in having seen the answer spoiled this section somewhat. Its hard to be intrigued by shadowy figures when you’ve already heard them speak and know what they have to say, harder still to side against them when you are initially introduced with their persuasive speech. Thankfully though the aim of the film is more personal than plot-based during this section and so the loss is not as bad as it may have been.
Now, this next comparison may possibly spoil something for you but I would argue that its something you will easily guess if you get the reference, though you have been warned: for the most part Oblivion is Moon with a budget. Not only are the storylines remarkably similar but the way in which they are told matches too ( which is a compliment and not an accusation of plagiarism). Their worlds are both very sparse and very lonely, they both feature a sort of existential fatalism, a Sisyphean slavery to scientific gods and they both deliver their twists fairly early, leaving the climactic third act to instead be about the emotional effects of such revelations.
Establishing a sci-fi world for a large audience is hard enough as if, but add in those twists which are constantly shifting the sands and Oblivion could be quite a complex watch for some. So thankfully, like Moon, it does a great job of establishing its universe through patterns and procedures in the early half of the film, wherein the world is operational, and then twists those familiar traits against us in the latter. Personally I found that it bordered a little on blunt at times and some ideas repeated one or two times too many throughout but for an amateur audience it is probably a near-perfect balance and even if its not exposition through visuals, through action, is always admirable and always preferred over the alternate option.
Given then that so much of the film is based around watching him work the casting of the lead is vitally important and as a fan I think that Tom was the right choice, though its not a role that he’ll be remembered by. Cruise here is charismatic, though maybe not as much as usual; his shtick with a dashboard bobble-head for example fails to charm in the same way that all of Sam Rockwell’s antics did. His ego also shows through during certain moments but some of these are addressed as the film goes on. His religious stances stick out similarly, the message of the movie subverting his own in some scenes, which made me wonder whether he’s either oblivious or a really good sport. The thing is though Tom’s few non-magical moments are acceptable here because he’s not actually asked to carry the entire film solo like Sam was.
What most surprised me about the movie is the fact that, although there are some explosions (few of which felt extravagant, all the action playing a planned role in the pacing out of the plot) here and there its actually a fairly stationary affair. For every second spent shooting there are a few minutes wherein the characters sit and speak to other or otherwise interact like honest human beings. Andrea Riseborough was something of a revelation to me in Shadow Dancer but her work since has lacked something, films like Welcome to the Punch rather under using her. She is the films only other character for a lot of the film and the interactions that she has with Cruise are all excellent; her performance here as strong as his, though her character is written and written-off in potentially problematic ways. In comparison Olga Kurylenko falls a little flat, but then I don’t know that she’s ever been anything but in an English speaking role.
So the film features a lot of talking, has few characters and mostly takes place in two or three small sets; so it was a pretty cheap picture right? No, Oblivion cost near one-hundred and fifty million dollars to make, let alone market. Where then did all that money go? Kick-backs? Craft service for Cruise? No, despite the structure you can see all that money on the screen. Director Joseph Kosinski is obviously a visual-effects guy, his only other feature is Tron:Legacy, and on this front he has assembled a terrific team: cinematographer Claudio Miranda and production designer Darren Gilford work with him to shoot not only some of the most realistic looking, but best looking effects around, merging together technology and craft to create a consistently sublime piece of cinema.
I started this review by saying that the film is shallow and despite my love for it I stand by that statement. There are ideas here but they ultimately don’t seem to mean much, any message you construct from them would be contrived mush and believe me I tried (we’re too busy fighting against ourselves to ever fix anything, maybe?). On top of that these ideas aren’t entirely original ones, the film is a puzzle built of borrowed pieces but that doesn’t mean that it can’t still be beautiful to take in.Oblivion is worth seeing and it is worth seeing big; IMAX this if you can afford it because its a film to be seen on the big screen, a film to be enveloped by, a film that will take you somewhere strange and new if you do. Oblivion is an experience, which is exactly what blockbuster sci-fi cinema should be.