REVIEW: Oblivion [2013]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 124 minutes | Release Date: April 19th, 2013 (USA)
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director(s): Joseph Kosinski
Writer(s): Karl Gajdusek & Michael Arndt / Joseph Kosinski (graphic novel)

“We’ll come back when it’s over”

Originally planned as a graphic novel, Joseph Kosinski‘s Oblivion wouldn’t have stayed solely on the page for long. It’s science fiction romance decades after the Earth is ravaged by nuclear war and alien invasion would have whet any studio’s appetite with or without the director’s work on TRON: Legacy—itself a mixed bag many consider a failure. Disney tooted his horn for awhile leading up to that highly-anticipated sequel, even going as far as outbidding multiple suitors for the rights to his and Arvid Nelson‘s comic book treatment. Once it was decided a PG film couldn’t do the material justice, however, the property changed hands to Universal while also going through separate rewrites by Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt resulting in not quite the “mind-blowing epic” of it’s billing. It seems there were too many cooks in the kitchen.

But that’s an easy thing to say when you haven’t read any of the versions coming before what has been put onscreen. Chock full of science fiction tropes we’ve seen plenty of in the genre over the past few years, nothing new is brought to the table in their orchestration. While one could guess the original treatment was simpler, more ambiguous, and willing to let its audience intelligently wade through mysteries with obvious conclusions and not need fully realized exposition, perhaps the second and third sets of eyes were necessary to make it more coherent and palatable. Maybe it was too obtuse as a graphic novel and Universal rightfully looked for ways to make it mainstream friendly. I understand that ill-conceived desire because novices going for futuristic action will be pleased to a point.

However, having your finished product be unsure of its appeal will only spell disaster. The sparse atmospheric suspense cultivated from the start will bore those wanting explosions and Tom Cruise running just as the obtrusive sound cues and over-bearing need to explain sci-fi concepts we’ve guess an hour previous will turn off fans hoping Kosinski’s dream to harken back to 70s-era sci-fi came true. The fact of the matter is that Oblivion brings nothing original to the table for those who have seen the new version of “Battlestar Galactica”, Moon, and The Matrix. This reality isn’t a death sentence, though. It simply comes with the responsibility of rolling out genre cues in a captivating and entertaining way. You can’t try to trick us with tired twists our current culture of nerd-dom has seen so many times before.

If you’re looking for examples of what those twists might be, I’m not your guy. Just mentioning the three works above could be considered spoilers so that’s as far as I’ll go. There was definitely potential for Oblivion to be more than your run-of-the-mill futuristic blockbuster. Kosinski is a visionary who has crafted a gorgeous world upon his giant IMAX canvas as well as an intriguing war with teeth at its center to build upon. Unfortunately there isn’t enough plot to carry its length or self-important desire to be more than a love conquers all/humanity bands together to save its species story. It’s slow unfolding patronizes the viewers who easily guess its over-arching narrative and its need to show rather than let our imaginations fill in the blanks becomes tedious.

We’re dealing with a mop-up crew of two souls—Jack (Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough)—who’ve had their minds erased and filled with their current mission. It’s a classic trope leaving a lot to be explained as every “fact” filters through a manufactured prism of memory. What do we truly know about mankind’s space station hovering in the distance to take its refugees to Titan? What besides stories of death and destruction have been witnessed of the war on behalf of our main characters? We know nothing but radioactive wasteland, artillery drones protecting massive fusion stations in ocean, and the dream of a future away from past horror and present isolation. Only when those who aren’t supposed to ask questions become curious does the truth begins to surface.

Jack begins to dream of a time before he was born when New York City still shone beneath the Empire State Building. A woman, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), is there and life appears happy. But it’s happy now too—living and working besides his girlfriend Victoria, following the orders of Sally (Melissa Leo) at mission control, and meticulously setting up a lakeside refuge in a hidden valley of growth amidst arid sand and barren mountaintops. He wants to remain on Earth, she to leave for Titan, and in two weeks their choice must be made. Visions of Julia don’t help clarity, the threat of the enemy Scavs seems on high alert, and life starts to prove more utopic than humanly possible. As Jack lets curiosity take control of his actions, he’ll find even more to fear.

Shot mostly in the otherworldly landscapes of Iceland, Oblivion lives up to its billing aesthetically—at rest and in kinetic action scenes full of laser-evaporating deaths and an ever-present clash between man and machine. Cruise, Riseborough, and Kurylenko excel at creating characters wrestling with orders and gut feelings to live and/or die by the lengths they’ll go for truth above promise. Add nice turns from Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as rebel fighters barely onscreen for a quarter of the film and there’s plenty to like. Sadly the result of fact and fiction inevitably colliding gives too many answers and too long a resolution. Where the soul’s emotive power prevailing above duty should be uplifting in its showcase of sacrifice and honor, the want to explain every minute detail renders it clinically cold instead of powerfully honest.

[1] Jack (TOM CRUISE) cautiously approaches a drone in “Oblivion”, an original and groundbreaking cinematic event from the visionary director of “TRON: Legacy”and producers of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”. Photo Credit: David James Copyright: © 2013 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[2] ANDREA RISEBOROUGH stars as Victoria in “Oblivion”, an original and groundbreaking cinematic event from the visionary director of “TRON: Legacy”and producers of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures Copyright: © 2013 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[3] OLGA KURYLENKO stars as Julia in “Oblivion”, an original and groundbreaking cinematic event from the visionary director of “TRON: Legacy”and producers of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures Copyright: © 2013 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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