Review: Oblivion

Spoilers

Trailer

Tom Cruise and Olga Kurylenko headline a forgettable and derivative sci-fi offering.

Tom Cruise and Olga Kurylenko headline a forgettable and derivative sci-fi offering.

I don’t mind Tom Cruise.

That seems like it is some sort of unique opinion sometimes, such is level of scorn and laughter sent in the direction of the man, though maybe that’s just because he is one of those perennial A-List actors who doesn’t really have to try hard at the whole “acting” thing to be famous anymore. His religious tendencies will do all that for him.

But I still think Cruise is worth seeing. He can bring a quiet intensity to roles, and he has made some really good movies (some bad ones too, but no one pitches a perfect game in this business). He’s a good action star, can work romance sub-plots well enough and has that gravitas you need from a leading man.

I say all that because this is the first Cruise film I have reviewed on this site. I feel the need to expand on that point considering what I’m going to write now, lest I be dismissed as some sort of “hater”.

Decades into the future, Earth is a ruin, destroyed in a cataclysmic war between humanity and an alien race. The survivors prepare to make a final move to Titan, with “Tech 49” Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), along with his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) some of those tasked with overseeing the final shutdown of the planet and the expending of what’s left of its natural resources. But Jack is plagued by dreams of himself and a mysterious woman, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), and a sense that something about their situation isn’t quite right. An encounter with a band of survivors led by Beech (Morgan Freeman) leads to some shocking revelations about Jack, his past and humanity in general.

You might always find a fine line between “homage”, “lifting” and sheer “rip-off”. The first is a brief, subtle call-back to something that happened a very long time ago in film. The second is appropriating more direct aspects of a previous work, though usually using them in some sort of new context. The third is taking elements of previous works wholesale, and using them as your own.

Oblivion’s director and team have talked a bit about their homage’s in this movie, but the cavalcade of them is really more than that. I suppose I don’t want to be so harsh as to call it a rip-off operation, since that requires a deviousness and all out gall that I actually think is fairly rare in Hollywood to its fullest extent.

But man, there is a lot of lifting here. Oblivion’s problem isn’t that it is derivative of something that has already been done, its derivative of so many things that have been done.

The most obvious one is Duncan Jones’ modern science fiction masterpiece Moon, starring Sam Rockwell. Oblivion lifts so many plot points and ideas from Moon that I refuse to believe that the final production was not heavily, ahem, “influenced” by it. You both have stoic central male characters, undertaking a solitary and difficult job in a wilderness, both of them dealing with a feeling that things aren’t right, both of them holding on to the hope of getting to go “home” in a very short time. They both have to deal with the sudden revelation of cloning, that their shadowy superiors are not all that they claim to be. They both have to try and find a way to beat the system. They both use the clones against the people who created them.

I would go so far as to say that the people behind Oblivion saw Moon and thought “This was great, but you know what it really needed? Explosions.” Some might throw at me that Oblivion is based on pre-existing source material in the form of a graphic novel, to which I would say, “You mean the one that doesn’t actually exist?”

Full of amazing visuals, Oblivion falls short in other areas.

Full of amazing visuals, Oblivion falls short in other areas.

The fact that the production team is being so obtuse about the origins of this project – outright lying is what I would be tempted to call it, but it isn’t that bad – is not a great sign. A certain lack of honesty in that regard does not endear me to Oblivion.

And there is so much more. The Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, The Running Man, The Twilight Zone, The Matrix, I Am Legend, hell, even a little bit of WALL-E. Oh and hey, I’m pretty sure I got a bit of a Top Gun feel at times as well. Oblivion just can’t help itself, stuffing its running time with material lifted from a plethora of other sources. It might be excusable if Oblivion took those ideas and went to a somewhat new place with them, or mixed them up enough to make an experience that could be given the bare traces of “unique” as a description, but it just doesn’t.

Compare to something like Gangster Squad, a movie in a genre that also lifted large portions of its ideas, plot points and themes from other sources. Gangster Squad at least had plenty of action, some good performances from a varied cast, an excellent stand-out presence in its antagonist and was actually fun to watch. Oblivion lacks all of those things, especially the stand-out antagonist, which would allow me to excuse its more blatant “influences”.

There is an interesting enough story arc to be follow here, it is just dragged down by the fact that I’ve seen it all before and the way that it is told here is not especially riveting. You have your main character and he goes on his journey. At times it is a charming journey, like when we discover that Jack has constructed his own idyllic retreat in the woods of a protected valley. But then it all gets torn apart by the films own failings, and the nagging thought in your head that such a valley could not possibly exist in the area presented.

The story is directionless: an overly solemn mess as numb as the house that Jack and Victoria inhabit at night. The limited cast and the lack of an actual, physical antagonist to be a focal point for things is extremely damaging. The entire effect is magnified by the plodding pace and tempo of the movie, as its 116 minute running time came as a genuine surprise to me when I found out: I seriously thought I had been watching it for two and a half hours. It takes so long for the universe to be presented, and director Joseph Kosinski takes so much pleasure in showing off his CGI vistas of a ruined earth, that by the time the meat and bones of the entire affair is presented – an hour or so in – you might be wondering if it was worth waiting. Jack, while an interesting character in many ways, isn’t relatable or intriguing enough to carry so much of the movie on his shoulders alone, as that is pretty much what the first hour is.

Part of the problem is probably the promotional aspect of the movie, which included Morgan Freeman’s visage prominently and gave the bare bones of one of the primary revelations of the movie – that bands of humanity exist on the surface, and have been mis-categorised to Jack as remnants of the evil aliens who annihilated Earth decades ago. Since this is well known to so much of the audience going in to Oblivion, it makes the slow lead-up to the establishing of that state of affairs a ponderous and unfulfilling appearance. Even without the aid of the spoiley promotional material, you’ll have figured out the actual surprises long before Jack or anyone else does.

The other problem might be that sheer lack of characters, or important ones at least. In truth, there are just three – Jack, Victoria and Julia – with the handful of others being little more than two-dimensional props for Cruise to look aghast at occasionally. Your villain is a clipped recording of a woman we only ever seen on a blurry screen. With such a minimalist approach to casting, Oblivion needed what characters it had to be true stand-outs, but instead they are derivatives of other characters, as Cruise’s Jack Harper is little more than Moon’s Sam Bell with a gun, or enigma’s of little consequence, like Victoria, who get the bare minimum of characterisation before we go back to more shots of Cruise on his own. There was genuine potential here for a more substantial romantic triangle story, but it is reduced to some distressed looks on the face of Victoria before she is unceremoniously dumped from her plot-critical standing in the film remarkably early.

Oblivion is a film that thinks it is cleverer than it is, perhaps largely because its production team thought it could mix and match the best parts of better movies into a just as good project. It tries to be deep and meaningful with plot hooks and ideas about cloning and identity, but it is nothing that sci-fi fans will not have seen a million times before in various formats. As a character study of Jack Harper it falls down, as a theses on humanity and our self-destructing exploratory nature it falls down, a theme introduced too late to have any real relevance. The twists can be seen coming a mile off and you will little care about the army of extras who get disintegrated in the latter stages.

You might go into Oblivion expecting something more along the lines of Elysium, a fight for humanities future with Jack in the middle, a epic. That isn’t what Oblivion is. It doesn’t have to be either, but at times you definitely feel that the plot of Oblivion could have done with a bit more of an epic feel, for a larger focus than just Jack the Clone and his daily patrols

The final act, where Jack and Beech head skyward to blow up the “Tet” is bizarrely simple and uncomplicated for a movie that is trying, in vain, to be so much more. Much like Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum of Independence Day, the climax is for Cruise to saunter into the enemy stronghold and just blow it up, but without the barest race of genuine tension in the proceedings, an effect given extra credence by the fact that Jack doesn’t actually die: the ones he leaves behind don’t actually have to deal with his absence because of cloning.

Oblivion is one of the few movies that feature drones prominently - and does it very well.

Oblivion is one of the few movies that feature drones prominently – and does it very well.

But that at least is an interesting thing to explore, even if it is well-trod territory. Some of the best parts are about Jack struggling with his identity, and the closing shots re-iterate the dilemma ever-present in the clones, as to how much of their personality, memories and history is their own.

And Oblivion has other good moments in its plot. The scenes of Jack in his valley hideout are actually somewhat touching, even if they make no sense within the larger make-up of the universe. The scenes between Jack and Victoria are stilted, but in a way that makes sense, and adds to the impression that all is not right with the reality that the two have been presented with. Jack’s journey from unknowing slave to humanities savoir is a well trod but still decent one, the kind of sci-fi popcorn filler that would be more acceptable if other portions of the entire affair were up to scratch. But it’s all done too small or too late to save the overall experience.

Oblivions plot is ultimately suffering from too many flaws to be praised. It lifts too much, and doesn’t do anything new or exciting with those ideas. It tries to frame itself as a post-apocalyptic action movie with very little action and as a deep science fiction thought provoker that provokes very little thought. It is the kind of plot that you can tell has been re-written to death and suffered for it. What drama there is, is melodrama, and Oblivion fails to really make the required connection between the audience and the character of Jack, around whom the entire experience has to resolve. There is so little heart in Oblivion. It is primarily a visual experience, on a par with the directors previous outing with Tron: Legacy, that is heavy on the universe building and making it an impressive cinematic experience, and with everything else – the plot most of all – relegated to a role of secondary importance to the production.

That’s a shame because there actually is some good work being done by the acting talent.

Cruise is just fine as Harper. He isn’t actually called upon to do that much, or exhibit that much of an emotional range, but I still saw that same intensity that Cruise is known to bring to his roles, the same determination. His Jack Harper is a simple guy who just wants to do his job, but is plagued by visions and suspicions he has no control over. When he finds Julia, you see the wonder in his eyes, when he relaxes in his hideaway you get the sense of completeness that is missing in other parts of his life.

But in so many other ways, Cruise falls down. His performance in no way adds to the tension, as he maintains nearly the same tone and same level throughout the entire running length, whether he is repeating his prologue narration or trying to talk Victoria down. His monologue about the football game early on was incredibly poor in terms of emotive performance, and you felt that the only time you got to see some actual enthrallment from the Jack character was in the flashbacks to his time as an actual astronaut. In the end, Cruise has been written into a hole here, the main biological prop in a production that isn’t about anything that its cast can do. Cruise was never going to get the opportunity to really act in Oblivion.

Andrea Riseborough does, and she has the capability to make Victoria someone  vaguely interesting. Her main positive points are non-verbal delivery – the odd look, the subtle glance, the wince, the tear. She’s good at that, of conveying emotions and a personal state without the use of words, which is vitally important as her actual delivery of dialogue is as turgid and uninspired as anyone in Oblivion. When she tears up at Jack’s apparent betrayal or worries about him as he vanishes from her screen, it works. Other times, she just comes across as too detached, too uncaring, too fake for us to really be interested in her character or the actresses performance. It is implied that she was deeper than she was outwardly depicted – there seems to be this strange idea that she willingly walked into cloned slavery just so she could fulfil an attraction to Jack, or something like that – but in the end that’s nearly entirely in the mind of the audience. Oblivion could have done with a more outwardly obvious love triangle if it was trying to create decent character drama.

Olga Kurylenko, an underrated actress in my opinion, might be the best of the lot as Julia, though it might be fairer to say that she’s as good as Cruise and no more. So much of her performance is simply to look wistful and alluring in his dreams and visions, but when she actually shows up properly, I thought that she did as fine a job as you could hope for, managing to make a connection with Cruise’s character that was believable without being too much of a stand-in for Jack Harper’s emotional needs. That is, she at least seemed like a person of her own accord, rather than a character that was just Jack’s dreams come to life. She had heart, jealously and sadness, which was important to portray.

Morgan Freeman is in this as the leader of the last of humanity, and I have no idea why he even bothered if this was the best he was going to do. Freeman so obviously doesn’t care about Oblivion throughout his brief appearances, that his scenes should be taught to acting students as how not to play a leader with gravitas. He strolls through his lines and moments with all the effort of Jeremy Renner in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Truly appalling.

Nikolaj “Kingslayer” Coster-Waldau is Freeman’s right hand man in the human resistance. He has some nice action scenes and some terse lines, little else. He does fine, but he certainly isn’t getting the same chances that he does in Game of Thrones.

Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau have little to do and little to offer anyway in Oblivion.

Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau have little to do and little to offer anyway in Oblivion.

Lastly, Melisso Leo is Sally, the Tech supervisor, and later the voice of the Tet. Only in the latter part of the movie does she get the chance to be anything but a few clipped sentences being cut around the place, and I suppose she was able to put on an a slight air of creepiness. But her part is ultimately so short and bizarre that it didn’t really hit the required notes to be an effective antagonist.

That’s literally it for the cast, bar extras. Kosinski went very minimalist when it came to actual people, which I suppose might be fitting for a movie so obsessed with visuals. Actual actors just get in the way it seems.

And this production has some very strong visuals. As you might guess from the timing of this review, I only saw this on DVD, on a HD large screen, so the intended effect was a bit diluted for me, but I still thought that the effects department did a great job.

This is as good a depiction of a ruined Earth  – or at least a ruined North-eastern United States – as you are probably going to ever get on screen. It is a planet where the forces of nature have violently merged with that of civilisation, and the result is a masterpiece of post-apocalyptica: streets of skyscrapers are in the walls of deep valleys, the top of the Empire State Building juts out just above the ground, craters inhabit football stadiums. Yes, it’s very Planet of the Apes at times, but still entrancing. This world is a lonely, desolate place, but it has that haunting beauty, that sort of enrapturing nature that so many other films of this genre fail to create.

The tiny cast adds to that, and Cruise looks so very small as Jack Harper, speeding across those wide open spaces between disregarded landmarks. The emphasis on these backgrounds and setting goes too far frequently of course, and Kosinski labours through some of his panning shots, obsessed with making sure that we get the full visual experience of this new desert.

That kind of attention only goes so far for other parts of the visual production. Jack and Victoria’s home is a sleek, gleaming structure, the sort of representation of the future that contrasts well with everything below it, especially the swimming pool that the two cavort in during the opening act, the exact sort of alien-ish future tech that belongs in such an image. Jack’s hideaway is another set that is very well presented, as if it was built by a man trying to rebuild something he can’t quite remember.

But other sets fall well short, with Beech’s refuge being just another dank Terminator-like industrial centre, the dark library that serves as the scene of a first, limp action sequence and the interior of the Tet being uninspiring, bland and dull.

The more active CGI offerings are just great though. The drones start out as just another piece of mindless machinery, but by the end enough had been done with them to make them into an utterly deadly threat, that actually had a bit of emotion behind them in their jittery movements and usually silent menace. Hollywood hasn’t done much with drones yet, and Oblivion can at least claim to be one of the first movies that presents them as the utterly deadly – and game-changing – threat that they are.

More plaudits have to go the the bubble ship that Jack flies around for the entirety of the running time. It’s an amazing looking piece of computer imagery, a Bell helicopter for an age yet to be. While it probably goes too far, as some people involved with the film like to claim, to say that the Bubble is a character of its own right, it’s still a very impressive piece of imaginary machinery, fully realised, fully believable within the universe, and part of some decent action set-pieces with the aforementioned drones, with whom it provides a nice compare and contrast.

Harper's bubble ship is one of the more interesting and well-presented CGI creations of recent times.

Harper’s bubble ship is one of the more interesting and well-presented CGI creations of recent times.

Those action sequences are rare, surprisingly rare for a movie marketed as this one has been, but they are still of a fairly decent standard. An opening gunfight in the ruined library is, much like Harper’s aim, hit and miss, but the other are of a better quality. The dogfight with the drones has plenty of cliché moments but is still a bit of a CGI thrill – in fact, one of the best completely CGI action scenes that I have seen in a while – and the shoot-out in the survivor base was a brutal, thrilling back and forth, of pitiful humans trying desperately to do anything to stop these perfectly designed killing machines. The problem of course is that these scenes are spaced very far apart, when large parts of the rest of Oblivion could use some drive.

It would be remiss of me to not note that a brief fight between two Cruise clones around half way through also looks surprisingly ridiculous.

It’s a minimal script, much like the cast, and not one to write home about. If you’re in doubt as to the priorities of the production team, compare the amount of CGI visual shots with the amount of actual lines that are given for people to say. It’s the sort of script that is supposed to be just a bridge to get from nice visual set piece to action set piece to another nice visual set piece, with little time for meaningful interaction or actual character development to be undertaken through verbal means.

Aside from Jack’s proposal memories to Julia, I wouldn’t say that any part of the script actually stood out, aside from the misplaced but still amusing final admonition from Jack to “Sally” and the use of the poem Horatius as a an encapsulating tool for the entire story:

Then out spake brave Horatius,

  The Captain of the gate:            

“To every man upon this earth  

  Death cometh soon or late.             

And how can man die better      

  Than facing fearful odds           

For the ashes of his fathers        

  And the temples of his gods

The “ashes of our fathers” line is cleverly used as a stand-in for the long since destroyed mankind, with the Tet replacing the “temples of his Gods”, with Sally herself personifying this all-powerful skyward set figure. In a script lacking in so much, its one of the lone exceptions worth talking about.

Everything else is, much like the plot, bland and straightforward, an analysis given credence by the amount of times that it is explained to characters and the audience about the general plotline: Jack repeats his opening monologue wholesale to Julia after he recovers her for example.

The quality of the script is so poor that it seriously detracts from the rest of the experience, further cementing Oblivion’s role as a primarily visual experience.

An OK soundtrack surround Oblivion, one made almost entirely by French band M83. Much like Daft Punk were given free reign over Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy soundtrack, M83 have been allowed to craft an oft understated but strangely effective score formula here, one that slightly evokes the work of Hanz Zimmer in parts. I wouldn’t call it especially memorable – certainly not as memorable as that of Tron: Legacy – but it has its moments, that sort of vaguely half techno, half orchestral merging that works on most occasions, but doesn’t on others.

Have I mentioned the stunning visuals yet? They really are great, but can't carry Oblivion on their own.

Have I mentioned the stunning visuals yet? They really are great, but can’t carry Oblivion on their own.

So, onto themes then. Oblivion is a shallow affair in so many respects, and what themes it has, it has lifted from elsewhere. But there are still there and still to be discussed.

I suppose the most obvious one is that of memory mixed with that of identity. Jack is a man who is not sure who he is, plagued by dreams that do not appear to be his. His role as a technician is one that he excels in, but not one that is truly his, as he delights in abandoning this persona in his valley hideaway, safe from the view of Sally and his love back in their perfect apartment building in the sky.

This drives him on an endless quest for exploration, whether it is finding books or finding last pieces of nostalgia from the Empire State Building. It’s what drives him to protect Julia when he finds her and what drives him towards facing down the truth that is presented to him by Beech and company. Jack can’t live the lie, not in the same way that Victoria seems not only able to, but enjoyed, getting the intimacy with Jack she hadn’t before, even if this desire is only in the same subconscious way that Jack remembered Julia.

Jack and Victoria lose their identities when they enter the Tet and only when Jack re-approaches it does he gain his back. He gains it back through full access to his lost memories. Oblivion makes clear that memory is synonymous with identity – it is our past experiences that shape us the most, which make us the people that we are today. Even if those memories have been implanted into a body that did not experience them directly, they still give that body the identity of those memories, since experience is such a subjective thing. Clone 52 has all of Jack’s past, just as 49 did, so he is as much Jack as the one we followed for most of Oblivion. Jack’s memories and love of Julia, a thing “undimmed by time, unbound by death” is what makes him who he is.

Identity can also be seen through the way that Jack interacts with humanity. At first, it is a distant mournful way, as he recalls long past games of football in an environment that is beyond ruined. Earth, and humanity by extension, is a memory, one nearly lost, just like Jack’s dreams. But when he finds Beech and his survivors, the “Scavs” of his nightmares, he discovers the true humanity that remains, which is far more than the idyllic hideaway he has constructed, almost as a memorial to things since past.

It takes time, but Jack finds a part of himself in the existence of this group of survivors. His identity is wrapped up very strongly with humanity – he comes to identify with them, in effect, to the extent that he becomes willing to die for them. Humanity as he knew it is a memory, but if Oblivion is the story of anything, it is the story of how Jack Harper finds a new humanity, and learns to become one of them. He needs to fulfil his purpose and save humanity, having been partially responsible for its downfall decades previous. When he tricks his way into the heart of the Tet, it is with a plea for the survival of his species, something he is accomplishing single handed, much as he did for its destruction. Humanity ends up surviving because of Jack Harper, and Jack Harper survives with that new humanity, his real identity secured with it.

Then there is the theme of teamwork. One of the repeated phrases by Sally is the interrogative “Are you still an effective team?”, a question that is at once a friendly inquiry and a rather disturbing test of the clones’ self-awareness. Oblivion and its characters are defined by the way that they interact with each other to get things done, and how that changes over time. Jack and Victoria are a good partnership, but only as part of the false lives that they find themselves living. Jack finds greater purpose and release hand in hand with Julia, and to a lesser extent with the remaining dregs of humanity, through Beech and his underlings. Victoria, unable to handle that kind of rejection, essentially chooses suicide over seeing their effective team be disbanded forever.

Jack and Julia find themselves defined by their memories, a surer sign of identity than anything else.

Jack and Julia find themselves defined by their memories, a surer sign of identity than anything else.

Lastly, I’d like to mention a theme related to the dangers of technology. Technology does not get a uniformly negative approach in Oblivion, but for large sections it certainly does. The drones are an evil that must be reckoned with, a subtle one, masquerading as an ally, something is true for the Tet as well, and the sinister persona of “Sally” inside. The human survivors only use the most basic equipment to fight back, defeating the drones with bullets, but getting mown down wholesale for it.

The Tet itself is the pinnacle of this feeling, a monstrous formation in the sky, staring down on the Earth that it ruined, lying to its chosen servants about its actual purpose. The end of this nefarious piece of alien technology is the only thing that that can ensure the continued survival of humanity, living a more frugal, natural lifestyle in the valley that Jack Harper made a home in, a place without drones or bubble ships.

In conclusion, I can only say that Oblivion is a disappointment. Marketed as a stunning vision of a post-apocalyptic future with an engaging action storyline, it has failed to deliver on numerous accounts, and find itself wallowing in a safe, but typically boring, middle ground. The sheer amount that it lifts from better movies of the genre is unforgivable, and the impression one gets from watching it is of a clumsy first draft wrapped around pre-envisioned visual effects, that were the only reason that the director wanted to make the film in the first place. Lax acting and a poor script cap off the range of failures, and the feeling of a critical flop is only averted by the success of the visuals, which are indeed awe-inspiring, but certainly not enough to save this attempt at a new science fiction classic.

Oblivion is simply too much somebody else’s film, that Kosinski has tried to pass of as his own. The ruined vista of New York is not enough for a sci-fi epic. It needs depth, it needs more of a message, one unique to itself, in order to truly pass muster. In the end, Oblivion just feels like some sort of cross between a parrot and a magpie – shamelessly copying everything it see’s, all in the pursuit of shiny objects to show off. Not recommended.

Lifting so much and not making the best of the acting talent, Oblivion is a pretty movie, but little else.

Lifting so much and not making the best of the acting talent, Oblivion is a pretty movie, but little else.

(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures)

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3 Responses to Review: Oblivion

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