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Review: Oblivion (2013)

Oblivion (2013)

Directed by: Joseph Kosinski

Premise: In a post-apocalyptic future, Earth has been devastated by an alien invasion. An astronaut (Tom Cruise) spends his days overseeing the extraction of the planet’s remaining natural resources. When a ship containing human survivors arrives, he begins to suspect that not all is as it seems.

What Works: Oblivion was written and directed by Joseph Kosinski, who had previously directed TRON: Legacy, and like that film Oblivion is a visually stunning piece of work. The film seamlessly mixes practical and digital elements and from time to time the visual style breaks away from the video game-like imagery that has typified science fiction movies of the past decade. Although this is a Hollywood sci-fi action picture, the filmmakers clearly aspire to something deeper and at its best Oblivion mixes high craftsmanship with moments of soulfulness. Tom Cruise is cast in the lead role and the actor is in his familiar likeable hero mode. Cruise isn’t exactly challenging himself here but he does bring his considerable charm to bear and that becomes important since he is often the only actor on screen.

What Doesn’t: Oblivion recalls TRON: Legacy’s visual flair but it also shares that film’s storytelling faults. The opening of the picture employs a voiceover narration to explain everything, getting the movie off to a bad start. Voiceover is often (although not always) a lazy method of exposition and this film would have been better off allowing the audience to piece together what had happened. But instead the filmmakers explain everything in the first few minutes and that becomes a problem because there is very little plot to this story. Oblivion is a very long picture, running over two hours, and it frequently feels that length. The problem is that this is a fairly simple story but the way it is told on screen is unnecessarily complicated and there just aren’t enough plot beats to fill the movie’s running time. The scenarios and plot turns that the movie does have are overly familiar and Oblivion recalls I Am Legend, The Planet of the Apes, Moon, Total Recall, and WALL-E but it is often inferior to those pictures.  The filmmakers of Oblivion are clearly aware of the conventions of post-apocalyptic movies and even demonstrate a handle on the themes and politics of the genre but they fail to advance it or do anything even remotely innovative with it. As is typical of the subgenre, Tom Cruise’s lead character comes to discover a terrible secret that upends his sense of reality and awakens him to a moral understanding that compels him to act. This is all done in a very vague way and there are far too many unanswered questions. Fantasy and science fiction storytellers do not have to explain everything but viewers need enough information to make sense of what they are seeing. At no point do we understand who the aliens are—or if there ever were aliens to begin with—and what the conflict is over. The movie wants its lead character and his allies to be brave heroes that the viewer can get behind but it is unclear what they are fighting for. That absence of a motive on anyone’s part robs the story of its reason to exist. Nothing compels the characters or drives the narrative forward, resulting in a movie that is long and boring.

Bottom Line: Oblivion has some terrific visual effects but too much of it feels familiar from other and better movies. Had the picture gone further with its premise and been a brain teaser like 2001: A Space Odyssey or 12 Monkeys it might be more compelling but this movie is trapped by convention and commercial interests.

Episode: #436 (April 28, 2013)