Directed by Joseph Kosinski, Starring Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko, and Andrea Risenborough
Tom Cruise has been trying to get back into the sci-fi/action game for a long time now. Nearly all of his efforts have been financial failures, which is truly a shame, because more often than not they have been good. “Oblivion” is definitely a strange movie, made by strange people. It borrows a lot of elements from previous sci-fi classics. The writing isn’t all that great. And it might not be that good of a film. But “Oblivion” is that good of an experience. The parts are unoriginal, but the sum is totally unique.
Earth has become a ruin because of attacks by Scavs, aliens who destroyed the moon, indirectly causing the destruction of the planet through natural disasters. Tom Cruise plays Jack Harper, a technician sent to the remains of Earth to maintain the planet’s defenses with his operator and only other human in the region, Victoria, played by Andrea Riseborough. One day, Jack finds a woman crash landed from Earth, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), who seems familiar. To say anything else would reveal plot elements, and in spite of this movie being more than 3 years old at the time of this writing, it would be unfair to any first time audience to reveal these elements. “Oblivion” is constantly throwing twists at you. There are many significant turns in the story, some of which are more predictable than others, but they all have an emotional impact on the characters and audience. Jack does not fully understand the situation that he is in, and the audience learns about what parts of his world are real, fake, or hidden along with him. The execution of the story is admittedly clunky because the script uses too many exposition dumps, but it is made up for to an extent because there is never too much exposition being dumped at once. A character might have a long speech that solves a few questions, but many mysteries are still left unsolved and the new details might create brand new questions. A particularly difficult to comprehend scene comes near the end of the film, where Jack plays an old audio recording. It is clearly shown that Jack owns only audio, but the movie shifts to video of the scene. It’s a convoluted method of storytelling that makes it hard to understand what is real and what is recorded.
But execution issues aside, the ideas are all very good. Jack’s role in life and humanity is ambiguous until the second half of the film, so he actually becomes a fully realized character. He thinks he knows what it means to be human, realizes that he doesn’t know anything, and relearns exactly what “human” is. He learns the meaning of life, and the value of life, and the differences between those. He has to endure constant identity crises, between his unclear memories of the past, the shattered reality of the present, and uncertainty over what his future will be, and if it is even worth having a future in his situation. The character is brought to life by Tom Cruise’s best dramatic performance in a long time, and yes, “Oblivion” is definitively a drama. It uses its sci-fi platform to address philosophical topics, but it is a movie about talking and questioning, with a few brief scenes of drone warfare. You do have to be in the right mindset going in. If you are expecting an action movie, you will probably be disappointed by the slow pacing in the first hour and the lack of fighting in the second.
But story and acting are a small part of “Oblivion”, which is an event first and a film second. As an experience, it is nearly perfect and often groundbreaking. The visual effects are fantastic. The world is the one thing built from the ground up, and it shows how much effort was put into every design. The machines are all sleek and efficient, rendered brilliantly, and the unique nature of how each drone or ship moves, shoots, and interacts with humans makes every one of them unique. In some ways, specific drones become their own characters based on their reactions to Jack. Kosinski’s previous film, “Tron: Legacy”, was widely disliked, but everybody appreciated the Daft Punk soundtrack. “Oblivion” applies the same concept to electronic band M83, and the music in this film is even better. The score has many instantly memorable songs that are repeated at just the right times and not too often. The different themes all have very distinct sounds, and work to establish concepts rather than characters. It’s a different type of soundtrack, but in 10 years I think everyone will try to replicate it.
“Oblivion” is easy to watch but difficult to process, like the great science fiction that it tries to imitate. I think that this is a film that people will talk about for years to come. Even though my rating for it isn’t fantastic, I do think that this is a film that everyone should see. It is derivative, but at the same time it is unlike any other film I have ever seen. Whether you enjoy it or not, it is an experience that should be shared by everyone.