Review of “Oblivion”: Of Cruise and Nothingness

Summary:  Today Locke Peterseim reviews Oblivion, another attempt by Hollywood to bring science fiction to film. It shows their love of imagery — of the glossy finish — over the substance of the story. That’s sad, because we can learn much from the alternative perspective provided by hard sci-fi.  it’s another in our series of Sunday posts about the movies. {1st of 2 posts today.}

Oblivion poster

Of Cruise and Nothingness

By Locke Peterseim.
From the film blog of Open Letters Monthly.
29 April 2013

Reposted with his generous permission.

Ah, the tyranny of “cool ideas.” Any young, imaginative genre fan (be it of sci-fi, Westerns, crime, or romance) no doubt had school notebooks festooned with doodles and descriptions of ideas birthed along the lines of, “Wouldn’t it be really, wicked-awesome, cool, gnarly if…,” followed by descriptions and drawings of Ligers and their ilk.

Written by Karl Gajdusek and Michael DeBruyn from a story by director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion is intended to be a “hard sci-fi” post-apocalyptic mind-bender thrill ride starring Tom Cruise.

But what ends up on screen is a lovely mishmash of “cool ideas,” most of which, frankly, are kinda cool, but none of which adds up to much other than a nostalgia trip through dozens of other sci-fi films of the past few decades.

Hopping around the late 21st-century blasted, burned-out Earthscape (there was an alien invasion or something) in a sleek, sexy airship, Cruise plays Jack Harper (aka Capt. Strong Name!), a technician tasked with keeping giant hydro-rig machine things and a fleet of attendant robo-drones running while the rest of the humans have scooted off to a New World utopia on Saturn’s moon Titan.

Andrea Riseborough as Victoria
Andrea Riseborough as Victoria.

Of course, Jack’s not a total loner — he spends his nights high above the scorched Earth in a nicely minimalist Castle-in-the-Clouds home base, taking hot showers and frolicking in a sky pool with his work partner, Victoria (English actress Andrea Riseborough).

Right from the start, Kosinski sets up his game plan for Oblivion: Tons of stunning, soaring sky and wasteland views, with the potential monotony of non-stop visual splendor punctuated by Jack occasionally getting into tight scrapes down on the surface as he zips about, leading with his cocky daredevil grin.

And just when you start to wonder what it’s all supposed to be about, Kosinski drops the other half of his sci-fi formula: “Whoa!” revelations of The Truth about Jack and Victoria’s mission, including the sudden appearance of a woman from a past Jack can’t fully remember (Quantum of Solace’s Olga Kurylenko), and of course, Morgan Freeman as A Post-Apocalyptic Morgan Freeman.

It all sorta, maybe entertains and diverts, thanks to Kosinski’s undeniably impressive eye and yes, Cruise’s always-solid, charismatic hold on the center of the film. Mock all you like at the Scientology Scion, but there’s no doubt his unflagging, “just a regular super-skilled guy” magnetic screen presence often elevates otherwise routine genre material, especially dystopic sci-fi thrillers like Spielberg’s Minority Report and War of the Worlds.

Tom Cruise and Olga Kurylenko.
Tom Cruise and Olga Kurylenko.

But after a while (and there’s plenty of “a while” in its 124-minute running time), The Prometheus Effect starts to settle in: It starts off with great stuff to look at and hints and teases of Big Ideas about humanity and identity, but as the film rolls along, the Cool Ideas leave bigger and bigger plot gaps and logical sink holes in their wake, until by the end you’re left with a very nice looking pile of WTF?s that, for all Kosinski’s effort to make Big Sci-Fi, add up to lots of pretty and not much point.

Contrary to popular impression, good science fiction, at least hard sci-fi, is not about suspension of disbelief or escapism, but is about making us believe in a technologically and emotionally realistic future or alternate world. But Oblivion feels like it’s playing at science fiction rather than exploring ideas — almost all of which are cribbed from other, usually better films.

You can make your own list as you watch, but for starters there are echoes both faint and strong of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, Solaris, Independence Day, Total Recall, and The Matrix. (SPOILER ALERT: The fact that in this future, the Moon is all busted up comes off as a clever if maybe unintentional visual conceit. To paraphrase from Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back: “Duncan Jones is gonna sue somebody’s ass!”)

Oblivion would have you think it’s about deep philosophical themes and hard-sci-fi dystopian premises, but at its heart it still wants to live in a pretty spiffy, super-cool future full of nifty gadgets and empowering heroics, where you can save the world and still kiss the girl at your private cabin by the lake.

It may be the post-apocalypse, but with all those long, hot showers, and naked swims in the sky pool, it’s a damn sexy post-apocalypse. Kosinski has a great design eye, but too often in both look and depth, Oblivion feels like a perfectly proportioned, ergonomic Sharper Image chair. Welcome to the iPocalypse.

Click here to buy the DVD of Oblivion

Pool scene from "Oblivion".

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About the author

Locke Peterseim writes the Hammer and Thump film blog at Open Letters Monthly, an online arts and literature magazine. A film critic whose work has appeared on Redbox, WGN Radio, and in the Magill’s Cinema Annual, he also serves on the board of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

These days he still enjoys films on their artistic and entertainment merits, but also finds himself as much if not more interested in them as cultural mirrors; artifacts of how we want to see ourselves — and how mainstream studios want to sell those desires back to us.

Some of his other reviews:

  1. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” asks if you want a Revolution.
  2. Transformers 4: the Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America.
  3. 300: Rise of an Empire – The Half-Truths and Bloody Fog of Cartoon War.
  4. “Edge of Tomorrow”: Cruise, Again and Again.
  5. A new Man of Steel for 21st century America: a warrior superman.
  6. Hollywood transforms “The Hobbit” into The Desolation of Tolkien.
  7. Interstellar’s Quantum Love and Other Cosmic Horses#*t.
  8. Star Trek reboots to give us simple stories, the cartoons we like.

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The Trailer

Tom Cruise and Olga Kurylenko
Tom Cruise and Olga Kurylenko.
Olga Kurylenko as Julia
Olga Kurylenko as Julia.

One thought on “Review of “Oblivion”: Of Cruise and Nothingness

  1. “But Oblivion feels like it’s playing at science fiction rather than exploring ideas — almost all of which are cribbed from other, usually better films.”

    I haven’t seen it, the trailers make it look like it could be exciting. The unanswered questions for me are always: will I care about the characters, and will I be left with nothing but a hollow feeling that I just sat through a bunch of explosions and chases?

    The review mentioned Duncan Jones, director of the film Moon, starring Sam Rockwell. Moon was a film about ideas, well, really one idea, an idea that most Americans either don’t care about or don’t want to think about -the exploitation of workers. Of course the film did nothing at the box office, which was probably assumed by the filmmakers beforehand. Which to me makes it a very brave film, and also very realistic when you think about what the future is going to look like for workers if the ongoing trend of the corporate degradation of labor is allowed to continue. The film explored an idea that to me is worth thinking about. It created a character that I cared about, brilliantly played by Sam Rockwell. I became a big fan of him after seeing this performance.

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