Director: Joseph Kosinski
Writers: Joseph Kosinski (Screenplay, Comic), Karl Gajdusek (Screenplay), Michael Arndt (Screenplay), Arvid Nelson (Comic)
Cinematographer: Claudio Miranda
Starring: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough
Joseph Kosinski’s next science-fiction epic
Oblivion is a special kind of film. It’s one that many people will walk out of hating. Its one where critics may tear it apart. Frankly, they have reason to. The script is almost structureless, with no real goals to achieve for the first half of the film. Oblivion also sets up, from the moment it begins, that the “prize to be won”, in a sense, is the Earth itself. This is a motivation that feels completely forgotten fairly quickly. As a screenplay, it only hardly makes sense. Yet, for many reasons, Oblivion is also one of my favourite modern science-fictions.
What the film is about is where the criticism might arise. Oblivion stars Tom Cruise as Jack Harper, Earth’s “clean-up guy”. This on-screen definition doesn’t do it justice, however. His actual job is finding and fixing protective drones that guard Earth’s man-made resources. Jack is part of an effective team of two, who have two weeks before they are shipped to Saturn’s moon, where the remainder of the human population dwells. In this post-apocalyptic world, Humans have won a war against an unknown alien breed referred to as the ‘Scavs’. However, they lost their precious home in the wake of nuclear warfare. Earth is practically inhabitable, and the Scavs are trying to take what is left.
This synopsis doesn’t really encompass the journey Jack embarks on. That is one of the film’s biggest problem; it is hard to define. The first half of the film is completely explorative, introducing you to the world, rather than the conflict. Some might walk out saying that it was pointless, citing the objectivless-ness of it all. If, however, you can look past the traditional set-up of Hollywood films, Oblivion will pay-off.
Oblivion is directed by Joseph Kosinski, the director of 2010’s TRON: Legacy. I have been rather vocal about my appreciation towards that film, so Oblivion was somewhat anticipated, to say the least. This is Kosinski’s second feature film. This time, however, he also produced and co-wrote the film, as well. Considering his major involvement with the film’s comic book, this is very much Joseph Kosinski’s creation. Seeing what he can do with almost full creative control is a marvel. Oblivion is everything you would expect from the director of TRON: Legacy.
To say the movie is visually stunning would not be an overstatement. The aesthetic of the film may be reminiscent to the established depiction of the genre, but Kosinski does it many favours. From the film’s vehicles, outfits, and the various locales, everything in the mise-en-scène looks iconic. To give credit, this iconic look is also created by the masterful framing by the cinematographer, Claudio Miranda. Miranda also shot TRON: Legacy and Life of Pi. I’m glad to see Kosinski work with familiar cast members from TRON: Legacy, as I feel that the memorable composition in it truly captures the essence of modern sci-fi. Returning to Oblivion, the film is an absolute treat for your eyes, as long as you are a fan of the genre. The actual location is a wasteland, but seeing the beauty behind it is kind of the point.
Of course, the spectacular filming doesn’t mean anything without a good script to film. I have mentioned its vagueness and unconventional pacing, which might be far too slow for some viewers. Looking past that, however, reveals a fairly ambitious film that is as low-key and somber as the text requires. Many blockbuster films focus on the excess of action to entertain the audience, but Oblivion strikes a fantastic balance between action and heart. The heartfelt moments in Oblivion are not just refreshing, but essential to the overall plot of the film. In specific, the conclusion to the mystery of the black-and-white “flashbacks” is one of my favourite moments of this roller coaster of a film.
I call this film a roller coaster because it sets up so much intrigue and mystery, but is never afraid to solve them early on. Understanding what exactly has happened before the plot of the film is among the greatest joys to be had in watching Oblivion. Going even beyond the first act, most of these mysteries and reveals are rather predictable. The film never entirely shakes that impression either. Many elements are foreshadowed in an obvious manner, and it doesn’t help that Oblivion borrows themes from some of the most successful science-fictions to date. When Oblivion is not predictable, it is surprising. There will be twists that genuinely have you confused and wondering. By the end of the film, everything ties together nicely in an anticipated scene summarizing Jack’s journey from a perspective the viewer has not yet been exposed to. The exposition is done very well, and is an example of Kosinski’s unconventional writing working to his favour. Essentially, the pay-off is worth the wait.
Oblivion is filled with a recognizable cast, from Tom Cruise to Morgan Freeman. While the cast, including Cruise, does a good job in filling the roles they were written for, some characters feel obviously static. In fact, most characters will be remembered namelessly, considering that the heart of the film revolves around its mystery, the location, and Jack’s unknown place in the bigger picture. The small cast list and narrow focus on three characters will make Oblivion feel like a drama at times, which is a feat in itself. Unfortunately, this comes at the wager of many great actors and interesting backstories for characters who are merely skinned by the brushstrokes of the writers.
Possibly Oblivion’s greatest accomplishment would be its identity, which it so boldly crafts from the moment the film begins. The film may borrow various elements from existing films (Wall-E, Minority Report, and TRON: Legacy are just a few obvious connections that must be made), but its ability to melt these influences together while still creating a notable, striking, and easily identifiable fiction is nothing short of admirable. Hollywood is always quick to produce the next sequel and remake, but Oblivion never feels too much like its inspirations. Instead, Kosinski crafted a film that is entirely memorable, with each scene as instantly iconic as the last. Many of these scenes, as aforementioned, don’t rely on action to accomplish this feat. Victoria, Jack’s counterpart in the ‘effective team’, has moments of breakdown that are just as compelling as the film’s many mysteries. Jack’s description of the 2017 Super Bowl, followed by the audience’s first encounter with an attack drone, is just as memorable as the former. While this is in part thanks to Oblivion’s cinematography, it helps that the script is as dramatic and somber as it is action-oriented.
Oblivion’s shortcomings are small, relative to the grand scale and ambition of the film. It leaves you satisfied, but hungry for more. Unlike Prometheus, another achieved modern science-fiction before it, Oblivion doesn’t necessarily provoke thought. It begins and ends as canonically as a film with this scope can possibly can. However, Oblivion doesn’t use this as a crutch. Instead, the film uses its screentime to touch upon various themes that other films struggle to connect with over the course of its entirety. It is a self-contained passage that tributes many beloved genre classics, while fundamentally creating a legacy.