A film review by Craig J. Koban April 25, 2013



2013, PG-13, 126 mins.


Tom Cruise as Jack /  Morgan Freeman as Beech /  Olga Kurylenko as Julia / Andrea Riseborough as Victoria /  Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Sykes /  Melissa Leo as Sally

Directed by Joseph Kosinski / Written by Joseph Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek, and Michael Arndt

As far as sci-fi genre efforts go, OBLIVION provides for a most welcome sense of energizing relief in the manner that it’s less about bombastic action and spectacle and more in tune with being character and story driven.  The film refreshingly harkens back to a time in the 70’s when sci-fi was more staunchly ideas-based and let its narrative and contemplative themes do the talking.  

If there were to be weaknesses, though, in OBLIVION then it would be that it perhaps has too many ideas all vying for attention and some of its cinematic sources of inspiration – as far ranging as PLANET OF THE APES, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, WALL-E, THE MATRIX, and TOTAL RECALL, to name a few – feel obvious and derivative.  Nonetheless, OBLIVION understands how to blend cutting edge visual dynamism with a stirring and frequently provocative script, something that feels all too scarce these days. 

The film is the brainchild of writer/director Joseph Kosinski, who previously made his directorial debut with the sensationally realized TRON: LEGACY.  Basing his newest film on his own unpublished graphic novel of the same name edited by Radical Comics, Kosinski demonstrates in OBLIVION how to make an endlessly sumptuous visual feast for the eyes while carving out a story about the nature of human identity.  It would be easy to say that the film is to be enjoyed on a purely visual level first and foremost, but Kosinski ensures that all of the whiz-bang high-tech effects do not overwhelm or suffocate the character dynamics or thematic ambitions.  It takes a special kind of calculating and confident hand to ensure just that, especially when so many sci-fi blockbusters today rely solely on soulless mayhem.   

OBLIVION, like all great post-apocalyptic films, does an exemplary job of immersing us within its bleak and dystopian world.  Best of all is that it never does so hastily; it takes its time with setting up the particulars, which only further assists viewers with developing a rooting interest in the characters.  The year is 2077 and the Earth has been left a nearly inhospitable, nuclear warhead bombarded wasteland in the aftermath of a conflict that pitted humanity versus an alien race referred to as the “Scavengers.”  During the global conflict the E.T.s destroyed the moon, which resulted in massive ecological and geographical damage to the Earth.  Mankind responded with nukes, which won them the war, but left their planet – for the most part – unable to support life. 



Most of humanity left the planet for a massive space station orbiting the Earth called Tet, whereas the others escaped to Saturn’s moon, Titan.  Alas, back at home there still remains small packets of the aliens, which are weeded out and exterminated by spherical robotic drones that shoot first and ask questions…never.  The few humans left on the planet are “technicians”, and one in particular, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) works with his partner, communications officer and lover, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), in a lavishly decked out, high tech base of operations that resides thousands of feet above the surface.  While Jack stays in contact with Vic - his air traffic controller, so to speak - he flies around what’s left of the Earth repairing damaged drones and ensuring that massive harvesters in the Ocean – sucking up the water and turning it to steam power to be funneled to Titan – continues without a hitch.  Jack and Vic make a great team, mostly because they keep the past in check, which is helped by the fact that they have had their memories erased years earlier.

Just as Doug Quaid did in TOTAL RECALL, Jack has dreams of a beautiful and mysterious woman, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), but something about them feels more like memories.  When he’s not fantasizing about her, he becomes more enraptured with staying on Earth at a secluded cabin retreat he has made for himself over the years, replete with remnants of society’s past.  Without warning on one routine day, a series of life support pods crash land on Earth, one of which carries an unconscious Julia.  When she awakes, she calls Jack by name, which is just the beginning of a long series of complications for him and Victoria. 

OBLIVION is an unqualified visual stunner through and through that benefits greatly from strikingly rich cinematography from LIFE OF PI Oscar winner Claudio Miranda and from the thanklessly polished and unobtrusive CGI effects that instantly submerge you within the tattered remnants of a near dead world.  We get stirring vistas of flattened football stadiums, prominent New York buildings, bridges, and other monuments that have been literally swallowed by craters and land mass shifting from the war from decades past.  Jack’s ship is also a virtuoso and wickedly designed vessel, whose cockpit can bob and weave in all directions when he demands it.  The film always manages to intrepidly forge ahead by building an escalating level of curiosity in its decayed and rotted environments.  The propulsive electronic beats of the musical track by French band M83 further gives the film an added layer of foreboding intrigue. 

Kosinski, to his credit, does not forget about his actors or the story he’s trying to tell amidst the lavish production artifice.  Cruise is as stalwart as ever playing his protagonist with a combination of ruthless determination, bravery, confusion and vulnerability as the film progresses.  Riseborough, a poised and assured actress, evokes a cold, calculating, and emotionally distant pragmatist that often finds herself in conflict with her partner.  The rest of the cast is finely tuned to the material; Kurylenko is an alluring enigma in the film as she desperately tries to reach out to Jack, and Morgan Freeman – playing a leader of a last pocket of human survivors on Earth – is dependably natural, even in a somewhat underwritten and undeveloped supporting role. 

It’s very difficult to discuss this film any further without tiptoeing into heavy spoiler territory, which I will avoid.  OBLIVION places trust in the viewers to make sense of all of its plot twists and reveals, some of which are surprising, some of which are mightily telegraphed very early on.  The further that Jack goes down the rabbit hole of shocking revelations about his job, his relationship with Victoria and Julia, and ultimately how he fits into his entire mission on Earth the more they force him to question his very essence, a sci-fi conceit that’s not as novel and unique as this film lets on it is.  The film becomes commendably ambitious and grand in terms of the scope of its plot and themes, even when it glosses over some obvious gaps in logic.  It all builds to a spectacularly envisioned climax that finds a rather novel way of allowing for a happy ending that would have otherwise leaned towards personal tragedy and martyrdom. 

The subtext of OBLIVION – even if it feels borrowed from dozens of other sci-fi flicks – deserves props for at least engaging the mind and imagination.  Yes, the film contains visual motifs and ideas that appear lifted from its numerous antecedents (gee, let’s have yet one more image of a distressed Statue of Liberty showcasing just how far humanity has fallen!).  Yet, Kosinski successfully marries incredibly sustained otherworldly imagery and action – brought to the screen with clarity and precision - with intriguing character dynamics and a deeply felt message about what makes us who we are at its core.   OBLIVION never emerges as daringly inventive, but it dares to relay what makes a really solid sci-fi mindbender work as a cerebral experience, especially in an age when thinking-man’s sci-fi is a thing of the distant past. 

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