Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Stars: Tom Cruise, Andrea Riseborough, Melissa Leo, Olga Kurylenko, Morgan Freeman, Nicolaj Coster-Waldau.
The visually stunning sci-fi drama Oblivion is the sophomore film from director Joseph Kosinski, who previously gave us the equally dazzling Tron: Legacy. Although hailing from a background as a visual artist and an architectural professor, Kosinski is a natural filmmaker who has a bold imagination and a distinctive eye for visuals and compositions which serves him well here. He is more than comfortable with the demands of special effects driven, high concept sci-fi action.
Oblivion is set in the year 2077. The Earth has been laid waste by an alien attack that destroyed the moon and led to the human population retaliating with nuclear weapons, making the planet uninhabitable. The survivors abandoned the planet and resettled on Saturn’s moon Titan. However, the earth is still rich in resources which need to be mined and sent to the Tet, a giant spaceship hovering above the planet. Former marine Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is the last man on Earth, a technician whose job it is to maintain the fleet of military drones when they break down.
Harper’s narration takes us into this eerie world that has been destroyed by war with an alien race, but he proves to be an unreliable narrator. There is also the present danger presented by a pocket of alien resistance known as “Scavs”, who inhabit some of the dark and dingy ruins and attempt to sabotage these mining operations. And there is the forbidden zone which is highly radioactive territory.
Harper lives and operates from a spectacular glass tower located on a mountain top overlooking the wastelands. He works with Vika (Andrea Riseborough, from Madonna’s misguided W/E, etc), his cooly efficient controller. They are in the final weeks of their five year rotation, and are looking forward to completing their mission and returning to Titan. Every morning they are greeted by the disembodied voice of their mission controller Sally (played by Melissa Leo, from The Fighter, etc), who delivers their mission parameters and insincerely asks them: “Are you an effective team?”
But Harper’s curiosity about the true nature of his mission leads him to make some bold adventurous choices that place the pair and their mission in jeopardy, and they become a far from effective team. Then a mysterious spaceship crashes nearby, and Harper discovers a human survivor in Julia (played by former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko) amongst the wreckage. She stirs vague memories within Harper that further complicate the mission.
Harper also talks about mandatory “mind wipes”, which made me think that the film was headed into Total Recall territory (the Arnold Schwarzenegger one, not the dire Colin Farrell remake). There is a great central premise behind Oblivion that harks back to some of the other classic dystopian futuristic tales like Enemy Mine, Moon, Silent Running, 2001, and Ridley Scott’s oblique Prometheus, and even Pixar’s animated Wall.E, etc.
Initially Oblivion seems like a two-hander, and its claustrophobic nature recalls such other sci-fi films as The Omega Man. Kosinski originally created Oblivion as a graphic novel in 2005, although its publication was delayed to coincide with the release of the film. The script itself has been written by Kosinski, with input from Karl Gadjusek, Michael DeBryn, William Monahan and Michael Arndt. He brings a palpable sense of intrigue to the material as he suggests that this uneasy new world has its own secrets.
Its themes of dreams and haunting memories lend a more human dimension to the myriad of special effects and action scenes. The first half hour, which introduces us to this eerie world and its two central characters is languidly paced, which may frustrate audiences looking for more bang and action. However, the film is let down slightly by the second half which becomes more cliched and offers some cliched developments that seem borrowed from a number of other sci-fi films.
Kosinski introduces a couple of twists that send the film in a different direction and raises a number of questions that are not necessarily answered and will cause much discussion afterwards. And there are a couple of surprises that audiences won’t see coming, although the movie poster and the trailer will ruin some of these key surprises for many.
Oblivion marks Cruise’s third foray into sci-fi action, following Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds and the intriguing Minority Report, and he seems comfortable with the demands made on him here. It takes an actor of his stature and reputation to get an ambitious, big budget, effects driven film like this made. He brings a convincing physicality to the role of Harper, and he even did most of his own stunts during some of the action sequences.
Riseborough is also good as the more cautious Vicky, while Kurylenko makes the most of her underdeveloped role. And there is the late presence of the formidable Morgan Freeman (looking like a refugee from The Matrix), sadly underused as rebel leader Beech, and Game Of Thrones’s Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, that adds a new but somehow familiar narrative arc to proceedings.
Oblivion was shot on location in Iceland, and the spectacular, poetically beautiful images and otherworldly landscapes add to the film. The film has been beautifully shot by Claudio Miranda, who recently won on Oscar for his gorgeous work on Life Of Pi. His camera captures the open spaces of this bleak and devastated post-apocalyptic world, and there are glimpses of former cities and landmarks lying in ruins. Oblivion also looks spectacular on the giant IMAX screen.
Much of its rumoured $100 million budget can be seen on the screen, with its set design and visuals. Darren Gilford’s production design is suitably futuristic, and he creates a wonderful contrast between Harper’s clean base and the dingy, untidy clutter of the surface ruins. There are also a couple of stunningly conceived action scenes, including a Star Wars like dogfight, that resemble a video game. There is also a bold, propulsive and evocative electronic music score from French musicians M83 that is not quite as evocative as the score provided for Tron: Legacy by Daft Punk.
With Oblivion Kosinski has created an ambitious, intriguing and intelligent sci-fi poser, although ultimately it never quite engages emotionally. Oblivion is a case of style over substance, and feels vaguely disappointing.