‘Oblivion’ is familiar but well-executed, enjoyable sci-fi
Oblivion is what one might classify as an amalgamation sci-fi. Though many a contemporary feature in the genre is in clear debt to a prior work, Oblivion is one such example where the narrative similarities and likely intentional visual references cover a particularly wide array of films and literature, including La Jetée, WALL-E, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Mad Max, Jin-Roh, I Am Legend, and one particular sci-fi of the past decade that simply mentioning would probably provoke likely guesses of a major plot development in one’s mind before seeing the film. Relating to director Joseph Kosinski’s own short filmography, M83’s score for this film even feels like a retread, albeit a still pleasant listen, of Daft Punk’s work for TRON: Legacy. This is not to suggest that Oblivion is unworthy of consideration because it has so many recognisable beats. Though the elements are familiar, the film doesn’t feel like a deliberate attempt to lazily, derivatively ape. Execution is what matters with tried concepts, and Oblivion is definitely a passionately realised creation.
Based on Kosinski’s own unpublished graphic novel, the film is set in 2077, eighty years after an assault that initiated a fight for Earth’s survival. Alien forces destroyed our moon, causing mass earthquakes and tsunamis that wiped out half of the planet’s population; following the destruction, those forces arrived to invade. The people of Earth ultimately won the war, but the planet now proving inhabitable caused the remainder of the human race to leave the planet for a space station above, prior to a permanent move to Saturn’s moon Titan. In 2077, Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are the apparent lone humans left on Earth, assigned to supervise machinery harvesting the planet’s remaining natural resources, and, with the assistance of drones, protect it from any remaining members of that alien race. The two have undergone some memory wipes pre-mission, to protect valuable intel in the event of capture. Jack finds himself experiencing vivid dreams, seemingly memories, of a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) in a pre-destruction New York that precedes Jack’s own birth. With two weeks left of the mission, a spaceship suddenly crash-lands, with a crew that has seemingly been in stasis since before the invasion.
If TRON: Legacy’s biggest detriments lay in its narrative and character elements, its greatest strength was in its evocation of its fantastical world. Oblivion’s greatest attributes similarly lie with its often eerie mood and ambience, with a dystopic vision of Earth palpably communicated through hauntingly scorched landscapes, a tendency towards practical, lavishly detailed sets, and a highly effective blend of physical and digital effects work. The film happens to share some shooting locations with Prometheus from 2012, as well as that similar approach to the special effects in an increasingly green screen-heavy age. Whereas Ridley Scott’s effort was a failure on an atmospheric front, Oblivion’s world-building is stellar, and the realisation of it through Claudio Miranda’s cinematography is often beautiful, and of a notably strong poetic romanticism style during the opening hour.
Oblivion improves upon Kosinski’s previous film on the screenplay front. Bar some admitted sagging in the final twenty minutes, the film is very well-structured and paced, and everything builds satisfyingly to a stirring conclusion. Though its story and character strokes are broad, those who would accuse the TRON film of being empty may at least find more appeal here. The performances are solid, too, even with some quite bare parts, though the only person worthy of particular notice is Andrea Riseborough, injecting her trapped character with tangible sadness that becomes even more sympathetic once certain developments come to light.
Tightly directed by Kosinski, with fluid, coherent and exciting bursts of action, Oblivion is, again, a sci-fi that feels like a combination of multiple, recognisable ideas, but it is one delivered so assuredly that this is almost never a problem. As Roger Ebert notably said, it’s not what a film is about that matters but how it is about it. For all its basic elements, Oblivion still produces many moments of awe and potency, and is consistently enjoyable; passionate, excellent realisation should not be downplayed just because of where a work’s DNA lies.