Movie Review: Oblivion (2013)

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Obligatory Obliviousness

A Film Review of Oblivion

By: Lawrence Napoli

 

I appreciated this film as a slightly above average sci-fi adventure.  Initially, I was very excited to see this because I was under the impression that it wasn’t a comic book retrofit or an adaptation of any kind, but the title sequence somewhat dashed those hopes as Oblivion was co-written, produced and directed by Joseph Kosinski based on his (unpublished) graphic novel of the same name.  The movie trailer peaked my interest due to the sleek look of high technology being juxtaposed with nature, and when you add Tom Cruise to the equation (this being his 2nd sci-fi film role) Oblivion seemed like a fresh, new spin on sci-fi that audiences would drool over.  Then the reality of the film set in.  Again, I’m not suggesting that the ultimate execution of this film made the whole experience a wash, but it was a disappointment because the fact remains that it is about as original as your average “zombie apocalypse film.”  As a matter of fact, Oblivion = Independence Day’s general idea + Vanilla Sky’s spoon-fed exposition+ Minority Report’s set design+ Armageddon’s culmination + The Matrix’s mind games.  Wow, this must mean that Oblivion is the greatest movie ever made right?  Let’s just say this film falls well short of that particular designation.

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Just waiting around (for a truly inspired film).

The writing effort behind Oblivion is very inconsistent.  The outline of the story’s plot coupled with the main character’s expository narration lays out an intriguing set up for the first half of this film.  The idea of two solitary humans maintaining what’s left of planet Earth (for whatever reason) is made personal by the constant inflection of every line of dialogue/narration by Jack (Tom Cruise).  The scenario is basic, easy to identify with and the audience cares about Jack because he’s very unassuming; which is a bit of a stretch for an actor like Cruise who has a history of playing more intense characters.  Where the writing falters is in the plot details and regular dialogue amongst the rest of the cast.  At about the midpoint of this movie, the story takes a turn towards convolution and without properly established exposition and character development, the audience is less inclined to make the leaps of faith that this film demands.

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All work and no explosions make Jack a dull boy.

From that point on the plot gaps take over and become more and more pronounced with every passing minute.  Characters are suddenly making decisions and doing things that are completely out of sync.  People and places that seemed important suddenly aren’t (and vice-versa); which leads me to the rest of the dialogue.  Personal connections between Jack and the rest of the cast were meant to occur, but 50% of everything that is said is filled with brand new plot details that need some kind of explanation which dilutes the impact of the emotive words between anyone that’s meant to be significant to the main character.  Writers Joseph Kosinski, Karl Gadjusek and Michael Arndt must have had ideas for a much longer film (think Lord of the Rings), but time and budget restraints must have forced a hasty evolution of the story that is extremely awkward to witness.  I would point to those limitations before outright, literary incompetence because the first half of the film was very well established.  Tougher writing choices in the beginning to alter the plot directly would have yielded a more seamless, cinematic experience along with an ending that was equally surprising AND satisfying.

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Do you know where this story's going?

Production designer Darren Gilford certainly used his experience with Tron: Legacy well with his efforts in Oblivion.  The elegant, yet simplistic living quarters belonging to Jack and Victoria are deliciously post-modern and tech savvy.  Jack’s jet/helicopter/hover hybrid vehicle is just as sleek and streamlined as his apartment and those aesthetic looks also translate to some practical combat applications.  I also enjoyed the “hominess” of Jack’s lakeside hideaway on the planet’s surface.  Though not as sophisticated, Jack’s earthly retreat has all the amenities, yet provides an interesting contrast to the sterile white, glass and metal elements of his decadent living quarters in the sky.  The look and feel of Oblivion screams high production value in every moment.  Those familiar with Tron: Legacy will notice several aesthetic set, prop and vehicular similarities (if not direct copies) with this film and while critics may frown at this filmmaker’s low-jacking of his own material (thank you Michael Bay), the design choices in Oblivion worked well in this fictional world.

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Home solutions inspired by The Jetsons

I would not qualify Oblivion as an “intense action film,” but it has two distinctly satisfying action sequences that put this film’s CG and special effects departments in the spotlight.  The first is an aerial chase sequence that involves a healthy amount shooting, explosions and maneuvers that seemed eerily similar to the Millennium Falcon’s escape from Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back.  The second is an extended ground assault where Jack’s acumen with small arms is put on display (p.s. there’s plenty of pyro at work here as well).  There is a very small element of hand-to-hand combat, but this isn’t a kung-fu flick.  All in all, the action is not what drives this film forward, but it helps a great deal in keeping the audience in the driver’s seat.

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Action, engaged.

Oblivion is not a film that boasts an ensemble of marquee performances.  Tom Cruise does what Tom Cruise does; which is to say he does his best to make a big budget, Hollywood film look as good as it can from his end.  He looks great, his physicality is in top form, but his chemistry with the rest of the cast is weak and despite diminished opportunities to develop said chemistry in scenes meant to do exactly that, he could have made a better effort.  He’s done so in the past.  Morgan Freeman is the other big name in this cast, but his impact is minimal as his character is basically a Macguffin for the entire film.  Six and a half minutes of total screen time seems beneath an actor of Freeman’s caliber, but then he probably isn’t approached with too many sci-fi roles nowadays.  How far has Melissa Leo fallen since her Academy Award role in The Fighter?  Her very small part in Olympus Has Fallen is followed up with a throw-away as Sally (someone who is only seen via video screen) in this film.  Love interests Victoria and Julia played by Andrea Riseborough and Olga Kurylenko respectively do the best they can at providing polar opposite alternatives for Jack (disciplined soldier vs. loving rebel).  Unfortunately, these women (along with the rest of the cast) don’t have the chance to really make their characters their own.  There’s simply not enough time when considering Tom Cruise must apparently be in every scene.

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Is this where we start acting?

Oblivion, like Avatar before it, is a sci-fi adventure that borrows heavily from many stories, films and fictional scenarios made popular in the past.  The main difference that separates the greatness of Avatar from the monotony of Oblivion is the dedication to character and placing the importance of character relations over the immensity of plot and exposition.  Good characters can cover up many shortcomings in a film production because they are the most direct connection between the moving image and the audience.  As likeable as Jack is, his archetype is as common as his name and with no other dynamic personalities to bounce off of; any perceived potential for his character dissipates.  This film is the first real sci-fi installment of 2013 which is entertaining, but not all that thought provoking (i.e. the essence of the Summer Blockbuster).  This film is worth seeing at some point, but don’t rush out to the theatres for it and certainly don’t even consider seeing it in IMAX or 3D.  Having said that let me explain to the reader what ultimately soured me on this film.

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Oh dear, Giuseppe's about to get on his soap box.  

There is a scene that is essentially ripped from the rooftop scene in Vanilla Sky where an important potion of Oblivion’s mysterious plot is revealed, explained and resolved in a way that is patronizing to the characters and to the audience for having invested in the story thus far.  This moment instantly invalidated any positive interest I had and insulted me as a viewer for having to be lectured on a left-field, curveball of a plot twist when this movie should have showed me through well planned and executed action.  What highlights this eye-rolling low point is the fact that everything that is said in that instant, actually gets shown not moments later in the film at which point I threw up my arms in frustration.  The first half of Oblivion seemed like a movie that was going to go somewhere interesting, but it really takes you down an avenue of broken dreams that we’ve all seen and heard before in X number of cinematic adventures before it.

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