Tom Cruise has become like the U2 of the acting world: immensely talented and ambitious, loaded with personal conviction, and equally loved and despised within the general public. You may think his career choices of late have been lackluster or that he is no longer the leading man he seems to think he is, which all may be true. But, in Joseph Kosinski’s effective sci-fi effort Oblivion, Cruise makes us forget all of that and reminds us why he was born to own the screen.
Oblivion is, in essence, a live-action Ray Bradbury short-story with a side of pyro-technics and heavy exposition; a film in love with imagery and grandeur, bursting with clean sound and wide expanses. When the reveals start coming, you’ll realize that you’ve seen this story told before and with more tact, but probably not with such epic sensibilities. Even with the big budget, however, Oblivion manages to be a character-driven story, anchored by Cruise’s performance and a willingness to be reasonably paced. Twenty minutes in, I was reminded of a quote from the late Roger Ebert: “hey, here is a real movie, not a noisy assembly of incomprehensible special effects”.
The story takes place on a future earth wherein man has waged a catastrophic war with the Scavengers (called the “Scavs”) that left the moon shattered and the world a barren wasteland. Though humans won the war, they were forced to desert the earth. Now only a few have been left behind; the “mop-up crew." Our story follows two of them: Jack Harper (Cruise), and Victoria, embodied admirably by Andrea Riseborough. Jack and Victoria are tasked with keeping military drones, which wage war with the remnants of the Scavs, up and running. As Jack goes about his dangerous task, he becomes more attached to the earth he traverses and the culture that humanity left behind. The rest, you’ll just have to see for yourself.
Oblivion falls into a long and rapidly growing line of post-apocalyptic movies, populated recently by a horde of zombie films. The mass appeal of these movies is probably not due to the fact that we all just really want to watch our neighbor-turned-cannibal get his head blown off (though... maybe). More likely the reason post-apocalyptic zombie movies have gone from niche to bestselling novels is because they so perfectly express both our environmental guilt and our desire for renewal. Many of us have come to believe that the earth would not only be ok without us, but probably better off. Watching earth be destroyed and man wiped out is like doing vicarious penance on the big screen. But we also want renewal. Tyler Durden summed up our current crisis perfectly: “We have no great war; no great depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives.” We want an existence with work that matters, to be told that, if it came to it, we could still survive with our bare hands and ingenuity alone. Oblivion’s appeal is that its story operates over both of these ideals.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the power of post-apocalyptic imagery. When our protagonist rides a motorcycle through a desert wasteland, past the half-buried remains of ships and submarines, we are witnessing what director Kosinski calls “a beautiful desolation.” This effect is enhanced by the Icelandic landscape, an emphasis on practical effects, and the calm camerawork. The film clearly captures the action but also intuits when it is best to sit back and let us absorb the moment. If you get a chance, make sure to see this one in IMAX.
Oblivion is Kosinski’s sophomore effort after his mediocre but financially successful Tron Legacy, and it greatly improves upon that effort. But Oblivion’s weaknesses still mirror those of Legacy. This is a story that will not stand up under many questions and gives us more exposition than we need while underwriting certain characters. The ending, in particular, could have been cut by 10 minutes or so and involves some unnecessary flashbacks that don’t have quite the power required for a climax. Like Legacy, Kosinski has brought in a well-established artist to score the film. When M83 sounds like M83, the score soars. But I am constantly amazed at how artists as distinct as M83 and Daft Punk can often become Hans Zimmer imitations. The Dark Knight soundtrack was incredible, but we don’t need it in every film.
I have great hope for Kosinski. Like George Lucas, he is a master of images and attracted to the grandiose. But also, like Lucas, he can often feel detached; more in love with the execution than the heart of the movie. The great sci-fi films of the past have dealt with relevant fears and responded to them with sincerity (a la The Matrix). When Kosinski combines this sentiment with his technical expertise, he will firmly stamp his name on the “Hollywood’s Best” list. Oblivion is a good next step in that direction.