Movie Review: Oblivion- A Science-Fiction Hodgepodge of Borrowed Ideas that Finds Strength in Visual Atmosphere and Confident Acting

oblivionScience-fiction in film used to be the genre for exploring unfamiliar terrain relating not only to imaginative worlds but also in expanding our moral and contemplative horizons relating to the human experience. However, it seems science-fiction has become a comfortable excuse for only inventing visually captivating sets and technologies for repetitive action sequences instead of utilizing new worlds to widen our gaze into conceptual territory that has relation to our modern existence. This typical laziness can be witnessed in director Joseph Kosinski’s sophomore film Oblivion which focuses on creating the architecture of the world rather than worry about the purpose of the structure and substitutes original storytelling for a hodgepodge of stolen plot devices from better executed and more intelligent science-fiction films from the past. Kosinski is known for his resurrection of Disney’s groundbreaking cult film Tron with his stunningly visual yet overly stimulated sequel Tron: Legacy and though he repeats his aptitude for captivating visuals they are still inundated by a lack of original foresight by screenwriters Karl Gajdusek, Michael Arndt, and Kosinski himself. Leave it to a renowned commercial director to transform contemplative highbrow science-fiction narrative elements from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Duncan Jones’ Moon, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker into mere George Lucas inspired mindless space opera. Though Oblivion might be an inferior clone of familiar territory there are some entertaining qualities not only in the visual atmosphere but also in its admirably confident first half before it loses grip on its own unnecessarily convoluted reveals of influences. As an action film Oblivion suffers from its longwinded pauses and as an intriguing science-fiction film it suffers from an overstated sense of self just creating a newer model that we’ve all seen before. Kosinski does indeed prove that he can entice our imaginations with a lavish immersion into a full dystopian reality but doesn’t have the compelling storytelling capabilities to match his visual inventiveness.

Clearly director Joseph Kosinski and his fellow screenwriters Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt are devout fans of the science-fiction genre since they did everything they could to throw as many homages and stolen premises into their storyline melting pot. As Oblivion unfolds its convoluted twists you’ll begin to have flashbacks of memory much like the protagonist Jack Harper that this all seems vaguely familiar revealing that the three writers have very few ideas of their own. Jack (Tom Cruise) works on the desolated planet Earth in order to protect the remaining resources for the human population that lives above and though he has routine and orders to keep him occupied there are still plenty of unfamiliar memories and questions that plague his curiosity. The best parts of Oblivion are following Jack and partner Victoria’s (Andrea Riseborough) detailed daily routine including the repairing of damaged drones and Jack’s own escapes from his burdensome reality. Once the nauseatingly predictable second half begins to unfold—predictable partially from trailer reveals and overstated self-suggestions of their own twists—the entire film begins to unravel to reveal not only a bland regurgitation of familiar plot devices from previous films but also never fully explains its intentions or follows through with its needed proper ending. Even the potential of relating modern day issues with a contemplative approach to drones is never fully ventured and it’s a true shame that it didn’t even bother asking any topical, moral, or societal questions. While the visual elements undoubtedly place you in a believable dystopian reality the screenwriters fail to contemplate their imaginative atmosphere with an equally intriguing relatable connection to the human risks and politics of this new world. The whole experience is like witnessing impressive machinery with complex gears rotating for different purposes even though that machine has no valuable purpose. Oblivion might be an unoriginal and unlikely combination of Wall-E and Top Gun that wants to appear intelligent with its borrowed Kubrickian atmosphere but only has impressive visuals to keep us engaged and distracted from its tiresomely familiar terrain.

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It’s no surprise that Joseph Kosinski would have an impressive use of cinematic visuals and special effects considering his last and only film Tron: Legacy was an uninhibited display of state of the art computerized effects to no end. What can be complimented here is Kosinski’s surprising limitation of effects for a specific purpose either in creating his seldom occurring high-adrenaline action sequences or merely just giving minute details to his dystopian world. Because there is a practical use of effects Oblivion never becomes overly stimulated and gives an authenticity to other natural sets, especially Jack’s cabin in a secluded and beautifully green area. Kosinski and Academy Award winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi) worked together on Tron: Legacy and while that film had the explicit intention of creating a video game world their work in Oblivion also has the hint of a visual reality that many video games have created, such as “Half-Life” or “Borderlands.” There is a visual clarity beyond the tactful use of special effects where environments are heightened in their danger with devious lighting or the beauty of the natural environments counteract the isolation of the dead world around it. It’s a shame that the storyline doesn’t live up in originality to the unique look and experience that Oblivion has to offer because all of the technological gadgetry and visual creations deserved a superior and far more original science-fiction reflection. Though the photographic environment is pristine there are definite issues with Oblivion’s off pacing relating to the awkward pauses of momentum attempting to be a cerebral sci-fier when there isn’t much thought to be contemplated. The aesthetic benefits are only part of the convincing impact of a science-fiction film and that can be ruined when the delivery of the film is dependent on familiarity. Kosinski has definitely proven himself to be a more credible filmmaker than Tron: Legacy let on but there is a great deal of growth that needs to occur beyond his simplistic dedication to visual saturation.

One of the concerns for many moviegoers is probably the presence of Tom Cruise in Oblivion but it should be immediately noted that Cruise isn’t at all a detriment to the picture. Though he has an occasional intensity to his verbal delivery that could be seen as self-satire his sincere charm and everyman persona carries you through this dystopian world with a screen presence and confidence that many actors can’t utilize. If the film’s script had done a better job at relating the human risks and unfamiliar politics of this futuristic dystopia we might have been a tad more engaged with the characters on the screen but unfortunately there isn’t a great deal to latch onto. Despite this fact, Cruise moves through this universe with convincing security and is the reason the first half of the picture is so easily digestible. The only two actors that compliment Cruise’s confidence are Andrea Riseborough as Jack’s effective team partner and Melissa Leo as the HAL-esque Sally up at mission control both of whom are also in the first half of the picture. Once the second half unveils a plethora of new actors portraying characters with one-dimensional purposes, including Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, the film begins to lose sense of its own purpose and becomes less interesting as it attempts to be more complicated. Again, there are some intriguing character setups throughout Oblivion as though they are unique gears to a machine but their overall purpose is limited only to making a machine function despite that function being useless. If Oblivion does anything it shows that while Tom Cruise can drift into a caricature of his own self there still remains an undeniable charm and presence that is convincing, which was required of a science-fiction adventure.

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What’s most upsetting about Oblivion isn’t the blatant borrowing of science-fiction themes from Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Duncan Jones but rather its unexplored potential in contemplating drone culture and freedom from control in relation to our modern world. Science-fiction is meant to highlight complex moral and societal questions by placing their impact in a world paradoxically familiar yet unfamiliar. Director Joseph Kosinski has a comfortable cinematic delivery that is dependent on visual atmosphere and while Oblivion does have an impressive visual palate there is far too little inventiveness in the storyline for it to be anything more than occasionally entertaining. The first half has a confident self-assurance and is completely convincing in realizing the dystopian reality but once the second half begins to reveal its obvious and overstated twists the entire film proceeds to get more and more familiar. If you compare Oblivion to Kosinski’s only previous film Tron: Legacy there is definite evidence of growth as a filmmaker who has learned to be more tactful in his use of special effects but plots can’t merely be homage when there are zero original ideas included. As mindless stylized science-fiction goes there are far worse films than Oblivion but for those looking for something to ignite your brain then you’ll have to look elsewhere because this Kosinski picture is all style and no substance, but it is quite a style.

Grade: C+

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One Response to “Movie Review: Oblivion- A Science-Fiction Hodgepodge of Borrowed Ideas that Finds Strength in Visual Atmosphere and Confident Acting”
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