After watching Oblivion this week, I had to go back to the mainstream reviews I’d read of the film at the time of its cinematic release and check that they were, indeed, much as I’d remember – at best merely grudgingly tepid. This was a film that seemingly no one liked. Granted, no one actively despised it like they did John Carter, Cowboys and Aliens and A Good Day to Die Hard but still no one could find an enthusiastic thing to say about it. Which I find rather odd, because I like it. A lot.
Maybe it’s a case of my having come to it with lower expectations. If I recall correctly, one of the big problems with the film’s original release is that the marketing campaign contained some massive spoilers which wrecked large parts of the film for anyone who did sit down to watch it after seeing the trailers and adverts, so you’ll forgive me if I tread very carefully when it comes to giving a synopsis of the film for fear of repeating that offence here – what follows comes from the first five minutes of the film, which is set in 2077 with Earth left devastated and uninhabitable by a failed alien invasion. The human survivors of the war have left and the planet is now used only as a source of power for the new off-world colony, with huge fusion converters sucking in the world’s oceans as fuel. As there are still scattered alien combatants at large, the converters are protected by automated drones that in turn are maintained by repairman Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) working with his operations officer Victoria Olsen (Andrea Riseborough). As the last humans left on earth they make an effective team. But as their tour of duty comes to a close, Jack starts having troubling dreams and starts to fear that the aliens are preparing some kind of final counter-strike that may yet change everything; and worse, Jack himself may be at the centre of their plans and hold the future of humankind in his hands.
To say any more – even to start mentioning some of the other actors who appear in the film – would be seriously harmful to the experience of watching the film, as the careless marketing campaign demonstrated all too well. This is a film that relies on the audience (and the characters) not knowing what’s going on and being fully engrossed in trying to figure it out as they go along – which is why the opening sequence in which the above set-up is explained by the baldest and blandest voiceover exposition dump is such a bad early misstep. I can only imagine that it was crowbarred in as a result of poor advance screen reaction which bleated about not understanding what was going on in the first half hour. But that’s really the point – you’re not supposed to know what’s going on at first, and the first 40 minutes of the film following Jack on a typical ‘day at the office’ is intended to be a slow-paced exploration of this unfamiliar environment that slowly reveals what’s behind it. The voiceover renders all that pretty much moot and hence the first act of the film can come perilously close to being outright dull.
It would be, if the film were not such a delicious treat to look at visually thanks to director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy). This is a visual feast, from the beautiful if austere cloud-top penthouse living quarters that Jack and Victoria share, to the Apple-influenced look and feel of the computer interfaces, the design of the automated drones (which become real bad-ass characters as the film progresses), Jack’s guns and high-tech air transport used for getting around, and the effective and eerily beautiful way that remnants of the shattered old Earth are presented. Best of all is the physical location, with much of Oblivion shot in Iceland including the Vatnajökull National Park which immediately lends a strikingly unusual and unfamiliar alien feel to the vistas. Ridley Scott also shot portions of Prometheus here to similarly outstanding effect, and in fact I’d the rate the two films as being visually very similar as a whole.
Ahh, but now I’ve played the ‘comparison’ card, and we instantly plunge into some deep water that’s a hot as Iceland’s volcanic springs. It’s not just Prometheus that Oblivion resembles, it’s pretty much every science fiction of the last four decades and more that gets a nod of a homage (or if you like, that the film helps itself to and purloins for some plot point or design inspiration.) Again it’s hard to go into details without risking too much spoilage, but you’d be a fool if you didn’t see connections with the likes of classics such as Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running and Mad Max, together with more recent films such as Independence Day, I, Robot, Minority Report, Moon, WALL-E, The Matrix and of course the aforementioned Prometheus. There are dozens more as well – and you could throw in some classic 70s paranoid conspiracy thrillers, too – but let’s just assume that I said those already and move quickly on.
Now it would be easy as a consequence to dismiss Oblivion as just some sort of derivative second-rate hack, but here’s the thing: I love all those source movies, and as a result I felt unexpectedly warmly disposed to Oblivion, rather like I would towards a ‘greatest hits’ compilation CD. It’s not as good as having all the original albums, but as a condensed highlights package it nonetheless gives two hours of considerable enjoyment especially if you play ‘where did that element get purloined from?’, sorry, ‘to which classic is that a respectful homage?’ as I did. That the film manages to gather all these disparate influences and still come up with a coherent plot that doesn’t overtly make a complete hash of its complicated structure and delivers a satisfying, fully explained resolution is really something of a minor miracle in the circumstances. The film is careful about playing its cards so that while the resolution to the mystery won’t exactly startle you, you’ll still likely have difficulty figuring out exactly which of the possible outcomes we’re actually heading for almost to the last minute. I’m sure there are gaps and inconsistencies – there invariably are in any high-concept film if you prod hard enough – but I tend to have a fairly high suspension of disbelief and be pretty generous to a film on first watch, so that if I ever do start fixating on plot issues then they must be really, really bad to gate-crash the viewing experience. I didn’t get that sense here and felt that everything came together with even small plot details paying off down the road.
That’s not to say that there aren’t faults with the end product, of course. The aforementioned opening voiceover (which is every bit as dreadful in its way as the infamous opening narration to Blade Runner – sure, another comparison, let’s throw that one in as well) is one of them. Not only is it a dull way to start any film somewhat analogous to the excruciating info-dump of the chapter crawl at the start of Star Wars – The Phantom Menace (and another on the list), it’s unnecessary because everything’s plained a second time later in the film as it is. But Kosinski’s biggest Achilles Heel is that he’s primarily a visual director which means that he’ll put a vivid image on screen ahead of the script: for example, there’s a brief shot of Washington DC from the air, completely flattened – except for the Washington Monument which is intact, which makes no sense when even the smallest house has been wiped away. It’s even leaning at an extreme angle which common sense alone would tell you would lead to spontaneous structural collapse, but it’s a cool image so it goes in – even if the viewer looks at it and is instantly jolted out of the reality that the top-class CGI effects are striving for and otherwise succeeding in delivering. Other examples: given the 2001 influence, Kosinski must know that communications across the solar system can’t happen in real time but he does it anyway because he doesn’t want geeky ‘facts’ to impede the action and cool visuals. And people in this film move in zero gravity like no one else ever, changing direction in mid-air and ‘paddling’ to manoeuvre because, well, hey – it looks cool, right? Don’t ruin the moment by deferring to the science behind it.
But perhaps the biggest problem with the film is the central casting of Tom Cruise. Now, I’ve actually always been a big fan of Cruise and reckon that he’s underrated and under-appreciated for the most part (yes, really). He certainly gives another well-considered, subtly nuanced and really rather flawless performance here. So why is this a problem? It’s simply that Cruise has been a leading man for the better part of three decades now, and we’ve seen this performance from him before – many times. Things are rearranged and moved around a little, but essentially this is still very familiar territory for Cruise, and his presence in the part makes the whole thing feel oddly old-fashioned and overly-familiar. We can’t get past Cruise’s star charisma to get to the part he’s meant to be playing anymore, which is a shame. Cruise would be far better taking a step back and doing more character work from now on where he can explore different types of performances and demonstrate how good he really can be away from generic action hero types (he’s certainly good enough to do this, as his outings in films like Magnolia and Tropic Thunder have demonstrated.)
By contrast, his co-star (or at least, the only co-star in the film I feel comfortable naming in this review) Andrea Riseborough is still a fairly fresh face to moviegoers having managed to survive even the Madonna W.E. debacle with her reputation unscathed. She has much less material and time to work with in the film than Cruise and yet manages to fascinate and intrigue for every moment that she’s on the screen, as we try and follow her every twist of thought and feeling based on reading the subtle expressions on her face. She is for me the star of the film; well, the human one at least. Obviously the production design and locations are the real stars here over any mere humans.
And ultimately that is a failing with the fim, which quite clearly is aiming for something greater, more emotional and profound with its final scenes more about a pay-off for what it means to be human than about the slam-dunk brainless big screen blockbuster action that what we normally get in the cinema these days. There’s certainly some good action sequences along the way but maybe not enough for the popcorn-munching teenage audience; while underneath the film isn’t deep enough to fully satisfy the grown-ups either. By trying to have it both ways and walk a delicate line between action on one side and serious SF high concept on the other, Oblivion ends up falling into the no-mans land in the middle which might explain those at-best mediocre reviews the the film garnered.
I came away from this choosing to view it from the other side up: to me it’s a film that manages to deliver both serious SF and crowd-pleasing battles against a visually spectacular backdrop. If the human/emotional side doesn’t fully pay off, it’s at least trying and the dimension is present front-and-centre unlike in so many other films of recent times which couldn’t care less about anything other than the latest CGI-for-its-own-sake stunt. For that reason I came away more impressed and well-disposed to Oblivion than pretty much any of the other reviews that I’ve read since – and that’s fine, I’ll stick with that.
On the Blu-ray: with such a visually-orientated modern big-budget film you’d expect the high-definition transfer to be utterly flawless, and it really is. The decimated world the sterile bright-white interiors don’t give the film a full range of colours and textures to work with, but the occasional foray into the deserted wreck ruins of the old world also sparkle in their own way when given a chance. I don’t have a state of the art sound system for Blu-ray playback but what I heard was as good as I could hope for as well. Extras-wise things are slightly limited: there’s an audio commentary with Kosinski and Cruise which is a bit self-consciously worthy but nonetheless informative; a 48-minute making-of; and four deleted scenes. There’s also an ‘isolated music track’ featuring a distinctly Tron: Legacy-like score that I liked a lot, this time from M83 rather than Daft Punk.
The only problem with buying this on disc is the re-watch value of the film. Given that the film relies so much on the mystery of what exactly is going on that even a plot synopsis can easily wreck the experience, a second viewing could prove to be sharply diminishing returns. Personally though I’m willing to take that risk sometime in the near future.
As well as Blu-ray Oblivion is also available in DVD. Surprisingly it’s not been released in 3D, which instantly earns it merit points in my book.