Late last decade, director Joseph Kosinski landed himself a surprisingly strong debut gig in the form of Disney’s long awaited multi-million dollar budget sequel to Tron. Whilst the movie, Tron: Legacy, wasn’t that great – suffering from transparent characters and a hollow plot – it did a few things very well indeed, such as incredibly impressive visuals within a fully-realised science-fiction world, and of course the stunning Daft Punk score; the Tron sequel was beautiful to look at and listen to and Kosinski became one to watch out for. And his follow-up movie – Oblivion – certainly doesn’t disappoint in these regards; it’s an impressive and interesting throw-back to science-fiction movies of the past with a few issues, but certainly worth a watch on the big screen.
The film takes place in 2077 in the aftermath of a devastating war. In a massive chunk of opening exposition, we learn that sometime after 2017, aliens destroyed the moon – causing mass destruction on Earth in the form of world-changing earthquakes and tsunamis; Earth is saved but at a nuclear cost, with humanity escaping to either Titan, the largest Moon of Saturn, or the Tet, a large space station in orbit around Earth. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and lover/colleague Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) remain on Earth, living in ‘the Tower,’ a house in the sky, and tasked with repairing drones, which keep large-hydro processing plants safe from remaining rogue aliens. Jack however has a feeling all may not be as it seems, and suffers from reoccurring visions of a life he can’t remember featuring the mysterious Julia (Olga Kurylenko). And when the real-life Julia happens to crash-land on Earth, Jack begins to question his entire reality.
Kosinski is proving himself to one of the most exciting visual directors of our time, and it’ll be interesting to see where he goes in future. In a similar vein to Tron: Legacy, Oblivion is a stunningly beautiful film to look at. The Earth, a peaceful wasteland holding chunks of famous landmarks, is a sprawling, epic world, one to get utterly lost in, and feels fully realised- the fact that the movie was filmed in Iceland and not on green screen really helps here. The human technology looks great too; from the Tet in the sky to the hydro-processing units, and the Tower too is a remarkable feat of sci-fi imagination. A lot of care and creativity has gone into the designs of Jack’s various methods of transport and Kosinski succeeds, in a way recalling Blade Runner, of making his future world feel like a real place. It’s a movie made to be watched on a huge screen and all helped by the impressive score; on a purely visual and audio level, Oblivion is a fantastic movie, and the director, designers and cinematography team deserve a lot of credit.
The plot works – a twisty-turny conspiracy story which never feels too convoluted and though doesn’t always surprise, does get the audience invested and feels neat and fully-formed. The film has been criticised for lacking its own identity, and yes, it does steal a lot from the past. Oblivion is a real homage to sci-fi movies of the 60s, 70s and 80s in particular and borrows from, amongst other films, 2001, Solaris, Moon, and primarily Total Recall, with which it shares a similar shifting alliances plot. But this isn’t really a bad thing. Older science-fiction tended to be more respected genre, filled with weighty, philosophical themes on identity, evolution and humanity, and topped off with beautiful visuals; there is nothing wrong with Oblivion stealing so much, especially when these kind of sci-fi movies are rarely made anymore.
The cast are good too, and for such a large movie, there aren’t too many actors on show. Tom Cruise gets a lot of criticism and yes, with the exception of few choice roles (Magnolia, Collateral, Eyes White Shut) he does tend to play more or less the same character across his films. But it’s a character which can work very well, particularly in action and science-fiction movies – Oblivion, Minority Report, War of the Worlds – Cruise is great at playing the action hero but also the everyman, and he’s likeable in these kinds of roles, providing a sense of grounded familiarity against insane new worlds. Morgan Freeman gets a refreshingly narration free role and Kurylenko is likeable too, though somewhat underdeveloped; her Julia is more of a plot catalyst than actual character, used for the mechanisms of the story. It’s actually Riseborough who gives the best performance here, a tragic and trapped one, surprising as her role is possibly the smallest. The characters generally aren’t that strong which is a shame, but the twisting plot and gorgeous visuals are enough to keep audiences invested.
But what’s most impressive about Oblivion is the fact that a studio threw this kind of budget at a new property based on no existing source material. Oblivion, despite its homages and references to the past, is an original movie – it’s not a sequel, not a remake, doesn’t have a pile of novels behind it or a comic-book base. Some exec at Universal looked at this script and decided it warranted this sort of giant budget, and in this day and age of film-making, that’s very impressive, and very refreshing. It’s an old fashioned science-fiction movie and hopefully, will be successful enough for Universal’s gamble to pay off, and more original epics will start gracing the screen soon. The return of weighty, visually striking original sci-fi certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing. Oblivion is definitely worth a watch and should be seen on the big screen.