REVIEW: “Oblivion”

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Since his questionable comments and ill advised sofasaults on Oprah, Tom Cruise has become an actor that many people love to hate. But those things are in the past and as wacky as they were they still didn’t effect the level of his onscreen work. He’s a talented actor who throughout his career has tackled a wide variety of roles in iconic 80’s cheesefests, stirring and emotional dramas, big budgeted franchises, and even sci-fi thrillers. Now he returns to the science fiction genre in “Oblivion”, a much more direct and vast sci-fi picture than Cruise’s other efforts.

“Oblivion” is co-written and directed by Joseph Kosinski, the man behind Disney’s $400 million money maker “Tron: Legacy”. Disney originally purchased the rights to “Oblivion” in hopes of repeating Tron’s success but later relinquished the rights. It was quickly gobbled up by Universal Studios with Tom Cruise and Jessica Chastain set to star in the picture. Chastain would eventually drop out for “Zero Dark Thirty” with Olga Kurylenko replacing her. The movie is based on Kosinski’s unpublished graphic novel and was given an ambitious $120 million budget.

I have to say I was really excited for “Oblivion”even though the studio was very cryptic in regards to the film’s details. That’s a good approach to take because I found that the less you know going in the more effective the story will be. And for me it was quite effective. “Oblivion” doesn’t fall into the category of a science fiction masterpiece but thanks to its visionary conception, stunning effects, and some strong committed performances it doesn’t miss by much.

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Now there have been three main criticisms hurled at “Oblivion”. Some have complained about its thin plot. Others took off points for its lack of originality. And yet others have had problems with the lack of any meaningful character development. I certainly don’t flippantly dismiss any of these gripes but I don’t necessarily agree with them either. There’s a lot going on in “Oblivion” and while it does borrow from several other sci-fi pictures, the same could be said for most science fiction. As for the lack of character development, that may be true but I found there to be a good and needed reason for it.

Like I said the less you know the better so I’m not going to spoil anything by divulging any significant details. The film is set in 2077 during the aftermath of a war with an alien species known as the Scavengers. The Scavs (as they’re affectionally called) destroyed our moon which sent Earth into a series of natural and environmental convulsions. A full invasion of Earth followed. The humans won the war but the planet was left ravaged and in disrepair. The surviving population now inhabit one of Saturn’s moons called Titan. Now if a sci-fi movie wants to score points with me just give me a futuristic world that’s not only visually impressive but that I can get lost in. That certainly happened here and even if you do have issues with the story, no one can say this isn’t an expressive setting.

Cruise plays Jack Harper one of the last people left on the planet. He works as a technician who does security and repair work as humanity tries to salvage the last bit of resources from the planet. His lone co-worker is Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). She oversees Jack’s work and reports back to their commanding officer Sally (Melissa Leo). Jack and Victoria have only two weeks left before they get to join the others on Titan, something she’s very excited about. Naturally things can’t go without a hitch. A series of events triggered by the appearance of a mysterious woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko) catapult the story into some fun and rather exciting directions.

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I can honestly say I completely bought into this premise. For the most part it’s a well conceived storyline that undeniably takes from several other familiar sci-fi films. But it works for me mainly because of how intelligently it took all of these components and put them together to form what I think is a very competent and compelling science fiction piece. The story itself grabbed me and pulled me into this visual spectacle and I never found myself wanting to check out.

The movie also managed to surprise me. I knew there were twists involved and I had my eyes open for that. For the most part it kept me off balance and had me looking in every direction trying to guess where things were going. While I did eventually figure some things out before they were revealed on screen, it didn’t hurt my experience whatsoever. I also appreciate how this wasn’t a movie of wall-to-wall action. Don’t misunderstand me, there is action, some of it spectacular. But to my surprise the movie spent more time deliberately peeling off layers to the story. Now it may move too glacially for some but I really responded to this approach.

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With all that praise being said, I did think the film flirted with convention a bit too much in the final act. It’s not that it’s terrible and poorly done but for me it didn’t really fit with the way the movie had progressed up to that point. I’m being pretty vague but let’s just say things are a little too on the nose. And while I do think the three main characters aren’t fully developed for good reasons, there are some characters and a particularly important plot point that felt terribly underwritten. This effected a rather important turn that the film takes later on. I’ll also add that there was one big special effects money shot at the end that I felt was a pretty humdrum. Considering the dazzling effects we had been given up till then, I was expecting a bigger payoff. I’ll leave it at that.

Those are my only gripes and even though they do restrain “Oblivion” from being one of the great science fiction pictures, they didn’t kill my experience. In fact I like the film a great deal. Cruise gives another strong lead performance and he’s helped by solid work from Kurylenko and Riseborough. The eye-popping visuals help create a futuristic wonder and the Iceland locations give a perfect sense of desolation. And I haven’t even mentioned the marvelous sound design and the soundtrack from M83 which I found to be a really nice fit. There’s just so much I liked about “Oblivion”. And while I can’t just completely overlook its handful of flaws, they’re easy to get past especially when you were as intrigued and glued to the screen as I was.

VERDICT – 4 STARS