4 out of 5 stars
Not every sci-fi movie needs to be a franchise. While there’s a place for elaborately crafted worlds and scores of alien and human characters, not every movie needs to shoot for the moon, no pun intended. Not every movie has to be Star Wars or Star Trek.
In fact, many of the best sci-fi movies are ones that seek no sequels, and focus only on crafting a quality one-off story. Those films are ones like Sunshine, Moon, Gattaca, Children of Men, and will stand the test of time alongside any big name franchises.
I was pleasantly surprised to see Oblivion aiming to be included in the latter category, rather than the former. The trailers promise a big, explosion-focused Tom Cruise action blockbuster, but the actual film is much more intelligent than most will anticipate.
Cruise is Jack Harper, a janitor of the end times. He and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are tasked with ensuring that Earth’s last days are as pleasant as possible before the citizens of the planet take their lives elsewhere. Years ago, there was an invasion by aliens who attempted to steal Earth from us as their own planet was dying. These “Scavengers,” as they’re called, eventually lost the war, but we had to blow up most the planet to ensure their destruction.
This is my serious face.
Now, a giant spaceship sits in orbit, the Tet, holding the remaining members of the population before they all jet off to a moon of Saturn to establish a new home. Giant machines suck seawater out of the oceans and convert it to energy to be used on the new settlement, and Jack and Victoria must ensure that the remaining Scavengers don’t disrupt the process. The pair of them track and repair an army of robotic drones meant to keep the hostiles at bay. They are going home soon, or so they think.
There are many clues that something is wrong, but as the film progresses, you’re never sure just how wrong. Jack has flashbacks of a life he never lived in modern day New York City, and glimpses of a woman he never knew (Olga Kurylenko). But when that woman comes crashing out of the sky in a lifepod, hunted by the very drones he services, he knows something is up.
It’s impressive what Oblivion does with a very, very small cast. The majority of the time, it’s only Jack, Victoria and eventually the girl, Julia onscreen. There are brief cameos from Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as other surviving humans that are additional pieces of the mystery.
And what a mystery is. It’s hard to remember the last time I’ve seen a film where a series of facts was presented and then the film spent the entire duration tearing them apart one by one. You may think you know the answers to a few of the questions, but for everything item solved, there’s another layer underneath.
If you wake up strapped to a chair by Morgan Freeman, you’ve taken a wrong turn.
Perhaps this is why it was so difficult to convey the depth of the film ahead of time. The most interesting bits of it are all the twists and turns, but those are the very items that can’t be broadcast. Rather, we’re shown explosions and yelling because that’s how blockbusters are sold.
But Oblivion is not a blockbuster, not really. I’d hesitate to even call it an action film. Yes, there is fighting filled with the aformentioned explosions, but it’s just drone battling, and hardly the focus of the film. Rather, our attention is always devoted to the story, and the compounding mysteries that only grow deeper over time.
Oblivion’s problem however is that it takes a very smart story and crams it into a blockbuster’s shell. The plot is on par with anything we’ve seen from other intelligent sci-fi films from Moon to Sunshine, but the film isn’t shot or scripted like them. It’s…artless, for lack of a better word. The destroyed landscapes are somewhat beautiful at times, but there’s no style to the cinematography. It’s shot like the action movie it isn’t.
“WHY ARE WE YELLING?”
The same goes for the script. It seems weird to have an intelligent story but a dumb script, yet that’s exactly what we find here. Though the plot is interesting, the dialogue can be stock and cheesy. Cruise defies orders to stand down (“I’m not gonna do that!”) or faces off against the big villain in a final showdown (his big line: “F*** you!”). A story this good deserved more thoughtful writing.
That said, the film beats expectations by a mile, and might pleasantly surprise sci-fi fans who anticipated they would hate it. And there is something to be said for any sci-fi film that is creative enough to not be based on a book, TV show or older film. Yes, it’s pulled from the director’s own unpublished graphic novel, but that still counts as original in my book.
Oblivion is a great film weighed down by aimless art direction and a lackluster script. But the central mysteries are so engaging, you might be willing to overlook its faults.
4 out of 5 stars