It’s been way too long since I posted a movie review, I know; honestly, it’s been a quiet couple of months on the filmgoing front. A lot of the more philosophically-inclined movies out now (“To the Wonder” and “The Place Beyond the Pines” spring to mind) are in limited release, leaving the multiplexes stocked with mindless brain-candy. That said, Joseph Kosinski’s sci-fi epic “Oblivion” looked promising…and at the very least, visually breathtaking.
Visually breathtaking it may be…but alas, profound it is not.
Without giving away too many spoilers, “Oblivion” is the story of drone repairman Jack Harper (Tom Cruise). A costly war with the extraterrestrial “Scavengers” has left the world in ruins, and most of Earth’s population has migrated to an orbiting space station. The power needed to fuel said station comes from a series of hydroelectric power generators defended by automated “drones” (hovering sentinels fitted with machineguns) – these drones protect against possible attacks from leftover Scavenger packs. Harper, along with partner and erstwhile lover Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) soon learns that the postapocalyptic world holds a compromising secret – one that will force him to reevaluate his own identity.
To start with the positives: “Oblivion” is visually majestic. Shot in Iceland, the film mercifully refrains from an abusive overload of CGI effects, preferring to focus instead on gorgeous wasteland panoramas and natural scenery. That’s not to say there’s not plenty of sci-fi action (there certainly is, especially toward the end), but this is a good example of a movie that uses digital effects to complement (rather than supplant) real-world cinematography. Tom Cruise (channeling the sci-fi seeker-of-truth he embodied in “Minority Report”) also turns in a compelling performance.
It’s unfortunate, then, that Cruise’s character is the only one to get much development. Virtually all of the film’s secondary figures are introduced and tossed aside with little fanfare…even the legendary Morgan Freeman is criminally underused. Furthermore, there are some fascinating philosophical ideas at play beneath the surface here – what constitutes the human soul? are humans more than simply the sum total of their memories and experiences? are self-sacrificial actions based on a transcendent set of moral standards? – but sadly these elements play second fiddle to a generic Hollywood conclusion. As “Oblivion” draws toward a close, one would be forgiven for wondering if the writers had simply run out of original material (the climax pilfers left and right from “The Matrix,” “Independence Day,” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”). The film’s turgidly paced second half squanders the capital built up by its introduction – though the movie clocks in at only two hours, it feels far longer.
That’s a real shame, because “Oblivion” starts out so well. From an aesthetic standpoint, it’s a sophisticated, engaging, and beautifully crafted piece of filmmaking. The plot, however, is a sprawling agglomeration of concepts and story devices that never quite coheres satisfactorily. It’s one thing to be complex and ambitious; it’s quite another to generate a great setup and offer a weak payoff.
(I would say more, but pretty much anything I write after this point is going to give away major plot developments).
That said, is it still worth seeing?
Suffice it to say that I was never bored; “Oblivion” is an entertaining popcorn blockbuster that, to be fair, is actually a pretty good movie. My disappointment is more centered on “what might have been” than what actually turns up onscreen. Kosinski is a talented director, and it shows. Anyone expecting “Prometheus”-caliber material won’t find it here, but “Oblivion” is a solid prelude to the summer movie season.
An entertaining but insubstantial sci-fi action flick.