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Review: Tom Cruise Vehicle 'Oblivion' Is A Mostly Involving, Visually Spectacular Sci-Fi Epic

Reviews
by Oliver Lyttelton
April 10, 2013 12:31 PM
21 Comments
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Tom Cruise, Oblivion

Only a few years ago, big sci-fi action spectacles were confined pretty much to the summer months. But now, the season has crept out to the extent that it essentially lasts from the middle of February (see the release of "A Good Day To Die Hard" this year) to... pretty much the rest of the year, with barely a few weeks going by without a major tent-pole arriving. Even the once-barren month of April isn't safe anymore, with the arrival of "Oblivion," an expensive, visually lavish sci-fi picture top-lined by megastar Tom Cruise.

Now, Cruise isn't the safe bet he once was -- for every "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol," there's a "Rock Of Ages" -- and as an original sci-fi movie, not based on an established property (though director Joseph Kosinski actually turned it into a graphic novel in advance of the film's release), the film's not a sure thing either, box office wise. But it is a $100 million Tom Cruise movie nevertheless, so the summer movie season is certainly underway. And as it turns out, it marks a pretty good kick-off point, even if it has its share of flaws .

Tom Cruise Oblivion

Set in 2077, we learn (via some particularly inelegant voice-over exposition) that we're in a world where, in 2017, an alien race known as the Scavs attacked Earth, blowing up the moon. Humanity fought back with nuclear weapons, and won, but at the cost of the planet, which is now an uninhabited ruin, with the survivors mostly aboard a huge space station called the Tet, awaiting relocation to Titan, one of Saturn's moons. The last pair left are Jack (Cruise) and his professional and romantic partner Vika (Andrea Riseborough).

Living in a tower suspended above the Earth's surface, he repairs the drones that protect the machines that are draining the ocean to power the mission to Titan, while she watches as his communications officer, liaising with the Tet's mission control (Melissa Leo) and warning him of any attacks from the Tusken Raider-like Scavs. They've got two weeks before their mission is over, but Jack is still curious about Earth and is dreaming about a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko)... that he ends up pulling from the wreckage of a crashed spaceship just before she can be killed by the drones. Who is she? And what secrets will she reveal about the world and the people that Jack and Vika are working for?

Oblivion

The trailer has already given away a good deal of what follows (we'd recommend avoiding it, if you haven't watched it already), and you may be able to guess where the film's going. Director/writer Joseph Kosinski's story (the script is credited to Karl Gadjusek and Michael DeBruyn, with William Monahan and Michael Arndt among those who worked on the film too) cribs liberally from other more familiar sci-fi tales, including one recent cult hit which mentioning the name of would likely tip you off to the film's big secrets. So it's a familiar tale, but one elevated here by some strong execution.

Kosinski's first film, "Tron: Legacy," was pretty dreadful, but "Oblivion" makes clear that, with a less confused script, the director has real talent. An architecture professor on the side (yes, really), the same immaculate sense of design is in place in the film, with the world of "Oblivion" an ordered, geometric one, full of circles, squares and triangles, sitting atop chaos and ruin. It's a strong and distinctive aesthetic, clean and bright in a way that's reminiscent of '70s sci-fi fare (like some of the ones we highlighted here), and with "Avatar" and "Life Of Pi" Oscar-winner Claudio Miranda serving as DoP, it's mostly spectacular to look at, not least in IMAX.

Oblivion, Freeman, Cruise

But Kosinski has improved as a storyteller, too. The screenplay can drift towards the expository sometimes, but is well-structured and twisty enough to keep you involved for much of the running time (though at over two hours long, it's a touch bloated and starts to drag in the last few reels). There's a crispness to his direction which makes the action coherent and exciting and gives a real sense of awe to the devastated landscapes.

He's not quite there when it comes to the human beings yet, though it does mark an improvement on "Tron: Legacy," at least. While your view of the film may end up depending on your level of tolerance for Cruise, we found him relatively sturdy in the lead role, even if it's something of a cypher by necessity (again, plot reasons). The script occasionally smacks of having being rewritten to show that Cruise is an Ordinary Human Man Who Loves Sport Like You And Me, but the star gets some strong material in the second half of the film that makes it one of his more impressive recent performances. Still, it would have been much more interesting if the actor had let his freak flag fly a bit more, rather than putting his focus on being relatable.

Oblivion

The supporting cast don't fare so well, with one exception. Olga Kurylenko gets stuck with a fairly thankless part and hardly elevates it, though the way she looks like she's about to throw up every time she gets in a spaceship is sort of funny. Melissa Leo is mostly behind a computer screen, while "Game Of Thrones" actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Morgan Freeman (playing Morpheus from "The Matrix") turn up some way into the film, but don't have time to make much of an impact. But the clear standout, and pretty much the best thing in the film, is Andrea Riseborough. The British actress has had her share of questionable roles ("W.E," "Disconnect"), but has the most interesting part here, bringing real vulnerability and ambivalence to the part of Vika.

There are a few gaping plot holes that grate as time goes on (it's the kind of film where people don't tell the whole truth for the sole reason that it'll drive the plot along). It is overlong, and familiar, and never quite hits top gear -- it's never especially bad, but neither is it especially excellent, beyond the visual wow factor. But there's still a lot to admire in the film, not least that it's engaging from the first moment to the last. And we suspect that in the season of blockbusters to come, there won't be all that many films we'll be able to say that about. [B-]


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21 Comments

  • Vijay | April 19, 2013 11:01 AMReply

    This review smacks of a shameless plug. What you've done, seemingly, is to give it an attractive headline and then the rest of your review basically adds up to "great special effects, but overall... Meh". What's that about? It's one thing to give a 'balanced' review of the good and the bad, but this is just misleading (the thing is that I hated the film, saw your review headline and was appalled, read it expecting to disagree, and ended up nodding along... Is most disconcerting.... :p)

  • Joe | April 12, 2013 9:07 PMReply

    Olga Kurylenko is terrible.

  • Tiago Lopes | April 12, 2013 5:09 PMReply

    The "cult film" is Moon. Put it together with Total Recall and you have Oblivion in a terrible nutshell. The only good thing about this is the final 5 minutes, when SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER a vagina version of HAL 9000 shows itself to be the big villain of all this crap. It's a great unintentional joke.

  • Kieran | April 11, 2013 11:34 AMReply

    M83. That is all.

  • asiandude | April 11, 2013 10:38 AMReply

    Hmm, u said it is familiar to a recent scifi cult hit and then throws in a reference to "Matrix" later. I still haven't seen the movie, but thanks dude.

  • asiandude | April 11, 2013 1:21 PM

    OK, that's actually great to know, thanks for clarifying it.

  • Oliver Lyttelton | April 11, 2013 11:09 AM

    It's not The Matrix. Also, The Matrix was fourteen years ago, so hardly recent.

  • Sul | April 11, 2013 9:09 AMReply

    Not sure why you mention "Disconnect" as questionable for Riseborough considering it's a really great movie that she's great in...

  • M87 | April 10, 2013 6:07 PMReply

    Frankly this is one of the worst SF movie I saw since... Prometheus. The script is so dull and emotionless, the characters are completely dumb (especially Kurylenko's), and the way everything is told and announced is horrible. Tron Legacy looks like a fabulous story now.. And visually it's nice but clearly not memorable..

  • caro | April 11, 2013 5:58 PM

    i disagree :it's a good flick,the twist at the half is good,a decent story,nice acting for the 2 leads (Tom and Andrea) (Freeman is underused and Kurylenko's character is pretty and dull).

  • Stephen Staunton | April 10, 2013 1:11 PMReply

    Claudio Miranda didn't shoot "Avatar", Mauro Fiore did

  • manolo | April 10, 2013 1:05 PMReply

    There is an error in your article, Morgan Freeman does not play Morpheus in the Matrix as quoted in the paragraph before the end: "Melissa Leo is mostly behind a computer screen, while "Game Of Thrones" actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Morgan Freeman (playing Morpheus from "The Matrix") turn up some way into the film, but don't have time to make much of an impact". That one was Laurence Fishburne

  • yod | April 10, 2013 11:00 PM

    lol

  • Adam Scott Thompson | April 10, 2013 7:04 PM

    Where's Tony Montana when you need him?

  • uh | April 10, 2013 1:22 PM

    you are kidding right? or are you that much of an idiot to not get the reference?

  • Oliver Lyttelton | April 10, 2013 1:20 PM

    That was a joke, because it's basically the same part, and Freeman plays it in the same way. Hence 'playing,' rather than 'who played'

  • bohmer | April 10, 2013 12:54 PMReply

    No mentions of the m83 score in all of this?

  • asiandude | April 23, 2013 4:35 AM

    the score fits perfectly in action / scenery parts and certain other parts (as stated, the sex scene) kinda forgettable.

    yeah, it's a Moon rip-off :\ And Andrea is really good here.

  • cirkusfolk | April 20, 2013 1:17 PM

    Very spot on review. Every element that I felt worked and didn't you summarized perfectly. And yes, the score during the sex scene did stand out as too much. Felt like I was watching the end of Sunshine or something.

  • Oliver Lyttelton | April 10, 2013 1:21 PM

    I figured everyone had heard it already. It's fine, though like the Tron Legacy score, it's the band by way of the Hans Zimmer factory. And Kosinski lathers it on a bit thick -- there's one romantic scene that's scored like an action sequence, which is a bit incongruous

  • Mr Anonymous | April 10, 2013 1:03 PM

    +1

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