It’s been a great couple of years for science fiction fans. The genre has shown its big head again, and the masses seem to be eating it up. As we gear up for ‘Elysium’, ‘Pacific Rim’ and ‘Star Trek into Darkness’ (just to name a few) later this year, leading the way before summer is Tom Cruise’s mega-budget ‘Oblivion’, directed by Joseph Kosinski, whose only previous film credit was ‘Tron: Legacy‘. I have no doubt that this will make tons of money at the box office, but it will likely leave a mixed taste of sweet and sour when most viewers leave the theater.
To put it simply, ‘Oblivion’ is a giant mix of your favorite sci-fi films rolled into one 124-minute spectacle. While that might sound good on paper, sort of like a sci-fi nerd’s paradise on film, that paradise can overload very quickly. Unfortunately, ‘Oblivion’ doesn’t just pay respect to previous sci-fi films, but bluntly rips them off.
Much like how ‘The Lord of the Rings’ started, we open with a detailed recap of the last 60 years on Earth narrated by Tom Cruise’s character, Jack Harper (apparently no relation to Jack Reacher, Cruise’s character in his last movie). Jack tells us how aliens attacked Earth and our moon, which caused natural disasters that pretty much wiped out most of the planet and its human inhabitants. However, the survivors fought back with nukes to kill the aliens. Well, that “worked”, but also destroyed the planet. Now, the humans live in a giant space station that takes all of Earth’s natural resources for energy to transfer onto a new planet. Jack’s job is to make sure that these giant machines do their job without getting destroyed by leftover aliens, who are referred to as “scavengers.”
‘Oblivion’ takes several twists and turns throughout, all with different aspects of the sci-fi genre. The plot is reminiscent of Pixar’s ‘Wall-E’, as Harper refers to himself as part of the clean-up crew of an abandoned Earth and even carries a little plant in a can that proves life can now sustain itself after the nuclear fallout. The giant space station looks eerily similar to the mothership in ‘Independence Day’, so much so that I expected Will Smith to pull out a cigar and say, “Welcome to Earth.”
To help Jack out on his missions, he’s assisted by robotic drones, which are blatant knock-offs of Eve in ‘Wall-E’ and the robots from the videogame ‘Portal’. These drones talk, have unlimited fire power, can travel fast, and are extremely hard to kill. And what do all of these drones have for a camera and voice box? That famous red-eyed camera, made famous in Stanley Kubrick’s ’2001: A Space Odyssey’. When Jack finally meets up with Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman), I thought I was seeing an older Morpheus from ‘The Matrix’ films.
There’s a point during the film where you just say, “OK, I get that you’re paying respect to classic sci-fi films, but let’s do something original.” I can easily name several other instances of sci-fi films that ‘Oblivion’ pays homage to, but I don’t want to ruin the surprises – or lack thereof – as you can see some of the twists and turns coming from a parsec away. This is not a typical all-out action film with tons of futuristic guns blazing non-stop and spaceship chases. No, this more of slower paced, character driven film, which at times seems to overstay its welcome just a tiny bit too long.
I don’t mind a slower paced movie, but when it travels in circles and ends up doing the same thing again and again is where I start to lose interest. That being said, the film is a marvel to see on the big screen. It’s quite beautiful to look at, even with its desolate landscapes. The futuristic flying machines, guns and other objects are all created with some pretty spectacular effects. I also saw ‘Oblivion’ with the new Dolby Atmos sound system, which might be the best sound I have ever heard during a film. (Atmos has around 64 speakers in the theater that line the side walls, the back walls and the ceiling above. Each speaker is independently controlled, and smoothly and flawlessly pour out the sound.) It was a great experience, and if you have a Dolby Atmos equipped theater near you, I highly recommend seeing it there.
Tom Cruise does a decent enough job here playing a guy who slowly figures out that things are not what they seem. However, I thought his characters in ‘Jack Reacher’ and the latest ‘Mission: Impossible’ had more depth and were more entertaining to watch. Morgan Freeman is always great to see on screen, but feels a bit underused and doesn’t have enough screen time. Cruise has two female co-stars. Both Andrea Riseborough and Olga Kurylenko turn in solid performances, but are ultimately forgettable. It’s great to see Melissa Leo in the mix, as well as Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister from ‘Game of Thrones’) and Zoe Bell (‘Death Proof’), who show up in their tiny roles.
‘Oblivion’ is visually stunning film, one that should be seen on the big screen. Unfortunately, it falls short in the ways of storytelling or originality. You can’t make a quality movie by putting together your favorite aspects of previous films and expect it to be coherent. If you’re a sci-fi fan, you’ll probably want to see ‘Oblivion’, even if its flaws outweigh its strengths.