Now Playing: Staring into ‘Oblivion’

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.

Rating: ★★½☆☆


  1. EM

    I’m curious about this assertion: “It’s been a great couple of years for science fiction fans.” I assume you’re referring to the domain of feature films in particular. Usually I would expect that such a statement indicates the debut of some truly great, classic films. Bryan, what do you have in mind?

    • Bryan had written a longer intro paragraph, but I trimmed it in editing to get to the parts about this specific movie. Unfortunately, I forget which titles he cited, sorry.

    • I think I was specifically thinking of Looper, Cloud Atlas, and Prometheus. The last 2-3 years, sci-fi has come back in a big way in the form of film, television, and comics. It has reminded me of when I was growing up seeing films like Blade Runner, Logan’s Run, Explorers, and and the old Star Trek films.

      And with this resurgence of new/remade/rebooted sci-film movies, my inner child is very excited for more science fiction, even if the projects have warts on them.

      • EM

        Bryan, thanks for replying.

        I don’t happen to share your feelings about the recent movies you cited (Looper and Cloud Atlas haven’t interested me; Prometheus did and disappointed me gravely), but that’s not to say I haven’t cared for any recent sci-fi movies. Elsewhere on this page I praised Robot & Frank, and I’m a fan of the admittedly derivative Super 8, to give a couple of examples. But the occasional gem hasn’t been quite enough to convince me that this is one of the great eras of science-fiction cinema. The present era has nothing on, say, the late ’70s/early ’80s or the early 1950s.

        Still, I don’t repudiate your and JM’s optimism; after all, the landscape could sharply improve at any time.

        I haven’t been drawn into any current TV sci-fi. Now, as for comics…I’ve been having fun with Hypernaturals, among others.

  2. JM

    Have you not seen the new trailer for ‘Man Of Steel’?

    John Carter.
    Total Recall.
    Cloud Atlas.

    Transformers 3.
    Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
    Super 8.
    Battle: Los Angeles.
    Cowboys & Aliens.
    In Time.
    Source Code.
    The Adjustment Bureau.
    The Skin I Live In.
    Attack the Block.

    Tron Legacy.
    The Book of Eli.

    Star Trek.
    Terminator Salvation.
    G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.
    District 9.
    The Time Traveler’s Wife.
    Land of the Lost.

    The greatness is not in the storytelling.

    What’s great is that technology is solving the budget issue.

    CGI and digital are allowing more artists to work to make classic sci-fi.

    • EM

      Is this post a response to my question to Bryan?

      The new trailer for Man of Steel isn’t a feature film and is therefore outside the scope of what I think we’re talking about. I suppose that raises an interesting philosophical question: is an ad for a sci-fi work itself a sci-fi work?

      Many of the films you cite debuted more than a couple of years ago.

      Obviously we don’t have all the same tastes, but you seem to be just listing prominent releases rather than evaluating them. I suppose that fits with your paragraph-divided-in-three at the end, but I disagree with the notion that proliferation without regard for storytelling quality constitutes a great era for storytelling.

      • JM

        If ‘Tree Of Life’ is a movie, ‘Man Of Steel: Trailer #3’ is a short film. It’s even more unforgettable than the trailer for ‘Transformers 2.’

        Those were the sci-films of 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, by box office. I evaluate none of them as a Classic. Proliferation hasn’t changed in 20 years, only the budgets have increased.

        Re: Storytelling… On my side of the screen, it still feels like civilization is in decline. But I still chose genre over quality. And I rank by spectacle. Which is probably why I’m optimistic and you’re not.

        • EM

          The lack of classics to cite belies the claim, “CGI and digital are allowing more artists to work to make classic sci-fi”—or at least makes it untestably empty to the point of valuelessness.

          I did not discuss optimism (or pessimism, for that matter). Optimism is a view of the future. What Bryan referenced and what I have been asking about is the recent past.

          • JM

            Were it not for CGI and digital, would the filmmakers Wachowski still be making crime films like ‘Bound’ and ‘Assassins’?

            Just because ‘Cloud Atlas’ didn’t turn out to be a classic, are you not glad that we live in an era where they can attempt the challenge of that novel?

            The recent past has been exciting. What would Neill Blomkamp and Duncan Jones be doing with their lives if this tech was not this cheap?

            “It’s been a great couple of years for science fiction fans” regardless of the lack of a classic film for this decade.

            Bryan’s statement could be proven true, entirely based on the breadcrumb trail of development news for ‘Pacific Rim.’

            Or Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Gravity.’

            Anticipation creates more happiness than consumption.

            Heck, most “science fiction fans” are simply happy to be getting a new Star Wars movie every year from 2015 until the box office falls out.

            Your original question should be rephrased.

            What is the most recent sci-fi movie that is unanimously considered a classic?

            If Josh and Chaz agree, it counts.

          • EM

            I’m not particularly impressed by the Wachowskis, and I have no investment in the question of whether Cloud Atlas the novel can be turned into a good or great film.

            Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium isn’t out yet, and his District 9 is from 2009, and so I don’t see Blomkamp’s relevance to a discussion of releases of the past couple of years. I don’t know whether Duncan Jones would have made a CGI-less version of Source Code (which can fit in a loose interpretation of the cited timespan), but I imagine it could have been done. There’s about a century’s worth of science-fiction films made without CGI—some expensively, some cheaply—some very well, some rather poorly. One of the best sci-fi films of the past couple of years that I’ve seen, Robot & Frank, has very little CGI and would likely have remained an excellent film without it.

            I’ll give you the point about anticipation. I did consider it possible, though less likely, that it was part of what Bryan was thinking. But I don’t know what he was thinking, hence the question.

            Rephrasing the question as you suggest misses the point that I wanted to know Bryan’s thoughts on his own thesis, though I was (and am) willing—and even hoping—to take cogent discussion on that thesis from others.

          • JM

            The indie sci-fi thriller ‘The Machine,’ based on the reviews from Tribeca, looks exciting, and only exists because of modern tech.

            Do you count ‘Holy Motors’ as science fiction? That’s how I read it.

            ‘Perfect Sense’ I’m glad they took a whack at, as I have a soft spot for the intersection of Science and French.

            Also we shouldn’t be forgetting ‘Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.’

          • EM

            The screening at which I saw Holy Motors had a technical problem, and I missed the end of the film—10–20 minutes, I’m guessing. (The breakdown occurred during the ride after the Kylie Minogue sequence at La Samaritaine.) However, I’ve read a synopsis of what I missed. Based on what I know, I have no particular reason to call this film science fiction. I would term its genre cinéma de l’absurde; but if one wants a more well-worn category, I suppose fantasy might do.

      • JM

        45% of recent sci-fi movies were not too shabby.

        Of the 384 films that came out in 2012, only 17% were watchable.

        So science fiction, as a genre, is over-performing.

        • Where are you pulling those numbers from?

          1. Nobody goes to see every movie that comes out during a year. Especially at the theater. Even you guys haven’t seen every movie that came out last year.

          2. Whether or not a movie is good is totally a matter of perspective. A lot of movies I liked growing up are definitely mot considered classics. And the same can be said of movies that are coming out now.

          Kids growing up now and going to the movies don’t always have the benefit of 30 years of movie history to color their experience. Or have read all of the Sci Fi books that movies like Oblivion are drawing from.

          I just saw Oblivion and while I won’t defend the telegraphed plot, the Movie is a Visual feast and Tom Cruise does a fine job in the lead.

          You guys need to stop being so Hyper critical and remember what going to the movies is all about and that is to escape and above all try to have fun.

      • William Henley

        But at least they were made. I can see where she is coming from, and where Bryan is coming from. Just because many of them sucked, the genera is getting a lot more films in it. Films are getting greeenlit now that wouldn’t have been greenlit even 10 years ago because they are cheaper to make (relatively speaking). The return on investment is higher. So, as production costs are coming down, visual effects are getting better, it means that you have quite a few turds getting greenlit. However, we are also seeing an increase in GOOD movies as well. I know it may not see like it, because there are so many turds out there, but there were some good movies in that list.

        Now JM listed movies from 2009 until now. I would like to see a list of Sci-Fi movies from 2000-2009, and a list of sci-fi movies from 1990-1999, and a list of sci-fi movies from 1980-1989, and compare with the number of movies in the genera, and how many during those time frames were considered turds versus how many were considered good.

        It does seem that the past 4-5 years has seen a surge in this genera, but I am too lazy to do the research.

  3. William Henley

    This movie was such a disappointment. I have been describing it to people as “weird sci-fi, and not the good kind of weird”. I should have known that if Tom Cruise had signed off on a Sci-Fi movie, that it was going to be weird.

    It was pretty eye-candy though.

    The movie wasn’t BAD, it was just, well, meh.

  4. I was underwhelmed by Tron Legacy after my first viewing. I liked it better on Blu-ray. After 10 viewings, I love it. As such, and I have said it before on this very site, I have great faith in the Kosinski.

    Hopefully, “Oblivion” has half of Tron Legacy’s potential to improve.

    • William Henley

      Hmmm, haven’t watched it since it came out. I got the Blu-Ray set, mainly for collectors purposes. Maybe I should give it a second chance. Come to think of it, I didn’t like the first Tron movie the first three or four times I saw it in the 80s, but by the late 90s it was one of my favorite movies – probably because the movie finally made since.

    • EM

      I might give a film a second chance—doing so has occasionally made me a convert—but a tenth chance? This sounds more like Clockwork Orange brainwashing to me…

      • JM

        I was forced to watch ‘A Clockwork Orange’ over and over for years, and it totally had the opposite of the Ludovico effect.

  5. Timcharger

    Oblivion worked for me, worked pretty well.

    The point about modern technology lowering the cost to produce the visuals required for Sci-Fi films is obviously correct in helping to proliferate the genre.

    Quality is a different question, but more shots on goal does improve chances for creating quality sci-fi classics. So that’s a good thing.

    The criticism about how Oblivion borrows or steals from other Sci-Fi films is wrong. Any dissection of individual scenes or sets or costume design of ANY movie can be attributed to a previous work. Can there be a wholly original romatic-comedy? Sports-comeback-drama? Teenage-coming of age-comedy? You don’t walk out of Oblivion with accusations of plagarism on your mind. So the similarities to other sci-fi works isn’t a crime.

    • EM

      I’m not convinced that easy, cheap CGI improves the chances of classic or quality sci-fi films. I think it more likely that it improves the chances of easy, cheap sci-fi filmmaking.

      Science fiction is a genre of imagination. To succeed, it must engage its audience’s imagination. That’s the beauty of novels and short stories: skillful wordsmithery can enlist the reader’s imagination in painting the desired picture. In film, the very natural temptation to outright show the unusual can backfire, if the depiction usurps the audience’s imagination instead of engaging it.

      That’s not to say that I think CGI is bad or copious CGI is bad; I could cite counterexamples. CGI is a tool, and I don’t blame the tool. But when it’s easy and cheap, don’t be surprised when its use produces a great deal of results that are easy and cheap, with masterful use all the rarer.

  6. Pedram

    I liked Oblivion. It wasn’t amazing, but a decently solid film, and smarter than I thought it was going to be.
    I wasn’t thinking it ripped off other films for most of the film (how “original” can you be with sci-fi nowadays?) right up until the end, which definitely reminded me of another film I had seen a couple years ago where the main character had a similar role in isolation from the rest of the humans.

    Lastly, regarding Atmos, I had a much different impression than the reviewer. I felt that it was very under-used. Only the pre-film demo made it seem like Atmos was actually being used, but the film seemed more like a 7.1 track than Atmos – especially when compared to when I saw The Hobbit with an Atmos track (in the same theatre).

  7. Chapz Kilud

    I’m curious. The positive (mainly picture and sound) mentioned by the reviewer already warrant a must see film. I’m curious to know if the reviewer considered 2006 movie “The Departed” any good. Because it’s a direct copy of Hong Kong’s “Internal Affair”. Both movies were well produced with great acting. Are you going to give “The Departed” 2.5 stars because it copied everything from another movie? As for storytelling, Iron Man 3 was nothing but mindless blow them up movie. Yet the reviewer gave it a 4.5 stars. Where was the good storytelling on IM3? My kids summed it up the best. For IM3 they said something like “bad guys blowed up Iron Man’s home so Iron Man beat up and killed bad guys”. But what did they say about Oblivion? “Some guy realized he was instrument of evil so he turned against his own master to save the people he loved”. Which had better story?

    • There’s a difference between a remake and a rip-off. The Departed is an official remake of Infernal Affairs, hence of course it follows the same plot. However, even to that end, the two movies are significantly different than one another. The Departed is almost an hour longer, and adds a lot of material that Scorsese and his screenwriter brought to it on their own.

      • Chapz Kilud

        Just because the movie is longer doesn’t mean it has more relevant material. The plots were virtually identical with the exception of the guy played by Mark Wahlberg killing the police mole in the end. Over half an hour was devoted to painting the picture of Irish gangs in Boston. The movies are different but I wouldn’t go as far as saying they are significantly different. I have no idea which way you’re going to go. But I totally disagree with the reviewer about Oblivion reminiscent of Wall-E. The difference between the two is much greater than between Departed and Internal Affairs. There were many important elements in Oblivion that were absent in Wall-E, for example: bad aliens, surviving resistence,…etc. The ship looked nothing like the mothership in Independence Day. I’ve heard these before on other reviews. I didn’t want to accuse the reviewer of copying other reviewer’s comment because his reference of Wall-E and Independence Day reminded me of a student copying the same wrong answers from different student. The ability of the good reviewer is to provide objective review free of other’s influence. It’s rare to find someone who said “I know Iron Man 3 is the second fastest selling movie of all time. But I didn’t think the story was very good” or “I know Disney is going to lose a lot of money and the box office is doing poorly. But I think John Carter was very good”. And finally I failed to see by reviewer’s standard how Iron Man 3 had better storytelling and originality, the criteria failed in Oblivion.

        • My point was that The Departed is an official remake of Infernal Affairs, so it’s supposed to follow the same plot. Oblivion is not a remake of anything. It’s just a pastiche of pieces stolen from other, better movies. It doesn’t have to follow the plot of WALL-E scene-for-scene to be blatantly obvious that it’s lifted significant ideas, themes and scenes from it. That much is clear just from the trailer.

        • Barsoom Bob

          The most egregious rip off in Oblivion was from Moon, saw that coming from a mile away.

          The clean up the dead planet was from Wall-E as were the design of the fighter bots

          The Independence Day lift was the climax with the two heros going up to the mothership to f*** it up.

          The door to the mothership had the same design shape as the door on the starliner in Dune, which I did think was a nice little nod.

          Nice to look at, but did not stimulate any thought in even one of my brain cells.

          Although I hate to get “deep’ about a comic book movie but there were a lot more themes in that movie than just Iron Man blows things up.

          And. “I know Disney is going to lose a lot of money and the box office is doing poorly. But I think John Carter was very good”.

          I have been saying that since March 9th , 2012. LOL