If the making of a science fiction movie was a college class, Oblivion would be the halfhearted brainchild of that one lazy senior who’s just taking the class to graduate. (5/10)
Oblivion tries to disguise its total lack of substance by trying to drown its audience with superficiality. Don’t get me wrong; I loved Oblivion’s special effects, but like everything else in the movie, it was hardly groundbreaking stuff. Its acting and storyline were past redemption more or less 20 minutes into the 2 hour long debacle, so after those first 20 minutes one begins to pray, with increasing fervor, for the movie to reach its inevitably disappointing conclusion. Surely, it’s not as bad as all that? On paper, it has so very much going for it – Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman, a sci-fi premise and a big budget and even reasonably attractive stars and co-stars. So, what went wrong? Well, nothing really. My chief criticism of this movie is not so much what it did wrong, but how little it managed to get right. This was a movie that screamed mediocrity from every pore – the apocalyptic premise of the movie has been overdone and felt stale right from the traditional opening expository narration. What was actually much worse was how little effort was put into making that world unique. Think of some of the better sci-fi movies of these past few years – Looper, Avatar, Inception, etc. all spent considerable effort into making their world feel different, of distinguishing themselves from the cookie cutter nature of post-apocalyptic settings. Oblivion doesn’t bother and that sets it out on a weak trajectory from the beginning.
However, while the setting and basic premise of the movie was bland, it would be harsh to fault it for the movie’s poorness. The blame must be laid primarily at the feet of the cast and whichever hack wrote the script. Tom Cruise, contrary to popular belief, is not a good actor. Here, he plays Jack Harper, a character so plain, that I did not even bother remembering his name until the last quarter of the movie. It might be better for Cruise to just give all his characters the same name (Tom Cruise, you know, for convenience’s sake) because the guy from Top Gun, the guy from Mission Impossible, the guy from that other action thriller? They all have the exact same character – quiet stoic, who is an incredibly loyal badass yet at the same time kind and affectionate though he does have the unfortunate flaw of being a little bit of a maverick (I’m so sorry). They are also incredibly boring. In a ham-fisted attempt at fixing this, director Joseph Kosinski gives us these comically clichéd ‘character moments’, where we get to hear Tom Cruise’s character talk about his love for football – fact that is not only utterly irrelevant to both plot and character, but also necessitates an explanation for how Tom Cruise’s memory wiped character knows about this. All of this culminates with the director expecting us to believe that almost all of humankind (who at this point in the story had the technology to send men beyond Saturn) was obliterated by an army of Tom Cruise. This train of thought might have permanently disabled my suspension of disbelief.
These moments stem from a fundamental misunderstanding on Kosinski’s part – he seems to have labored under the mistaken belief that Oblivion’s central conflict is a character driven one, rather than a plot driven one. Jack Harper shows absolutely no character development over the course of the movie and that’s actually perfectly fine given the film’s setting and premise. The audience didn’t need to be vested in the character – they were already vested in the central plot driven tension of humans versus aliens. The trouble is, that by making the movie character oriented, Kosinski butchers the movies pacing. By the time he is done wasting time on developing ridiculously simple character relationships, he has lost the audience’s attention and not even the introduction of the more engaging plot elements can fully redeem the movie.
In all fairness though, the world building was fairly well done, though perhaps with too few actual characters to make it feel real. We see Cruise’s character roaming the abandoned wasteland but his lack of intimate interaction with it limits our connection to it. Still though, there are plenty of cool shots of absurd post-apocalyptic carnage from a pentagon buried in the sand to ships stranded in parched land. These shots are technically excellently crafted, even though their purpose and substance is highly questionable.
All in all, you can tell by now that this is a movie so chock full of sci-fi clichés that there’s a reasonable chance that some copyrights were violated. The pacing was terrible, but the acting was worse. The cinematography was well-done but couldn’t compensate for the lack in literally every other aspect of the movie. The entire concoction was further ruined by wooden acting not just from Tom Cruise but also female leads Olga Kurylenko and Andrea Riseborough. The addition of Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau might have been able to redeem the movie if their characters had been better fleshed and had they had had more time to make a difference. Oblivion’s various failings make it as hard to take seriously as it’s male lead.
Tom Cruise – Jack
Morgan Freeman – Beech
Olga Kurylenko – Julia
Andrea Riseborough – Victoria
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau – Sykes
And the late, great, Roger Ebert