Joseph Kosinski | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13
As Oblivion informs us in a hefty chunk of voiceover exposition at the start, the year is 2077, several decades on from a war with aliens that we won but left the Earth in ruins. Humanity fled to a colony on Titan, but the last party to depart remain in orbit aboard a giant space station. Waiting to join them are Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough, the last humans on Earth, serving the final few weeks of their mission to watch over the drones that guard giant water-collecting machines, sucking up the oceans for the benefit of the new colony.
Any film that begins with a screed that long just to explain what the heck is happening is setting itself up for a fall, and it’s a shame that Oblivion feels the need to. Indeed, the only reason it ‘needs’ to is for the benefit of the instant-fix blockbuster crowd, at which the film is at least partially aimed. The whole shebang is recounted again by Cruise to Olga Kurylenko when she turns up about a third of the way through — the intelligent viewer would, I think, be prepared to go with it until then. Fortunately, it doesn’t destroy the film: unlike the twist-ruining narration from the opening of Dark City’s theatrical cut, this at least is genuinely the initial setup, on which twists will later be performed.
You could probably have generated a whole film about this world as it appears to Cruise and Riseborough, but it’s obvious from the very start that there’s something more going on. The guessing game is part of the fun, and as with almost any film with twists some viewers will get them bang-on and feel it’s all blatant, and some will be genuinely surprised. Also, as with many a tale desperate to surprise its audience thus, there are holes in the story and its logic (for a good summary of some of the major sticking points, check out ghostof82’s review). Your mileage will vary on whether they undermine the entire enterprise or wash; for me, it hangs together well enough… while you’re watching, at least.
There are a lot more science-fiction films around these days than there used to be, thanks to both the lowering costs of special effects and a generation (or two) of new(er) filmmakers who grew up with Star Wars and all that followed. Most of these films are regular old action-adventure movies just with more expensive trappings, but occasionally you get something that tries to engage with sci-fi ideas or concepts. Credit where it’s due to story-creator/director Joseph Kosinski for attempting that here. Some have accused it of stealing those ideas from previous movies, but I think such criticisms are over-emphasised. There are only so many stories and ideas in the world, after all, and only so many concepts and ways to explore them. Oblivion isn’t so derivative that you can clearly pick out one, or even two, things it’s ripped off.
Don’t worry if you do prefer your sci-fi blockbusterised, though, because Oblivion comes with its fair share of action sequences. Even though it doesn’t rush through events (it has the kind of pace where I thought it was nearing the end just 40 minutes in, which seemed to be a problem until I accepted it was telling a different, longer story than I’d thought), there’s an array of appropriately-timed shoot-outs and spaceship chases to keep the mainstream happy. I like a good action sequence, and some of the ones Kosinski presents have their moments, but I also found I could have done without most of them. To a degree they seemed to have been slotted in so it could look like an Action Movie in the trailers, the aim (as ever) being to pull in the punters, thereby justifying the budget needed to create such a slick SF world.
If that’s the case, it was worth it, because the visuals are one of Oblivion’s strongest points. The design department give us a sleek and glossy style, but one that still feels plausible — like an expensive Grand Designs project, rather than the plastic-and-lens-flare of J.J. Abrams’ Trek movies. The vistas of a ruined Earth complement the industrial design well, with only the odd dud CG shot in a movie overloaded with visual effects. The drones seem to be a mix of practical props and must-be-CGI, which gives them a solidity and therefore threat that at times feels palpable. This is emphasised by Kosinski’s well-composed shot selection, supported by Richard Francis-Bruce’s editing and Claudio Miranda’s cinematography, both of which are wonderfully classical (no shaky handheld camerawork or cut-to-shreds action; at least, not that I recall). The scene where a drone invades Cruise’s home particularly sticks in my mind.
With the aforementioned plot issues, not to mention an ending that some will find too twee (I saw the broad strokes of the epilogue coming from quite a way out, so can’t say I was surprised), Oblivion is not quite all it could have been. But it gets considerably closer than I expected — it’s undoubtedly an A for effort — and that, bolstered by faultless technical aspects, makes for an all-round enjoyable experience.
Oblivion comes to Sky Movies from today, debuting at 4:10pm and 8pm on Sky Movies Premiere. It’s also already available on NOW TV.