Tom Cruise's new science fiction action adventure has been in theaters for a week-ish, and it has already opened the taste debate. A great deal of "average viewers" have come out of Oblivion with positive feelings, remarking that, while far from a perfect film, it succeeds as entertainment with a sliver of substance. Critics have not been so kind. They've called the film self-serious, absent of self-awareness, a ponderous mess, and so on and so forth.
I couldn't disagree more.
While far from perfect, Oblivion is what Prometheus promised to be last year: a high concept, thrilling exploration of the human condition through the lens of science fiction. Where Prometheus failed to deliver (see here and here for my take), Oblivion has filled in the blank, offering the same visual awe of 2012's "big film" with a far more coherent and cohesive plot, consistent (though incomplete) characters, and a few decent twists and turns. Most of all, Oblivion gives us a few answers, even if it never quite explains everything in the end. All this combine to make a film that, in my mind, deserves a little more credit. After all, it's not
often that we are given action-oriented science fiction that also has a little something to contemplate, right? For that reason, I see Oblivion as an attempt to revitalize action-oriented SF with just a smidge of actual substance -- a film that, despite its flaws, is entertaining and a tiny bit cerebral.
Sure, the film's central conceit is certainly not original. Post-apocalyptic SF is almost always cliche before you get into the particulars, and inserting an alien invasion doesn't help with originality points. Even the somewhat hokey voice over is so painfully common in genre films that it's difficult to take it seriously (in the case of Oblivion, the voice over is actually important, but it does feel out of place, even by the end). However, what I found most compelling about Oblivion was its method for exploring familiar territory: fusion. Cross-genre narratives are not unheard of in SF, but they are less common (at least in explicit form). Here, Joseph Kosinski (the director behind TRON: Legacy -- my review here) fuses post-apocalypse with alien invasions and cyberpunk (an element I won't discuss here for fear of spoiling the narrative). Part of telling good stories with old material is finding a different way to approach that material. Oblivion does just that, pitting the "man on his own" trope on the same stage as a cyberpunk-ian identity crisis.
Equally arresting is the dramatic contrast between the natural and the artificial -- a visual aesthetic as much as a thematic one, which is made apparent from the start, with extensive scenes involving Cruise, well, cruising around an "empty" Earth in advanced aircraft. It shouldn't surprise, then, that so much of the film is concentrated on the visual aesthetics of both the post-apocalypse and cyberpunk, blending the relative order of technology into a world of natural chaos. From a purely visual perspective, Oblivion is absolutely gorgeous -- even more so, in places, than last year's Prometheus. Several minutes are spent presenting vast natural wildernesses, rocky "deserts," the natural encroaching upon the remains of human civilization, buried buildings, forgotten ships resting on dried seabed, and so on. Even the action sequences -- high-energy and, at times, emotional -- are well-rendered, and themselves as visually arresting as the natural and artificial environments that dominate the set pieces. It is unmistakably a gorgeous film.
Oblivion's two biggest problems, however, are pacing and secondary characterization. The film seems motivated by two separate concerns: a desire to explore the human condition through a deliberate and nuanced "man on his own" narrative and an equally powerful desire to provide an action thriller replete with some familiar SF trappings. Sometimes, these desires do not mingle well, resulting in huge action sequences that are offset by canyons of slow material. In the case of Oblivion, the extreme rise-and-fall motion feels like it is delaying the conclusion, adding more "mysteries" to be solved for later. While these reveals are clearly crucial to the ending, I get the sense that a little trimming or re-organizing of some of these sequences could have helped better pace the discovery process. Alternatively, perhaps Oblivion simply tries to bite off more than it can chew for a two hour movie. There's simply too much rising-and-falling here; at times, it is almost exhausting. The problem, however, is that there probably isn't a solution for this -- at least, not one that wouldn't gut some of the film's major conflicts.
Despite these flaws, however, I see Oblivion as a bit of a sleeper classic. It may not change the way we view SF cinema, but it certainly fills in a gap left behind by the existing variety of mind-numbing SF action flicks (G.I. Joe and Transformers 2 and 3, I'm looking at you). With just the right amount of substance, Oblivion provides both heart and entertainment. I, for one, enjoyed it a great deal. You just might, too.
Overall: 3.9375/5 (78.75%)
Inflated Grade: B (for solid action, compelling ideas, a decent plot, and gorgeous visuals)
Value: $7.50 (based on a $10.50 max)