Oblivion (Grade: B)
Overflowing with grand visual flourishes, Oblivion seems conceived to offer a director the greatest number of visual opportunities possible—and it was. Based on a graphic novel by director Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy), Oblivion is set in a post-apocalyptic 2073, 60 years after an alien species known as Scavs wiped out most of the Earth’s population. Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) shares a home in the sky with Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), who ventures out during the day to gather the world’s few remaining resources. In spite of his romantic ties with Victoria, Jack has visions of another woman (Olga Kurylenko), who he inexplicably discovers during one of his missions, complicating matters with Victoria. Jack also has a meeting with the Scavs, who reveal their true identity, expose the evils of Jack’s leader (Melissa Leo), and try to convince him to destroy her.
Featuring aliens, clones, robots, and all kinds of other futuristic technology, Oblivion is a diverse grab bag of science-fiction ideas and iconography. So extreme is the film’s abundance of conceits that when it casually shifts gears and becomes a zero gravity space adventure, this ambitious shift feels neither jarring nor inappropriate. Even more appealing than the film’s eclectic embrace of all things sci-fi is Kosinski’s retro design aesthetic, which recalls the idiosyncratic science-fiction films of the ’70s and ’80s. This emphasis also comes through in M83’s memorable electronic score and the film’s wonderfully flamboyant sound effects.
Even if Oblivion isn’t quite as eye-popping as TRON: Legacy, Kosinski makes a significant leap forward in terms of narrative focus and economy. Whereas TRON: Legacy was messy and undisciplined, Oblivion has a surprisingly focused script (by Michael Arndt and Karl Gajdusek), constantly reinventing itself as new information is revealed. As a result of this constant reinvention, Oblivion avoids the tedium of traditional science-fiction films that proceed toward an inevitable conclusion. Still, it is unnecessarily convoluted, which makes it somewhat difficult to fully digest—or enjoy—on a single viewing.
As is often the case, Cruise’s tendency toward earnest inoffensiveness is a liability, but for once, this is built into the conception of his character. In fact, several of Oblivion’s apparent weaknesses turn out to be strategic gambits, built into the intricate design of the film. Kosinski’s hyper-polished approach is more impressive than engrossing, but his barrage of fresh ideas and cinematic ambition is a pleasure to behold. He hasn’t made a great sci-fi film yet, but that aspiration seems well within reach.