Oblivion: the state of being forgotten.
In Joseph Kosinski’s second directorial effort, humanity has abandoned Earth to decay leaving it precariously close to be forgotten. While the critics’ consensus seems to be that the film exalts flashy visuals above plot, I think Kosinski largely succeeds at immersing us into his imaginary future Earth and the steady unraveling of its mysteries.
Here’s five reasons to go see Oblivion:
1) A Visually Pleasing Ode to Earth
Our planet is beautiful, even after global catastrophe, war, and neglect. Tom Cruise’s Jack Harper flies, rides, and walks across the barren wastelands of our former home throughout the film, giving us stunning panoramas of beautiful desolation. Filmed partially on location in Iceland, many of these are real shots (with some add CGI machines for flavor).
These landscapes are reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s stunning New Zealandography to powerful effect. Just as in the Lord of the Rings film, the scenery is a central and unmistakable character in the story.
Choosing to make a “daylight sci-fi” is an effective cinematic decision on Kosinski’s part. There may be better sci-fi movies than Oblivion, but vastly few that are as cinematically gorgeous and eye-pleasing. If that is a trifling matter to some, it wasn’t for this movie-goer.
2) A Friendly Dose of Contemplative Action
While it may not have as many frenzied battles as the upcoming Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness promise us, Oblivion really takes its time to tell its story. It takes time to ask questions along the way. Our protagonist Jack Harper makes up his mind about his next move unhurriedly.
There is no Matrix-style philosophizing here, just slow steady mediation atop a gleaming white motorcycle. Jack Harper is perhaps the last human on earth who truly appreciates the place humanity has left behind.
When the action comes, you’re ready for it. But the film maintains a refreshingly relaxed approach to its story, giving you time and space to reflect. Compared to a Bond or a Bourne movie, it makes for a nice contrast.
3) Machines Are Beautiful Too
Desolate Earth is paired with the sleek white designs of the tech. The protective and sometimes menacing drones are flying mechanical spheres with calculating efficiency. Jack Harper repairs them but they seem to have goals of their own. Though they are always breaking down, sabotaged by alien marauders, or lacking replacement parts, the drones are still elegantly powerful in movement and destructive capability.
Jack’s bubbleship is the standout design however. His ship takes him cross-planet and behaves like a spinning gyro sphere ride or a twisting rollercoaster. Taking off from his skytop glass-paneled station, Jack Harper certainly looks like he has fun heading off to work.
Later on we get a glimpse of delta sleep pods, the human command center, and the spacecraft Odyssey. All told, the filmmakers deserve credit for their ambitiously creative work in building a a future even Steve Jobs might enjoy.
4) M83’s Propulsive Score
M83’s arrangements are a key piece of what makes Oblivion work. If you’ve seen Tron Legacy, you’ll be familiar with the potent combination of stirring electronic melodies and tremendous visuals. Even if it occasionally sounds a bit like other recent movie scores, it works well.
Sometimes however the score is outdoes itself, becoming more expressive than the film’s emotional journey itself. Unlike say the climatic ending of the Dark Knight Rises where the music bring home the emotional weight of the story, sometimes the explosive rhythms barge ahead of the characters for no other reason than to highlight an impressive – but ultimately trivial – visual moment..
Visual moments without character moments are perhaps the major drawback of the film’s leisurely pace; however it sure is wonderful to take in. That’s no fault of the music for trying though. Long after the closing credits, I found myself looking up the score again and wanting to hear it one last time. Unlike the competent-but-indistinguishable score of the Hobbit which is hard to remember, I yearn to hear the sounds of Oblivion over and over. That’s a job well done.
5) A Thought-Provoking Narrative
Many reviewers have singled out the plot as Oblivion’s biggest weakness, calling it shallowly derivative of other notable sci-fi flicks from recent years. The director himself has said that his inspiration came from 70’s science fiction. Which is true? I have no idea. While there are similarities I didn’t find the plot unimaginative or overly derivative. The plot is not without flaws but competent enough to hand over some worthwhile surprises and payoffs. Not everyone will be impressed but if you want absolute plausibility, I don’t recommend this particular genre in the first place.
Oblivion also presents us and Jack with some interesting choices.
At the beginning of the film, he has his partner Vicka with whom he seems fairly happy. But when he finds a familiar-looking woman in a crashed sleep pod, he’s forced to choose between loyalty to his partner and discovery of this stranger. Should he stay with what is safe, good, and sanctioned by his mission? Or should he risk it all for a woman he only knows through vague dreamlike memories? It’s a choice that costs him emotionally and it costs the audience as well.
We want Jack and Vicka to be an effective team, but Jack wants to question the unknown. He wants to find answers that lie well above his paygrade. As the film progresses, we see that this is part of who he is. He’s not at home in the sky and so he searches for a better one.
Jack only has a few weeks left before he ships out for Titan, mankind’s new home away from home. Vicka is excited to go there. But Jack can’t shake the feeling that he belongs on the scarred surface of Earth. He wants to remember a life on Earth he never knew, before the war, before the destruction.
What would he will be willing to sacrifice to get a taste of that? Would he compromise his mission? Would he dissolve his team? Would he risk everything just to discover a past he can’t ever quite know?
Oblivion may not singlehandedly redefine the genre forever, but it’s quite a lovely tribute.