‘Oblivion’ movie review: meditative sci-fi with Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman

Thoughtful, serious-minded science fiction is hard to come by; it’s even harder to come by in the realm of $100 million blockbusters. We were blessed last year with Ridley Scott’s wonderfully maddening Prometheus, and now here’s Oblivion, from director Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy), which eschews the expected blockbuster tropes in pursuit of something…deeper.

Meditative, slowly-paced, and gorgeous to look at, Oblivion is a frequently mesmerizing piece of work. In story and ambition, it doesn’t pay off in the same way that Prometheus did, nor is it as kinetic an experience as the director’s TRON film. Instead, it’s a stripped down, sincere little genre riff, a Twilight Zone episode fleshed out and writ large into a landscape of almost endless CGI imagination.

In the year 2073, the Earth has become a wasteland after war with an invading alien species, referred to as “Scavengers”, resulted in the destruction of the moon and the detonation of nuclear warheads across the globe. The last remnants of humanity are collected in Titan, a massive space station that orbits the planet.

On what remains of Earth, water is being extracted through giant harvesting machines. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise, perfectly cast as the model human) and partner/lover Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are stationed in the atmosphere to monitor the operation against a lingering Scavenger threat; Jack visits the ground to repair menacing-looking drones while Victoria reports back to mission commander Sally (Melissa Leo, sporting the kind of thick Texas drawl you rarely see in films set in the future).

While the opening scenes immediately grab your interest with their striking design, Oblivion really starts to kick into gear with the addition of Julia (Olga Kurylenko), who Jack saves after her ship crash-lands on the planet. Jack mentions a complete memory wipe before the mission, and Julia starts to fill him in on details of his previous life…

What, exactly, is going on here? At its best, the film’s script (by Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek, and Michael Arndt) delivers surreal compelling scenarios and lets the audience try to put the pieces of the puzzle together. But the script isn’t exactly Oblivion’s strong point. 

Still, the film plays out best the less you know about the story going in; the trailer reveals far too much. Morgan Freeman, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and Zoë Bell show up in key supporting roles. 

Just don’t think about it too hard: Oblivion isn’t likely to hold up under the extreme scrutiny of many of the genre’s fans. Too slow for casual audiences and perhaps not authentic enough for hardcore sci-fi diehards, Oblivion exists in an uneasy area for a major blockbuster; it’s not entirely unlike Soderbergh’s Solaris

Of course, there are the required action set pieces peppered throughout to keep things somewhat lively. The only problem, as we watch the spaceships and drone-orbs chasing each other throughout the skies, is that we’re usually acutely aware that this world is almost entirely CGI; still, outside of a couple lousy shots that stand out, it’s remarkably well-done stuff, in sharp contrast to the work in, say, Oz: The Great and Powerful

The film’s look is its greatest strength. Set design, which combines a dystopian view of the post-apocalyptic landscape (cities buried under land and debris) with the futuristic technology in the skies (those drones are a standout) is phenomenal. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who just won an Oscar for Life of Pi, clearly knows how to work with all the CGI elements.

TRON: Legacy was aided immeasurably by its explosive Daft Punk soundtrack, and Oblivion similarly benefits by a terrific score from French electronic group M83. It’s not nearly as dynamic as the work on TRON, but it reminded me of some of the better scores Tangerine Dream or Vangelis put out in the 80s. 

I caught Oblivion at IMAX, with a presentation that is being touted as showing more of the film: a 1.9:1 aspect ratio compared to the standard widescreen 2.4:1. Whatever the format, this movie looks great, and demands to be seen in the cinema.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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