FILM REVIEW: Oblivion
Long after the echoes from the action have faded, the serene silence of Oblivion will stay with you. The lean Washington Monument is reflected across an ash-coloured landscape, streaked with ice. Rusted battleships are trapped in a sea of sand. Waterfalls cascade over the concrete canyons of Manhattan, now choked with ivy.
After the gods of film brought about a new Ice Age (The Day After Tomorrow), the flood (2012), pestilence (Contagion) and undead horrors (the upcoming World War Z), Oblivion brings us to the logical conclusion: the end.
It's 2077 and Earth is a scarred, empty wasteland -- the result of an otherworldly invasion. Though the enemy was repelled, now humanity is heading for the stars, namely a new home on Saturn's moon, Titan.
Down on Earth, robotics technician Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his com officer Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are a few of last humans left. The two are a "mop-up crew" repairing and protecting flying, weaponized drones -- the larger mission is to convert sea water into fuel for the big trip to Titan.
Tom Cruise stars in the slow-burning sci-fi thriller Oblivion. (Universal Pictures/Associated Press)
No drone himself, Jack is haunted by visions of a past life. We're treated to sentimental flashes of sightseeing in NYC as he goes about the business of fixing the robot drones (which incidentally look like giant, weaponized ping pong balls). As he patches them up after attacks by alien scavs (short for scavengers), Jack does some collecting of his own. Like the main character of Wall-E, Jack builds a museum of lost relics: aviator sunglasses, a stuffed King Kong doll, vinyl LPs. In a world of sleek plastic curves and glossy white edges, he's a romantic -- the last hipster standing -- who prefers analog to digital.
Each night, Jack returns home to a tower in the sky, where he dines with Victoria, who is as cold and pristine as her Apple-inspired environment. Slowly, with the emergence of a rag-tag band of underground rebels and Julia (Olga Kurylenko), a mysterious woman who literally falls to earth, cracks start appearing in Jack's back story.
To avoid spoiling the many, many reveals, let's turn our attention to the director behind the camera, Joseph Kosinski. The 38-year-old filmmaker recently helmed the sequel to sci-fi favourite Tron. Before that, he studied architecture and mechanical engineering. It's worth a mention because Oblivion is one of the most beautiful and thoughtfully designed sci-fi films in quite some time. There's a wonderful stillness to this dead planet. As in the book The World Without Us, Kosinski offers us a way to image how Earth would appear after we're gone.
Julia (Olga Kurylenko, left) turns up and changes everything for Jack (Tom Cruise) in Oblivion. (Universal Pictures/Associated Press)
Beyond the haunting desolation depicted, Oblivion offers cutting-edge visual effects that are actually a blend of practical photography and computer graphics. Jack zooms around in a bug-eyed, dragonfly-shaped bubbleship, a design element that was actually constructed by the prototype company Wildfactory. For Jack and Victoria's plastic palace in the sky, crews filmed the cloud cover around Hawaii's Haleakala Crater. Then, the footage was projected onto massive screens and used as the actual light source on set.
While Kosinski challenged himself with the look of Oblivion's world, when it came to storytelling he and a small army of screenwriters took more of a pastiche approach. It leaves Oblivion feeling like a greatest hits of sci-fi films past and present, taking a little from Wall-E, The Matrix, 2001: A Space Odyssey and so forth. At the centre off it all is Tom Cruise, once again an everyman-turned-saviour. He's at his best when he's pushing himself to limit. Perhaps it's self-delusion about his heroic on-camera resumé or maybe because his marriage was imploding as he shot Oblivion in Iceland, but Cruise fully immerses himself in the moment and undeniably draws the audience in. We glimpse fear, anger and even a brief smile flicker across his face during a mid-air duel.
Once Oblivion ends, its tangle of plot twists and characters are actually quite simple. Jack is a reckless rule-breaker nostalgic for his home. Victoria is the compliant employee. Julia is the beautiful stranger and catalyst. Although Kurylenko's character comes complete with her own back story, inevitably she's just another damsel to be saved from the big bogeyman in the sky.
The issue is that, in a Tom Cruise movie, there's never any doubt as to how things will end -- only a certain kind of outcome is allowed. Kosinski has name-checked films like Bladerunner and 2001 as influences, but what Oblivion lacks is the kind of complexity of those earlier cinematic works -- say the murky morality of Bladerunner's Rick Deckard or the mind-bending ambition of 2001. Still, Oblivion is an impressive film from a director just getting going. Here's to a future where he finds stories worthy of his abilities.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5
Morgan Freeman, Zoe Bell and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau appear in a scene from Oblivion. (Universal Pictures/Associated Press)
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