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OBLIVION
(**)
Reviewer:   Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Directed by:
Joseph Kosinski
Written by:
Screenplay by Joseph Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek & Michael Arndt. Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Joseph Kosinski and Arvid Nelson
Starring:
Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko
Length:   126 minutes
Released:   041913
Rating:
PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, brief strong language, and some sensuality/nudity
“...an elaborate sci-fi theme park ride where you can point out all your favorite cinematic memories without getting too involved." 

I’ve had a hard time writing a proper review of Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion. I’ve actually started to consider just cutting and pasting reviews of other, better sci-fi films from other, better critics in a logical order and just calling it a day, covering my ass under the pretense of “intentional homage.” Why not? That’s just what Oblivion does.

Not that there’s nothing to recommend about Oblivion. As he proved with his first feature film, TR0N: Legacy, Joseph Kosinski has a remarkable eye for geometric production design, epic scales and negative spaces. It’s a pleasure to watch the imagery of Oblivion on the big screen, and I suppose I’m glad I did. If I could write Oblivion off as a painting I’d call it a classic and let that be that, but unfortunately there‘s a screenplay here as well, and that screenplay is cobbled from so many familiar sci-fi classics that every single plot point is clearly visible from a mile away. Or rather, since films move through time rather than physical space: they are predictable at least half an hour before they happen.

The story is about the aftermath of an alien invasion, which we only hear about from two protagonists who had their memory wiped five years ago, and which we never actually see. One of them, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), keeps dreaming of a woman he’s never met, but thinks he loves, and knew decades before he was born, before the invasion ever happened (an event which, again, we have to take on faith). The Scavengers are humanoid, have five fingers, and wear gas masks, and we never a good look at what allegedly makes them alien. Jack and Victoria only talk to one other person, Sally (Melissa Leo), who speaks in a robotically enthusiastic cadence, is only seen via video, and always against a nondescript background.

It’s all well and good for a movie like Oblivion to have a twist, or two, or three, but when every single plot point comes with a neon sign reading “Be Suspicious of This” it hardly comes as a surprise. Worse yet, since every twist plays like an intentional homage to earlier, better science-fiction films, Oblivion never even gives itself an opportunity to do anything new, or even approach these old standbys from a fresh perspective. By the time Oblivion concludes with a mashup of Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Independence Day, Alien, Blade Runner, Moon, District 9, Predator, it elicits a shallow sigh, not a satisfying gasp.

And all this would be fine if Oblivion was entertaining. While Tom Cruise lends his ample charm to the protagonist, and while the image of Morgan Freeman mounting a turret gun and shooting robots is a novel one, the film is so emotionally hollow it’s hard to really care what's going on. Oblivion clearly understands the idea of human emotion – Jack is nostalgic for a time period he never knew (or did he?), and he’s given a love affair that could very well save the human race – but it uses these sympathetic situations to foreshadow plot points, not to explore the characters’ personal connections. The coldness of Jack and Victoria’s relationship makes sense in proper context. The coldness of Jack’s relationship with Julia, the woman in his dreams who turns out to be very, very real, is merely uninvolving.

Oblivion is so brightly polished, so actively sterile, that the little moments of strangeness – and even artistic failure – that would normally make a movie feel like it was made by human beings never have a chance to surface. The world it presents is meant to be displayed, not properly lived in, even by those who, unlike the protagonists, have no excuse for their lack of humanity. Morgan Freeman, Nicolaj-Coster Waldau and Zoe Bell (who has no dialogue, no subplot and no major stunt work but shows up on-screen repeatedly anyway) represent the last vestiges of the human race, but aside from Coster-Waldau’s distracting choice of codpiece they demonstrate no personality to speak of. Freeman, normally a genuine presence in even the lowliest of movies (see: Hard Rain) hardly gets a line of dialogue that doesn't qualify as exposition. And poor Olga Kurylenko, so soulful in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, only gets to properly emote while staring at a painting that looks an awful lot like a scene from To the Wonder, which is probably why she’s so nostalgic.

As an exercise in stark production design and booming sound effects, Oblivion is a remarkable success. As a movie with aspirations towards deeper meaning, blown minds and a character or two worth giving a damn about… not so much. It’s cold and distractingly familiar. Oblivion serves as a great introduction to the sci-fi genre if you’ve been living in a nuclear fallout shelter since the 1950s. For those more familiar with the genre, it’s an elaborate sci-fi theme park ride where you can point out all your favorite cinematic memories without getting too involved.

Webster’s Dictionary defines “oblivion” as “the condition or state of being forgotten or unknown.” I wouldn't be surprised if Oblivion soon fulfills the promise of that title.


OBLIVION
© 2013 Universal Pictures
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2013 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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