After taking the reigns on the sleek-but-hollow sequel TRON: Legacy a few years ago, director Joseph Kosinski is back with his second feature, Oblivion. It’s a sci-fi passion project that shows a marked improvement over Kosinski’s debut film, and while it certainly fuels his reputation as a filmmaker that loves to use gorgeous visuals to tell his stories, it also proves he isn’t as soulless behind the camera as his first effort led us to believe. Despite some eye-rolling moments and more than a few derivative plot points, Oblivion is a solid science fiction film filled with beautiful cinematography, strong performances, exciting action, and a sense of heart that ties it all together.
Sixty years after a war with aliens made the Earth uninhabitable, drone repairman Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his communications officer Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are the only two people left on the planet. Harper fixes drones that protect massive machines that convert sea water to energy, the sole source of power for the rest of humanity that has taken refuge on one of Saturn’s moons. During the day, the curious Harper makes his rounds and collects mementos of 21st century civilization while keeping his eyes open for Scavs – remnants of the alien force that decimated the world – and by night, he hooks up with Victoria in the glass-bottom pool of their luxurious Sky Tower situated in the clouds.
Just a few weeks before the duo’s tour on Earth is scheduled to end, Harper investigates a crash and discovers human survivors have been jettisoned onto the planet’s surface, including a mysterious woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko) whom he’s been seeing in his dreams. When a repair goes wrong and he’s captured by an underground group led by Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman), Harper soon discovers that his job, his relationships, and even his very existence are not as they appeared.
Kosinski initially wrote this story eight years ago as a graphic novel with the aim to make this his first feature, so he’s been living with this world and these characters for a long time. Though the story unfolds as a sort of mishmash of dozens of classic science fiction films, the director’s design skills (he’s a former architect) and visual flair can’t be denied. He’s a technical craftsman still waiting on the perfect story that will match the power of his images, but here he’s able to tell his story, his way. The universe he’s created with Oblivion is sleek, to be sure, but instead of the digital blues and cool tones of TRON: Legacy, there is a warm, lived-in feeling to everything we see. The impressive technology isn’t 100% pristine or brand new; there are scratch marks here and there, Harper’s costume is a little bit dirty, and devices don’t always work exactly as they should. The movie was shot partially in Iceland, and occasionally we get a glimpse of the same level of breathtaking scenery that was featured in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (which also filmed in that country), shot by Kosinski’s longtime collaborator Claudio Miranda (who just won an Oscar for cinematography for Life of Pi).
To mention which films influenced Oblivion would be to give away huge elements of the movie, but if you’re into science fiction, you’ll likely get some enjoyment out of seeing the ever-watchable Tom Cruise go to work in a genre in which he truly shines. Morgan Freeman is about as Morgan Freeman-y as you’d expect in a typical “wise old man” role that seems written specifically for him, but he does get a laughably enjoyable moment where he grabs a .50 caliber machine gun and blasts away while yelling at the top of his lungs, so that’s a first.
The most surprising talent here comes from the film’s female cast. British actress Andrea Riseborough does a lot with a little as Victoria (I swear half of her character’s dialogue is just saying the name “Jack” over and over again as the communications cut in and out), and former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko shines as the mysterious Julia who – again – I can’t really say much about without giving away what happens. Kurylenko is beautiful but Quantum of Solace wasn’t exactly a proving ground for her talent; in Oblivion, she feels much more like an actress than a model wearing a costume.
The mysteries of the film are played out until the very end, and though the story isn’t told sequentially, it’s not hard to figure out exactly what happened by the time the end credits roll. And for all of its borrowed plot twists and rehashed moments, Oblivion still manages to tell a contained story that, unlike TRON: Legacy, doesn’t feel like sequel-baiting or franchise building. This is a tale well told, equivalent to settling in and watching a “Seinfeld” episode you’ve seen a hundred times already: just because you’ve seen it before doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. Kosinski’s visual prowess continues to blow me away, and I can’t wait until he gets all the pieces in place for his eventual masterpiece. But until then, Oblivion will do just fine. Until next time…
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