Review: OBLIVION Looks Great, Sounds Like a Dozen Better Sci-Fi Flicks

James Marsh, Asian Editor
Tom Cruise returns to the realms of science fiction, conspiring with Tron: Legacy's Joseph Kosinski in a big screen adaptation of the director's unpublished graphic novel. While visually spectacular and action-packed, Oblivion compromises its technical accomplishments with a sloppily executed script that borrows liberally from many beloved genre classics.

In 2077, 60 years after an alien invasion triggered a nuclear war that decimated the planet, the human race has all but abandoned Earth for Titan, the largest of Saturn's moons. Commander Jack Harper (Cruise) is the last remaining man on the planet, charged with monitoring and servicing drones, which guard huge hydroelectric generators that convert Earth's oceans into usable fuel on Titan. Together with his partner, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) they form an effective team, dutifully fending off rogue alien "Scavengers", and carrying out the orders passed down from TET, the huge space station that orbits Earth and serves as their only contact with mankind.

However, when Harper investigates a crash site and pulls a woman (Olga Kurylenko) from the wreckage, she triggers long-dormant memories in his supposedly "security-wiped" mind, about a life before the war. When the drones attempt to kill her, Harper begins to question not only her identity, but also his own, and everything he has come to take for granted.

Science fiction is a tricky genre, because its best examples are largely ideas-based rather than spectacle-driven. Good ideas are hard to come by, while recycled ones are easy to spot. When a sci-fi film introduces a new concept that audiences haven't seen before, it is often embraced quickly, lauded as a definitive addition to the genre. When another film subsequently uses that idea again, it can have a hard time shaking off the shackles of its previous incarnation.

Essentially this is the problem at the centre of Oblivion. While the script, originally written by producer-director Kosinski together with William Monaghan (and subsequently rewritten by first Karl Gajdusek and then Michael Arndt), is entertaining, it is so obviously derivative of a succession of smarter, better-known and hugely successful films, that it is almost impossible to judge Oblivion as original. At various stages, everything from Solaris, Logan's Run, Robocop, The Matrix and Moon is either referenced lovingly or paid generous lip service. Audience's abilities to look beyond these similarities and appreciate the film on its own merits will wholly influence to what degree they enjoy the film.

Oblivion marks only the second feature film from Kosinski, but he has already come a long way from 2010's Tron: Legacy. He remains primarily a visual stylist, but while his previous effort was confined to resurrecting and revitalising an existing aesthetic, in Oblivion Kosinski has free rein to build an entire world of his own creation. And it looks phenomenal. From the scattered remains of the moon perpetually strewn across the sky, to the devastated ash-driven wastelands of what was once New York City, the world of Oblivion feels fully realised, even as the narrative resembles a mosaic of different concepts clumsily cobbled together. This synergy extends to the technology - touch screen computer consoles, high-speed gyro-pods, weaponised drones and even collapsible dirt-bikes - which all make sense as tangible possibilities within this environment, without going as far as, say, Andrew Stanton's Wall-E, in which everything appears to have been designed by Apple.

Tom Cruise is as dependable and eminently watchable as ever as Harper. He has heavy-handed "human" moments, like recounting a past Superbowl as he searches the stadium ruins, or cracking awful one-liners with his dashboard bobble-head doll, but considering the script he has to work with, Cruise adds nuance and vulnerability to the role, where it could have been lifeless and one-note. Elsewhere, Andrea Riseborough brings the strongest support, as icy partner/lover/teammate Victoria, who proves more of a stickler for the rules than Harper, but can also be threatening and tender when the moment requires it. 

Kurylenko is given less to do as the mysterious, yet sexy Julia, and you'd be forgiven for not realising that Morgan Freeman was even in the movie, had the trailers and posters not told us so. To go into the details of his role, let alone those of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Zoe Bell, would be to plunge deep into spoiler territory, suffice to say the script gives them nothing to do except appear on screen with Tom Cruise.

In fact, those sensitive to having their enjoyment spoiled by knowing important plot developments ahead of seeing a film would be recommended to read or watch nothing about Oblivion before going in. Even mentioning some of the films from which Oblivion borrows most liberally will plant ideas in viewers' heads that I'm sure Kosinski and Co would rather weren't there. But it is impossible to review the film without pointing out such glaringly obvious similarities, although I will refrain from discussing specifics.

Taken on its own, Oblivion is a wholly watchable and oftentimes entertaining sci-fi action adventure that looks and sounds incredible on the big screen (even if Anthony Gonzalez and M83's score frequently recalls Hans Zimmer's music from Inception). However, the script is poorly written, with a few of its most integral explanations either dumped into expository speeches or skipped entirely, while all its best ideas come from the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, the Wachowskis and Duncan Jones. If that's unimportant, then Oblivion will feed your clearly starved science fiction appetite. For the rest of us, this is spectacle over substance and, at times, embarrassingly familiar.
Around the Internet:
  • Jeff Baxter

    I enjoyed the movie until I realized it had almost the same plot as one of my favorite movies, Moon.

  • Fendell

    What difference does it make if the movie is not "original" as long as it is entertaining?

  • marshy00

    If all you want is to be entertained, none.

  • GBannis

    Entertainment does come first for me. Even "original" stories, if there are such things left, need to be entertaining.

  • darrenjh

    Pack your shit up film makers. it's all been done. no point making sci-fi anymore.

  • Alternately they could step their game up, given that it's an infinite universe with infinite possibilities and there's no need to simply regurgitate and repackage what others have done before.

  • Or, at least, if they must regurgitate, they could do it well.

  • gooched

    Kosinski sounds like another Zach Snyder, great visual sensibilities but poor at script. Give the guy a good script from someone good and watch him work wonders.

  • Seen-it

    I've seen the film and would disagree whole-heartedly with the reviewer. It's like saying, you see one drama film, you have seen them all. Critics are just that. Go see the film for yourself. You will not be disappointed, even if you have seen another sci-fi film before in your life, LOL!

  • GBannis

    Agree. This is a thoughtful film on its own, with great set design (I want that acrylic pool!), and an involving quiet pace.

    Spoiler:

    The ending is a little creepy to me since there are supposedly thousands of the Cruise clones and one female love interest.

  • Guest

    Thanks Tom.

  • Garrett

    Joseph Kosinski had this idea well before moon did, as he began writing it in 2005.

  • marshy00

    But it was unpublished. So MOON's story was shared with us first.

  • Garrett

    Yes. But that doesn't mean this story ripped it off. So I think everyone should research a little more before making these kind of assumptions.

  • Snoop Lion

    Moon was one of five sci-fi classics he mentioned, plus other reviewers have said the exact same. Even if the Moon assumption is incorrect, and therefore removed, what explains those four others?

  • Garrett

    This is just what I see people comparing it to the most. Sorry just trying to clarify with everyone he wrote this a while ago. Is anyone on here even anticipating this movie still?

  • marshy00

    The comparison is blatantly obvious when you see the film. It is impossible to ignore. This screenplay has been re-written multiple times in the past couple of years (since the release of MOON) and to pretend that it has had no influence whatsoever on this project is frankly impossible to believe.

  • Garrett

    Well if it were my creation and I found out years later that another movie had the same kind of idea, I'd stick to my guts and make my movie the way I wanted it to be.

  • davebaxter

    You seem to like ignoring the whole "it was rewritten multiple times after Moon came out" element. Which allows for the movie, as it has been released, to definitely rip off core elements of Moon. More to the point, if your "guts" were made out of recycled sci-fi ideas (and many have already pointed out that MOON itself recycled such ideas, so even if Oblivion didn't take anything consciously from Moon it still can be claimed that it recycles the same ideas that Moon recycled), and nothing new, then sticking to said guts isn't anything heroic or praiseworthy. It's called talentless and delusional.

  • Garrett

    Well said.

  • Garrett

    Then again, everything copies from something now. If you guys are familiar with Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard, which even made an appearance in the first Matrix, it talks about how everything is a copy or not an original. Sorry getting off topic now haha

  • Snoop Lion

    I'm not really anticipating Oblivion, Elysium or After Earth. Even if the CGI is amazing, it feels soulless. I have the most hopes for Elysium but that first teaser was fairly underwhelming - Black Mirror has spoiled me for future tech

  • Vader

    Uhh, why did you say knowing the films that most influenced Oblivion will give us ideas the filmmakers will prefer weren't there, when you did just that, specifically, a few paragraphs prior? So, you're saying you just gave something big away in the movie?

  • marshy00

    Yes that's exactly what I meant.

  • Juan Andrés Valencia

    As a guy that DESPISED Tron Legacy (The 3D was lame, the script was horrendous and at times it felt like a Daft Punk music video, even though the music was amazing), I thought the trailer for this looked amazing. I'm saddened to hear it's not that good but after Tron Legacy anything is an improvement.

  • Schwenkstar

    My thoughts exactly! I enjoyed MOON - chiefly due to Sam Rockwell's performance - but my biggest gripe was that it borrowed liberally from sci-fi films that come before it. It's worrying to hear that OBLIVION - in turn - borrows much from MOON, which is like doing further image compression on an already compressed image - the distortion will no doubt start showing.

  • gooched

    All sci fi films are pretty much derived from 2001 and blade runner, point being you need to have a great script so it stands out. Which is sounds is oblivions main weakness. Either way i loved tron legacy on a purely visual and audio level so I'll give this a shot.

  • DArgento

    Man, derivative of MOON, one of the most derivative-feeling films I've ever seen. That's saying a lot. I'll see it just because I thought Tron Legacy sucked but looked nice.

  • For better and worse, MOON has cast a long shadow.

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