My print review for Oblivion is at Lawrence.com and excerpted below. Also, you can hear Trevan and I talk about the movie on the Scene-Stealers Podcast #88, and read Trevan’s full review of the movie here.
Tom Cruise usually exerts a good amount of quality control over his projects and has for decades now. When he takes a starring role, he comes on as producer (often hiring the director) and is very involved from tip to tail in the entire creative process. In short, all you need to do is look at his track record to see that he works really hard to make sure his movies are, at the least, entertaining/thrilling to a wide audience.
That’s part of the reason why Oblivion, his newest big-budget, sci-fi adventure movie, is such a disappointment.
Writer/director Joseph Kosinski wrote what would become Oblivion eight years ago. In the meantime, he directed tons of TV commercials and became familiar with CGI special effects. This led to his feature-film debut Tron Legacy for Disney and now this.
Lensed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda, Oblivion looks stunning, especially in IMAX. It has an epic scope, as Cruise and his teammate/girlfriend Andrea Riseborough watch over a fleet of drones and mining machines tasked with draining the Earth of its resources after an alien invasion devastated the planet. They work in a station mounted impossibly high above the clouds and are nearing the end of their mission and looking forward to joining the rest of the human survivors on one of Saturn’s moons.
Starting with a “mandatory memory wipe” and the dream sequences Cruise’s character is plagued with, we know something is horribly wrong about this premise, but Oblivion never amps up the dread factor. Instead, it leads the audience along with incredibly obvious clues so that by the time it starts revealing it’s “twists,” we are way ahead of it. (Blame the spoiler-heavy marketing, too.)
But plot holes and mismanagement of suspense aside, “Oblivion” fails because it establishes an interesting premise and then abandons its characters as soon as things get complicated in favor of a typical “save the world”-type action story. If Kosinski really wanted to make a sci-fi movie in the spirit of early classics like Chris Marker’s La Jetée and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris as he has mentioned, then he should have engaged more fully with his characters’ personal crises and not added Morgan Freeman and Game of Thrones actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau to muddle things up, brooding around in “Matrix”-like outfits with capes and making big, dumb speeches.
Oblivion isn’t a total loss, but it is disappointing not only to see the film abandon the interesting sci-fi issues around its central love triangle (Olga Kurylenko plays a woman meant to be mysterious but, again, it’s painfully obvious from the outset who she is) but also see it devolve into a series of hackneyed action-movie cliches, including some really insulting third-act dialogue. It would be interesting to find out if Tom Cruise’s role as producer made him decide to alter the original script to appeal to a wider audience or whether Kosinski had these well-worn plot devices built in from the beginning.