The 400-Word Review: Oblivion

By Sean Collier

April 19, 2013

There's no way his feet are really that big.

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It’s hard to decide just how to tackle Tom Cruise’s latest starring vehicle, the dense sci-fi epic Oblivion. In most respects, the film is just too unremarkable.

That’s not to say it’s a poor effort; it’s visually striking, and builds to an engaging climax. What’s odd is a lack of greater ambition. Most science fiction — even efforts with smaller-scale stories, like Looper — attempt to break the mold, innovate or (at least) surprise; Oblivion has no such intentions.

The plot is standard: Earth is in trouble, our heroes discover what’s going on and endeavor to defend it. The performances are rote: Cruise and co-stars Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo and Olga Kurylenko are all fine, with none trying too hard. (Andrea Riseborough, one of two leading ladies involved, stumbles; she appears to be present because Jessica Chastain was unavailable.)

The effects are elegant and fully realized, but nothing we haven’t seen before; it looks like a 2-D, earthbound Avatar. Director Joseph Kosinski — who also produced and adapted his own unpublished graphic novel, which, uh, is quite an odd sentence to type — is to be commended, at least, for resisting the unnecessary third dimension and formatting his film most specifically to IMAX screens, where it does indeed look impressive.


About the only element of Oblivion that stands out is an unusually dense plot for a tentpole release. Cruise, in voice-over, has to narrate quite a bit in the opening real to get us up to speed; even after that exposition, the film simply demonstrates what’s going on for an hour or so. (And, like many underwhelming sci-fi efforts, this film takes place post-cataclysm, so we need to be filled in on that as well.)

It’s admirable that Universal was comfortable with releasing a tough story without an established brand; I just wish they would’ve done so with a more remarkable work. Fortunately, it does pay off; the last 45 minutes of Oblivion are tense, engaging and effective, with at least one or two of the flick’s many twists and reveals paying off. Viewers willing to slog through a slow first hour will be rewarded for their attentiveness.

As for Cruise, he retains some of the charisma and presence that once made him an instant success. Oblivion isn’t enough to fully redeem his image, but it’s a good choice. Whether it can find an audience, though, remains to be seen.

Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at



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