Movie Review: Oblivion
By Matthew Huntley
May 1, 2013
Oblivion is a science fiction thriller that’s more a compilation of other movies than an individual, fully realized one. In fact, the qualities it shares with other sci-fi adventures like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, The Terminator films, and The Matrix almost seem deliberate, as if the filmmakers are proclaiming, “We know you like these other movies, so we’re going to give you a little bit of each all in one.” This doesn’t necessarily make Oblivion bad, but it doesn’t make it original, either. One of the reasons it could be interpreted as good is because all the films it borrows from pioneered the genre in some way, and if this movie had come out 30 years ago, it too would have been a trailblazer. In 2013, though, it’s merely average.
That’s not to say Oblivion isn’t entirely watchable, or that it’s a great looking movie with top-notch special effects and production design. And you have to give credit to director Joseph Kosinski and his screenplay co-writers Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt for spreading the story out and not immediately giving us the answers we’re craving. For most of the movie, we wonder where it’s taking us (in a good way). It’s only after we find out that we’re sort of bummed it didn’t go further and offer more.
The story takes place in 2077 on a post-nuclear war Earth. Sixty years earlier, a race of alien creatures called Scavengers, or “Scavs,” attacked the planet and destroyed our moon, which immediately caused earthquakes and other disasters, forcing the human race to resort to “nukes” to defend itself. Humans ended up winning the war, but it was a Pyrrhic victory at best, as it left Earth in a state of, well, oblivion, and now it’s a dry, ashen and mostly uninhabitable clump of mass fraught with radiation poisoning, with almost all signs of a past civilization buried underground.
There are supposedly only two people left on the planet as the rest of humanity lives on a tetrahedral space station called Tet, preparing to move to new colony on Titan, Saturn’s moon. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is a technician who repairs the drones that protect large extraction machines, which are collecting and storing Earth’s remaining resources. He lives with his communication officer/lover, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), in one of those prototypical, futuristic habitats that’s drab and white all over, which sits high in the sky atop a scaffold (I’m assume to avoid the radiation down below). Every day, Jack flies around in a shuttle to monitor the drones, and in just two weeks, he and Victoria are scheduled to complete their mission and join the others.
I should mention that neither Jack nor Victoria have any memories of anything beyond five years ago, following a mandatory memory wipe, but every night, he dreams of a beautiful woman atop the Empire State Building (“I know you, but I’ve never met you,” he says). One day, during what seems like a routine mission, Jack locates a missing drone in an old library. While investigating, a book of poems by Macaulay catches his eye and he’s seen by the Scavs, but for the first time, he doesn’t get the impression they’re trying to kill him, but rather catch him.
Shortly after, a spaceship carrying other humans crashes in a remote area and one of the passengers is the same woman from Jack’s dreams, Julia (Olga Kurylenko). He rescues her and, against Victoria’s orders, accompanies her back to the wreckage site to get her ship’s radio transmission, where they’re captured by a gang of black cape-wearing desert dwellers who could be mistaken for characters in The Road Warrior. Without giving too much away, the leader of the group, Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman), tells Jack that his people lied to him, which we more or less gathered for ourselves.
What they lied about and what Jack discovers form the crux of Oblivion, whose story and intelligence eventually, and unfortunately, get overshadowed by routine shoot-outs and chase scenes. It would have been much more interesting if the movie chose to really hone in on its science and history, including exactly what happened that caused the war and where the tetrahedron came from, but it merely skims the surface. Rather than expand upon or put an original twist on the themes and ideas, it pulls from other sci-fi movies, it simply uses them as a platform on which to stage impressive special effects and not-so-impressive action sequences. As a movie, it’s cinematic and holds our attention; but as science fiction, it’s not bold enough to go anywhere we haven’t already been.