2013 is shaping up to be the year of the high-end science fiction movie. With the likes of Will Smith and Matt Damon starring in new genre films, and some major blockbusters from J.J. Abrams and Guillermo del Toro just around the corner, there's a lot to choose from. Kicking the summer off is Oblivion. Starring Tom Cruise, it’s the second feature from Joseph Kosinski, the filmmaker behind Tron: Legacy. Part action movie, part puzzle, it’s a film whose beauty and emotional aspirations ultimately overpower the story problems it runs into along the way.
The set-up is standard dystopian fare. It’s 2077. Earth is an irradiated wasteland thanks to an alien invasion 60 years ago, and while the majority of the human race has retired to one of Saturn’s moons, some have stayed behind to tend to the drones that patrol the ravaged landscape.
Cruise is Jack Harper — at 50, the star's finally starting to look 42 — who's partnered with Vika (a vulnerable Andrea Riseborough). Jack is the mechanic of the pair, flying out to repair the drones while Vika acts as his eye-in-the-sky navigator. Working out of a sci-fi dream home on a platform above the clouds, the pair are almost done with their mission. Two more weeks and they'll finally be reunited with the rest of humanity. But while Vika is anxious to leave Earth behind, Jack's not so sure. He's a romantic, pining for the normalcy that was destroyed long ago — not to mention the strange woman he sees in his dreams (Olga Kurylenko).
If there's one thing the Kosinski established with Tron: Legacy, it was that he knows how to craft astounding visuals, so let's cut to the chase: Oblivion is one of the most beautiful films I've seen this year. It's so achingly gorgeous, I wouldn't be surprised if I hold the same opinion come December. Every single moment and shot is meticulously crafted and composed: the desolate ruins on Earth, the architectural touches of Jack and Vika's home (imagine if Jony Ive designed Cloud City with a swimming pool). The large canvas gives Kosinski room to stretch out, and the work by production designer Darren Gilford and Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda is breathtaking. The film was shot in 4K with Sony's F65 and the RED Epic — and shows once again that while digital photography may not precisely replicate film, it has matured into a format with equal artistic potential.
Imagine if Jony Ive designed Cloud City
M83's soundtrack is truly a score
Having worked with Daft Punk on the Tron soundtrack, Kosinski turns to another electronic artist here — and the results from M83 are just as impressive. Percolating synthesizers and tribal drums dominate during action sequences, but yield to yearning orchestral strings in quieter moments. It's not just bombast and accompaniment; it's score in the true sense of the word.
For all the aural and visual splendor, however, there is a sense of familiarity throughout the film. The concept smacks of Pixar's Wall-E; sound effects echo Inception; and the costume of one of the "scavs" that roam Earth's surface bears a jarring resemblance to Ralph McQuarrie's original concept art for Darth Vader. Familiar genre tropes show up, and fans of science fiction will likely spot many of the movie's twists and turns coming from far away. That said, it doesn't play as repetition. Instead, it's more like a comfortable pair of pajamas; Oblivion mashes up what we've seen before into a Nolan-lite pastiche that feels just right.
The largest stumbles come down to performance and story, issues that also plagued Tron. Morgan Freeman shows up in a extremely clunky secondary plotline to act as an exposition engine — slowing the movie down in the process — and Kurylenko's Julia is given very little to do, despite how important those mysterious dreams are to Jack. Even worse, after a satisfying slow burn the film's climax falls flat. (There's nothing worse than when you know the intention is for the audience to fist pump and shout "Hell, yeah!" — yet you're doing neither.)
Many of those weaknesses fall away when viewing the movie as a whole, however — and it all comes down to Oblivion's longing heart. It's a dichotomy echoed by M83's score, actually; despite the spectacle, this isn't a movie about genre, robots, or even the difficulties of post-apocalyptic survival. It's a story about wanting a normal, average life in the face of impossible circumstances. Cruise is an odd casting choice in this regard. Nobody's been more consistent in playing cinematic supermen, but the actor ends up pulling off what is ultimately a very human story, and the film stayed on my mind long after I walked out of the theater.
Oblivion aspires to what sci-fi does best: provide a convenient genre platform to explore the human condition.
Even more exciting, it represents a real step forward for Kosinski, who displayed visual prowess in Tron: Legacy but had a hard time making the audience care about, you know, the actual humans. If he continues on this trajectory, he may eventually build up story and character chops that match his visual acumen — and that's when things will get really exciting.
Oblivion is currently playing internationally. It opens in the US on April 19th. If you have the opportunity to see it in IMAX, do it.