Joseph Kosinski’s second big budget sci-fi film, Oblivion, presents quite a conundrum for someone attempting to formulate an opinion on it. On the one hand, Oblivion is a genuinely good film, in fact exceptionally good. The premise of the film is utterly fascinating and engrossing; the visuals, cinematography and general atmosphere utterly enchanting. The acting is top notch, and the soundtrack drives along brilliant action sequences with proper gravity and adrenaline. But in spite of how incredibly “good” Oblivion is a nagging dissatisfaction remains, whispering quietly that this film could instead have been a masterpiece.
The film opens with a brief history lesson by Tom Cruise, who plays our main protagonist, Jack Harper. Earth was attacked by an alien race, the Scavs, who destroyed the moon, thereby upsetting the entire planet’s environment and ecosystem, making it vulnerable to invasion. Humanity ultimately defeated the Scavs, but in the process laid Earth to waste. Jack is part of the two person team Tech 49, along with his communications officer and romantic partner Victoria, that is in charge of drone repair. These drones guard giant stations that gather resources from the planet to eventually power the human space station Tet for humanity’s imminent migration to Titan. A human space craft crashes in Tech 49’s area of patrol, and Jack finds and rescues a sole survivor, a woman named Julia, the same woman that has mysteriously been haunting Jack’s dreams. This sets the rest of the film into motion as Jack searches for answers to his dreams, Julia’s identity, and Tech 49’s true purpose.
Oblivion seizes your attention from the opening shots. Kosinski frequently gives wide, massive panoramic shots of a world devastated by both environmental disaster and war. Muted greens, browns and blues provide a hypnotic setting that is a breath of fresh air from the post-apocalyptic monotony of burned out cities and simple wreckage we moderns have grown accustomed to. The few times we encounter prominent landmarks from New York City, they seem to mesh as one with the surrounding landscape, almost as if these structures have been present since the beginning of time. Contrasting this are the clean, pristine whites and transparencies of Tech 49’s equipment, flyer and drones (interestingly enough, this contrast reverses the typical portrayal of such purity, for it is the white cleanliness that appears unnatural in the environment). Frequent and effective use is made of sweeping shots featuring Jack exploring the environment, and flyer sequences are particularly exhilarating, especially when coupled with the driving score by M83.
Conceptually, Oblivion is an absolute triumph. Jack’s weapons and flyer possess an undeniably appealing “cool factor” that will thrill any fan of science fiction. The drones are one of the most chillingly designed film weapons in recent memory. Think back to the first time you heard the chilling shriek of a TIE fighter in Star Wars, and you may have some idea of the sheer menace of these mechanical creations. Action sequences are done spectacularly, with it nearly impossible to be able to judge where the line between real ends and CGI begins, (an astonishing feat, particularly in light of how much this film relies on fantastic visuals) and though rapid and exhilarating in their pace, never do they descend into anarchic madness. The viewer always has a very clear grasp of what is going on, and is never confused.
This brings us to the actual plot of the film, which is very much mystery driven. The viewer is initially intrigued by the air of vagueness surrounding Tech 49’s true mission, the true nature of Julia and Jack’s relationship, who Sally is, and what is the deal with Morgan Freeman’s character? Just when the viewer thinks they have the entire setup figured out and is starting to settle in, quite a hefty plot twist is unloaded about halfway through, which I will not reveal for fear of upsetting any who have not yet seen the film. Propelled by intrigue, Kosinski slowly but surely shifts Jack and the viewer’s perspective on the entire universe. At this, Oblivion succeeds, presenting a fascinating puzzle for viewers to unravel in a compelling setting.
But this is also where the greatest frustration with Oblivion lies. The film feels like it should be so much more than simply a post-apocalyptic Inception-like mind game. In fact, there are various moments and themes that appear briefly, teasing the viewer with their potential before fading away. For example, the thematic motif of memory that drives Jack forward, memories of a world he does not know, is featured prominently in the first half of the film, but disappears around the halfway point. The relationship between Jack and Victoria is set up and developed extraordinarily well, but Julia is unfortunately not given enough time to truly assert her role in the character progression of Jack, a disappointment particularly after her intriguing setup in the aforementioned memory motif. This underdeveloped memory theme is probably the biggest disappointment of the film. The idea’s foundations are built and developed magnificently in the initial setup, bracing the viewer for a film that will pose some fascinating and profound questions. These questions, however, are never asked, and their absence is so obvious in the latter half of the film that it seems suspiciously as if they had been cut straight out of the story for the sake of pacing.
A quote from Horatius that Jack finds in a book, likewise, appears several times, but is never developed into the significant, film defining cornerstone that it certainly seems to have been originally intended as. These chilling words on “facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods” inspire Jack early on, and his discovery of the book that holds them is heralded as a major moment. This quote disappointingly all but disappears from the film until its appearance at the climax, something that may jolt many who will have all but forgotten it. Other characters and themes, particularly a prominent resistance group, are only half-developed, leaving a thirst for more information and depth. These half-developments tease the viewer with faint visions of truly epic themes, and their incompleteness simply leaves a thirst for more, rather than the satisfaction of true emotional and intellectual weight that could have been put behind the picture. In the end, it all reeks suspiciously of a massive post-production travesty, as if the head executives from Universal cut out much of the dramatic meat of the latter half of the story in order to create a tighter, quicker and more action-focused ending to accommodate audiences that might become bored if the movie spent the extra half-hour to fully play out all of its themes and ideas.
One can only hope that eventually audiences will be treated to a director’s cut, in which missing scenes will be included to flesh out the full potential of this magnificently filmed, thoughtfully designed, impeccably acted and intriguingly conceptualized world. Oblivion is a good, quite possibly great film that’s biggest flaw is that it could have been a masterpiece. There are no problems with the film presented, but rather it leaves the vague sensation that there is a missing half hour of footage out there that could have elevated this ambitious work to a shining example of romanticism in science fiction. This is a must watch for fans of sci-fi, as it is truly a visionary film conceptually and stunning in its cinematography. Ordinary film-goers should also consider seeing this in theaters for the thrilling action and fascinating mind-games Oblivion offers to the audience.
In the meantime, I will be listening to the beautiful song written by M83 for the end credits and hauntingly performed by Susanne Sundfør as I hope and pray for an extended home release that will transform this exceptionally good film into something transcendent, “undimmed by time”.