Oblivion: Obliviously Obvious
Joshua Sikora | On Apr 19, 2013
Near the beginning of Oblivion, Tom Cruise stands in the middle of a destroyed stadium and eagerly recounts the climactic moments of a big football game to his colleague. Despite his enthusiasm, she doesn’t seem to care all that much. Clearly, she’s heard him tell this story before and it has long since lost its power.
Oblivion is a beautiful film. Possibly the most visually arresting sci-fi film of this decade (admittedly, it doesn’t have a ton of competition). Director Joseph Kosinki’s decision to shoot the film in Iceland pays off marvelously, revealing to us a post-apocalyptic world more vast, barren, and haunting than nearly any other I’ve seen. Equally effective are Kosinki’s design choices — the dizzying “sky tower” home for his heroes and a retro-cool bubble ship for them to zip around in are perfectly conceived and executed.
Unfortunately, for every innovative or beautiful moment Oblivion delivers, the film also manages to deliver a predictable, derivative, and dull plot twist. This is the kind of movie where the audience and the characters are learning about the world together, and so there is a certain amount of mystery and ambiguity that cloud every scene. This would be effective if the answers to those mysteries were anything but the obvious. Yet instead of offering twists or surprising revelations, the film delivers exactly what you expect every single time.
Even with the one twist that I didn’t quite see coming, as soon as it was revealed, the rest of the movie came into crystal clear focus. That didn’t have to be a bad thing, except the filmmakers seemed to think they were still surprising us after that, when in fact all of the tension and all of the mystery had been lost in this one unexpected (yet all too derivative) left turn. With its sails deflated, this oh-so-promising film stalls out right around the time you feel like the movie should be wrapping up. Instead, we get another thirty minutes or so of perfunctory sci-fi drivel.
How dumb does it get? Consider in the opening scene, our hero — who has had his memory wiped — dreams of a time before the world was obliterated where he meets a beautiful woman on the observation deck of the Empire State Building. Would it surprise you that later in the film Tom Cruise meets this woman? That they return to the rotting skeleton of the Empire State Building? And that here in this familiar place they remember that they were once lovers? Yet the film treats these revelations as if its audience has never seen a movie before — and that’s one of the film’s less egregious “surprises.”
The film also opens by revealing a massive spacecraft orbiting our planet. Earth has been turned into a wasteland. We aren’t shown inside of this vessel. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about this spaceship. You will probably be right.
It sounds as if I didn’t like the film, but that’s just the problem. In many ways, I loved the film. It was engaging and immersive. We’ve seen the scorched Earth before, but thanks to today’s visual effects and the incredible location work on this film, you’ve never seen it look this real or this intriguing. And the film’s mysteries are compelling, at least in the beginning — I spent much of the first half of the film fully enraptured by the plot threads and clues that were being laid out for me. But as soon as the answers started to be revealed, the aura dissipated. What had felt fresh and imaginative quickly turned stale and inevitable.
This is perhaps what frustrates me the most about today’s big blockbusters. There is no risk-taking. So much (money, brands, careers) rests on the success of these films that the writers must invariably play it safe. There is a formula that has proven viable and it gets repeated time and again. In the case of Oblivion, this means that an intriguing premise and an indelible setting are wasted on a paint-by-numbers script. I wouldn’t mind this as much if Kosinki treated his story as the familiar plot that it is. Avatar was often criticized for its derivative script, but I felt like James Cameron embraced that — the film knew what it was and what it wasn’t and still managed to thrill us. Oblivion on the other hand seems to think it’s being so clever — that it will surprise us with twist after twist — but in the end, the only real surprise is that a film that starts off so good could turn out to be such a letdown.
Joseph Kosinki has promise. His first film, Tron Legacy, was also painfully predictable, but beautiful to behold. His visual aesthetic is effective and he manages to create truly engrossing worlds. Ultimately, I don’t think he needs to change his plots all that much — he just needs to realize that we’ve already heard these stories told many, many times over. If these are the stories he wants to tell, his job can’t be to surprise us. Rather, like a musician creating a cover of a familiar song, he needs to find his own unique spin. Right now, it still seems like he’s hoping we won’t notice that he didn’t write these songs in the first place.