2013, 126mins, 12
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Writer (s): Joseph Kosinski, Michael Arndt, Karl Gajdusek
Cast includes: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Melissa Leo
UK Release Date: 12th April 2013
Joseph Kosinski was last seen helming 2010’s “TRON: Legacy”, a curiously belated sequel which sizzled with visual invention and rich production values. The picture wasn’t a sure thing for Disney, and several years later its middling receipts still posit some question marks, but the film’s slick appearance and style confirmed Kosinski to be a film-maker worth keeping tabs on. With his sophomore effort he keeps the ball rolling, giving us “Oblivion”, a sci-fi mystery based on his own unpublished graphic novel, laced with the same whizz-bang sheen as “Legacy”. It’s a more confident and assured picture than his detour into the Grid, chiefly because Kosinski grips his characters with a much firmer hand here, ensuring they don’t get lost within his gorgeously mounted wasteland. Having an old pro like Tom Cruise take leading man duties only empowers the picture further, happy to be an introspective patron of Kosinski’s crafty playground.
60-years ago Earth was attacked and invaded; the moon decimated as a consequence, the planet left scarred and uninhabitable. Most of the population have migrated to moons orbiting Saturn, but some are employed to stay behind, a security team tasked with destroying the rest of the alien menace and to protect the harvesting of Earth’s remaining fuel. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is a tech-expert, patrolling non-radiated areas and repairing defence drones, whilst his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) oversees the action from a computer terminal, receiving updates and orders from HQ in the sky (voiced with uneasy familiarity by Melissa Leo). Protocol insists that all security members undergo a mind-wipe before active duty, but Jack is still haunted by visions of a life prior to the war, a life he can’t have led. Whilst undergoing his daily routine, Jack uncovers a crashed cargo of mysterious humans, including a recognisable face, Julia (Olga Kurylenko). Perplexed both by the newcomer’s appearance and the hostile nature of the security tech toward her, Jack is left confused and disturbed, especially when an underground resistance group of humans (including Morgan Freeman) reveal themselves, insisting that everything isn't as it seems.
Universal have done a fine job of keeping the secrets of “Oblivion” under-wraps leading up to release; so far be it from me to undo their good work. Instead of cultivating tropes of its own, “Oblivion” contently plunders ideas and themes from a bevy of other genre works, ranging all the way from the literature of Richard Matheson to the quiet beauty of “Wall-E”. What’s surprising is how effectively this works, especially given that the feature delivers a third act high on both momentum and satisfactory explanations. The screenplay also applies far more consideration toward character than most of its peers, delivering at least three complex and engaging personalities. Watching them spark off each other, riddle out eerie answers and muse on the past’s mysteries is compelling, providing “Oblivion” with a distinctly humane and mature tone. If your problems with “TRON: Legacy” stem from a lack of palpable character identification, then “Oblivion” sees Kosinski correct his previous misstep with startling adeptness here.
“Oblivion” benefits hugely from a reflective and slow opening, leaving the significant action beats until Kosinski has underlined the piece’s mournful atmosphere. Photographed and designed with a stunning eye for scope and understated beauty, the film’s apocalyptic earth is a scorched and silent paradise, oozing desolate tragedy from every expertly arranged frame. The purpose of existence and the yearning for home are strongly implied through the gorgeous cinematography and Cruise’s dependably naturalistic performance, possibly one of his most measured. Without overselling the melancholy, Cruise finds deep sadness and a myriad of questions in Harper’s eyes, fulfilling the emotional requirement of the piece fully. Riseborough is also an utter joy, melding an unwavering adherence to protocol with a genuine adoration of her companion, a character enslaved to both her work and the love she feels for a lost soul. It’s the touches like this that allow “Oblivion” to elevate itself into the realm of genuinely heartening fantasy film-making.
The middle act aggravates occasionally because vital answers are kept locked down until the conclusion. This provides the finale with plenty of bite to go with its lavishly produced boom, but means patience is essential in rendering the second act rewarding. Kurylenko is solid as the serene ghost of Jack’s past, their burgeoning romance allowed to slowly evolve with legitimate intimacy and warmth. The resistance element on the other hand unfolds much more in the nature of a plot mechanic, spurring Jack’s mission of self-discovery without bringing to the table much of its own accord. Having a charismatic head like Freeman gifts this tangent of “Oblivion” with sufficient credibility, but this lugubrious sci-fi belongs to nobody else other than Cruise and his ladies. They’re the pulse within this magnificently articulated canvas of hopelessness; everyone else is simply a pawn.
Much like “TRON: Legacy” the musical score is worthy of note, Daft Punk being substituted for M83 on this occasion. The melodies are suitably unusual but incredibly impressive, the unorthodox composer rattling up lashings of loneliness and frightening poignancy in the picture’s soundscape. Kosinski clearly feels that films need a more distinctive sound than the traditional compositions of Hollywood, and based on the work here and elsewhere in his directorial catalogue, he might just be right.
The set-pieces are coherently directed, although most of Kosinski’s time seems to have gone into world-building, the sequences of drone combat echoing an indisputable simplicity. That said the climax packs a righteous punch, the director bringing viewers into a world even spookier than his flagellated earth, seasoning his whirlpool of intrigue with a cathartic finish. “Oblivion” isn’t particularly original in conception, but in execution it’s breathlessly picturesque and credibly involving. I look forward to whatever Kosinski unleashes next, because within him the potential for striking artistry simmers with gentle certainty.
A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013