My biggest issue with Oblivion, outside of two hours that seem like four and a film score that sounds like a hybrid of Legend and Ladyhawke, is that it doesn’t seem to really know what it is. It is a sci-fi flick, that’s for certain. But is it post-apocalyptic? Is it an alien invasion story? A space travel movie? A last-man-on Earth story? A clone movie? Robots versus man? And the “All of that AND MORE” answer doesn’t do it for me. It shows indecision and an inability to hone and focus the story.
The story starts out with a dreamy flashbacky sequence with Tom Cruise voiceover telling us how the dreamy imagery is his dreamy dreams that feel like memories. So, rather than leave us with haunting images (mixed with rather innocuous images) for us to piece together the story ourselves, it’s spelled out for us. Then the movie RE-starts to explain that it’s 2077 and that the Earth has been attacked by Scavs (a clever nickname for Scavengers), who destroyed the moon causing earthquakes, tsunamis and such from the sudden change of gravity. The moon seems to have frozen in mid-explosion for some reason. I’m sure there were science consultants on the show that know more about this stuff than I – or maybe it’s just because it a more interesting image than a crescent-shaped Warner Brotheresque moon exploded with an illudium Q-36 explosive space modulator. Anyway, we won the war by using nukes which left the planet unlivable. The majority of the remaining population have gone off to the Saturn moon of Titan to live. Just so you know, Titan is cold enough to have oceans of liquid methane. How we are living up there? I don’t recall mention of terraforming – but whatever, maybe I looked down at my popcorn for a moment, or was distracted by the woman nearby asking her boyfriend “What’s happening? I don’t understand”. Our hero, Jack (Reacher?Cruise) Harper and his assigned partner, Victoria live in a house high above the clouds, safe from the Scavs. Its their job to maintain robot drones that act as security for huge machines on the coastline that draw in water and use it for power to be stored up to go to Titan, all of which is managed by a upside-down orbiting pyramid called The Tet (another clever abbreviation for Tetrahedron, presumably. Movie audiences can’t be confused with things such as syllables). Jack and Victoria are looking forward to heading back to Titan as well in two weeks. To top it off, their memories have been wiped for security reasons – in case they get nabbed by remaining Scavs, so they only remember so far back.
But ‘lo, Jack is having strange thoughts, and collecting books (and hiding them from Victoria), and has a little oasis in all of the devastation that he keeps to himself. Sounds like he might be someone who may not be following protocol. It takes seemingly forever to get to that point. We see Jack fix drones, find books, go to his special place, ride a motorcycle, celebrate a touchdown from a Superbowl long since passed, almost get kidnapped by Scavs, and have sex with Victoria in a glass, glowing pool to 80s synthesizer music. All this boring stuff before we get to a turning point and move into Act 2 when a pod comes crashing down from space.
I’ll leave the story there for you to live through the plot twists and turns as the script tries to figure out where it’s going. But if I WERE to dissect everything, there are some definite holes and inconsistencies. Mainly, the film suffers from being slow, not terribly interesting, and the ultimate resolution is pretty predictable and unoriginal. Predictable and unoriginal is fine, BTW, IF we care about the characters. As a recent example, I knew Jackie Robinson would overcome the racism in Baseball and win the hearts of America – it’s historical. But because I cared about the characters, it still moved me. Oblivion doesn’t have that.
The film’s visuals are breathtaking. Joseph Kosinski, who last brought us the equally beautiful and boring Tron:Legacy, comes from an architectural background (and not storytelling), and that eye for beauty in structure is evident in the skyhouse, bubbleship and Tet designs. Photography is gorgeous from Claudio Miranda, who we last saw accept an Oscar for lighting bluescreens on Life of PI. To his credit, he went with a crazy innovative, and primarily practical, method for shooting the skyhouse using projections of skies. The camera crew went to the top of Hawaiian volcano Mauna Loa (or Kea), and acquired tons of footage with a camera array to capture a 270 degree panorama (similar to how they get the BG plates for the Fast and Furious movies). That footage was projected around the set, which provided naturalistic lighting and reflections in the shiny and glassy surfaces of the set. If it had been green screen, the amount of keying and spill removal would have taken the entire country of India to complete the film on time. However, all you anti-CG people don’t get your nation’s flags out yet and start waving em – FX house Pixomondo still had to take the footage and seam it all together to prep it for projection.
Kosinski also went back to Tron:Legacy designer GMunk and his team to create the fantastically complex interface and HUD designs. Having tried to so some of this stuff myself, I can attest to the daunting amount of work behind it, so I can hold a great deal of respect for the work.
Visual effects are damn cool with most of the workload being shared between Pixomondo and Digital Domain and rendered with VRay. Amazing matte painting work and live action integration in the face of crazy long camera moves with tons of atmosphere and smoke and stuff, requiring intricate and complex rotoscoping and camera tracking.
For more details on the visual effects, my buddies at FXGuide have an amazing breakdown (as they always do).
A great deal of exceptional art for a mediocre sci-fi movie. Reminds me of Prometheus. The difference being that I hold a much higher bar for Ridley Scott than I do for Joseph Kosinski, so the disappointment in Prometheus was much more profound. But my opinion doesn’t really count for much, its brought in $152M worldwide in the last couple of weeks (albeit with the only competition being a baseball biopic and a Rob Zombie piece of shit). With a $120M budget, it still has a mountain to climb before its considered a financial success, and even then, distributor Universal will still claim a loss — and then greenlight a sequel.
Look forward to future beautiful and boring Kosinski-directed remakes of 70s movies such as Logan’s Run and The Black Hole.