Joseph Kosinski can’t catch a break. The marketing for his first film, Tron Legacy promised us insane pants-wetting levels of excitement and many were disappointed with the slow, self-indulgent film we were given (for the record I still wet my pants watching it). Now, with Oblivion there’s a bit of reversal; we’ve been given marketing that seems to offer – in Mild Concern editor Tim’s delicate words – “one of the blandest looking Sci-Fis of recent years.” The brute even finds the time to insult Morgan Freeman. Oblivion does look shit, but the film itself – 2013’s lead-in original sci-fi in a year full of the things – is one of the most un-shit things that will be released this year.
In 2017 an alien attack obliterates Earth and just about all of human civilization. Whilst the Earth’s population migrates to Saturn’s moon, Titan, a handful of two-person teams remain on Earth to maintain and protect machinery that is extracting the planet’s remaining resources to build a new world for humankind elsewhere. Team 49 consists of protocol-abiding Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) and the too-inquisitive Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) whose “effective team” status is compromised after Jack locates a crashed spaceship with a disoriented stranger inside. Proceed, mind-f***ing hijinks.
One of the recurring insults the film has been landed with is that its plot and visual style is “A bit of this meets that, meets this other thing with a touch of oh, that one as well,” which is derivative and unfair. The familiarity experienced in Oblivion is Kosinski’s conscious choice to return to science fiction cinema’s early roots, where films were packed with simple primary shapes, ambiguously unnerving commanders with thick accents, scary machines that go “pew pew” and “braawgghh”, and lots and lots of white. Oblivion is homage-laden gold but it still has its own distinct voice which, with its many original merits owns its audience entirely.
The film’s hyperventilating pace is both its strongest and weakest talent. Combining the classic slow-burning plot and character development style of old science fiction with exhilarating action that contains no holds barred obliteration on a level that I can’t recall seeing in a 12A since War of the Worlds that is expected of today’s sci-fi Oblivion tries to have its cake and eat it too. For the most part Kosinski succeeds; the film impressively handles the slow-burn and boasts exhausting action but the transition between the two is recurrently turbulent.
Perhaps Oblivion’s best quality is its ability to keep you constantly engaged narratively. Where most Blockbusters these days battle to see who can reveal the most about their film in their trailer, Oblivion doesn’t sacrifice its narrative integrity – albeit at the risk of making itself look like one of the blandest sci-fis of recent years – so when we experience the story in full for the first time in the cinema everything about it feels more epic and earned.
Sound and visuals also play a huge part in viscerally complementing the narrative as Joseph Trapanese and M83’s score is as gorgeous as the Icelandic, Hawaiian and mid-American landscapes that keep us in awe during the film’s immersive action and drama. If you don’t buy a copy of the soundtrack and pretend you’re alone on a grassy mountain as you listen to it immediately after the film there is something severely wrong with you.
Despite some bad publicity and unfair reviews floating around, Oblivion is a crackingly nostalgic-yet-new launching pad for the rest of 2013’s upcoming original science fiction cinema. Shame Tom Cruise does minimal running, though.