I’d be remiss in my review of Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion if I didn’t spend at least a few words begrudging the film’s promotional spots. I understand that a marketer’s job is to fill theatre seats, not to facilitate the director’s artistic aspirations, but surely there must have been a better way to achieve this than to spoil the major plot twist on which half the movie hinges. In fact, I’d argue a more conscientious approach might have yielded the same box office gross on opening day with a smaller drop-off the next week, owing to word of mouth.
Audiences would’ve had the opportunity to appreciate the first half of Oblivion, which sets up a solitary existence wherein, in the aftermath of a devastating interplanetary war, a lone couple is tasked with surveying the vestiges of Earth to maintain the remaining battle drones. They would’ve got to enjoy the way Kosinski fleshes out the technicians’ lives, providing them with a deeply human routine, lavish yet believable environments, and a core ideological conflict: focused on security, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) sticks to the mission and its many protocols, whereas Jack (Tom Cruise) gallivants about, desperate to remember the world they’re leaving behind.
Instead of soaking in these charming elements, we spend the entire hour wondering when Morgan Freeman’s going to show up to turn our heroes’ world upside down. In fairness, Oblivion delivers at least three additional plot twists you won’t find in any of the adverts, though you might spot them in Moon (2009), The Matrix (1999), or 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). I mention this without qualm, by the way, seeing as these celebrated films all deal with broad concepts as old as science fiction itself.
Based on an unpublished graphic novel co-written by Kosinski, Oblivion draws from the same classic tradition, favouring an elaborate social metaphor over the fast-paced spectacle found in most Hollywood blockbusters. This is not to say that the movie lacks in stunt-filled firefights (Zoe Bell’s in this), outer-space explosions, or high-stakes aerial pursuits but that these action set pieces, while gorgeously shot, are few and far between, making them all the more meaningful when they sporadically take over the narrative. Otherwise, the director focuses exclusively on his allegory, using vast post-apocalyptic wastelands to illustrate the moral failings inherent to our insular way of life.
Jack and Victoria lead a perfect suburban existence, you see. Perched high above the rest of the world, their home is an island onto itself, complete with a floating glass swimming pool; our protagonists have had their knowledge of the universe wiped for national security; and they go about their business, literally enabling drone strikes, while the bigwigs in command suck the planet of its resources. When their alien enemies, portrayed as faceless sand dwellers, turn out to be fighting for survival as well, we can’t help but draw parallels with the way Americans have been patting themselves on the back for getting past the Boston Marathon bombings while their government blows up Pakistani villages (with more than three civilian casualties, I assure you) on a regular basis.
As an aside, I love the sparse, almost cutesy design of the drones, which may remind older viewers of the discarded Tattooine droids in Star Wars (1977) or the flying cybernetic trash cans in The Black Hole (1979). My favourite touch consists of the four frontal lenses patterned in a cross so that the top half looks like angry eyes in close-ups. It’s a clever way of altering our perception of a sophisticated piece of weaponry. I also dig the caution with which Jack handles the roaming death machines, as if he knows they’ll one day turn on him.
Say what you will about his off-screen antics (and I frankly don’t think they’re that bad), Cruise knows how to play a charismatic blank slate, emphasising the character’s most relatable traits but always hinting at an untapped potential. Riseborough gives the more memorable performance, though, injecting inexplicably repressed passion in her every facial expression. It pays off nicely in the final act. Other actors show up eventually, including Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, on whom the camera keeps lingering for some reason, and Olga Kurylenko as the literal woman of Jack’s dreams. She’s not very good, unfortunately.
The true star of Oblivion consists of its vision. In light of its meditative pace and harsh criticism of American culture, I’m surprised Kosinski got to tell his story on the big screen, let alone with such a high budget. How many Hollywood blockbusters these days would have the nerve to end not with an epic battle against an army of CGI monsters but with idle chitchat between the hero and a one-eyed monolith exclaiming, “I am your God”? Granted, Jack’s uninspired retort feels a bit like the producers tried to conceal the director’s dig at religious propaganda in vulgar action movie clichés, but I guess that’s the price you pay to fill theatre seats.