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Oblivion (2013)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

OBLIVION (2013)

Starring: Tom Cruise, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo

Written By: Joseph Kosinski (also graphic novel), Karl Gajdusek, Michael Arndt, Arvid Nelson (graphic novel)

Directed By: Joseph Kosinski

The Short Version

Post-apocalyptic science fiction gets buffed up to a polish.

If you’ve seen more than a few of these flicks, it’s not hard to predict.

Nor is it exactly quick of pace.

But it’s so beautifully executed and well done, the sins hardly matter.

Oblivion exceeds expectations and is well worth the look.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

GOUDA.

Not unfamiliar, but very, very clean.


Pairs Well With...

NEW AMSTERDAM VODKA.

Distilled and filtered a zillion times, but still highly recognizable for what it is.

“Are you still an effective team?”


Pleasant surprises are such a wonderful thing when you can find them.

I admit heading into Oblivion with decidedly mediocre expectations.  Been there/done that genre, giveaway trailer, and let’s not forget that the headliner is Tom Cruise.  But hey, I felt like seeing some big screen sci fi, and I’m an open-minded sort, so into the Imax theatre I went.

I walked out impressed… and the longer I give myself to think about it, the more impressed I am.  I expected a flick that would be “okay,” but Oblivion is much better than that.  It is, in fact, quite good, and I have to say that I really like this movie.

The premise that the audience starts out with is that of a late 21st Century Earth that has been utterly ravaged by war.  Six decades earlier, a race of aliens known only the Scavengers destroyed Earth’s moon and then invaded the devastated planet, leaving an already reeling humanity no choice but to defend itself with nuclear weapons.  The humans won, but in the end, the planet was rendered a largely unlivable ruin.

Now most of the remaining humans have moved on to a new colony located on Saturn’s moon, Titan, while a gigantic space station called the Tet keeps watch in Earth orbit.  Only a handful of humans remain on the surface: caretakers of automated machinery left behind to generate energy for the Tet and for the Colony, and to defend against the remnants of the Scavenger armies.  These humans work in pairs, and have their memories erased before beginning their tours of duty for the sake of mission security… but that erasure isn’t entirely clean for everyone.  Fragments of a lost world haunt the dreams of Tech 49, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise, Top Gun); fragments which could mean the difference between salvaging what remains of the planet – and humanity – or losing both forever…

For anyone who has seen more than a couple of post-apocalyptic science fiction flicks or who has more than a passing knowledge of modern science or who is just plain observant in any intellectual sense,  most of the premise I’ve just described isn’t going to add up.  Even if one hasn’t seen the “reveals too much” trailer (stop it, Hollywood), it’s so obviously wrong and nonsensical that no thinking person could possibly suspend his or her disbelief far enough to accept it… unless his or her memory has been erased first.  That caveat is the key to making Oblivion work: as part of the audience, I could immediately see not only that something was wrong, but also had a very good idea of what that something was; but the film is telling its story from a perspective that’s derived from the experience of its characters, and as soon as I accepted that, what had been a “been there/done that” warning sign instead became an invitation to become immersed into the story’s world… and somewhat to my surprise, I found that invitation very easy to accept.  It’s easy to accept because the director, the musicians, the production design team, and the cinematographer have made it very easy to do so. 

I find it to be no accident that the last movie I felt this immersed in was Tron: Legacy, for that was the last (and thus far only other major Hollywood) film that Joseph Kosinski directed.  As he did for his previous picture, Kosinski has turned to the world of French electronica for his score, this time relying on the talents of M83.  Just like Daft Punk did for Tron: Legacy, M83 creates a rich, epic, and very immersive sound that draws the audience fully into the story of Oblivion.  This experience is further enhanced by superb work from the production design team, which has created an unusually clean look for this film’s post-apocalypse that serves as a very definite signature.  Both the sanitary surroundings of the Tech platform (and other “modern” places and objects) and the rather well-swept ruin of the Earth’s surface are presented with a minimalist flair that sets it apart from the clutter that most “the planet’s screwed” flicks can’t resist gravitating toward.  And yet, when combined with M83’s wonderful score, the overall effect of this minimalism is epic, and the breathtaking work of cinematographer Claudio Miranda (who just took home an Oscar for his work on Life of Pi) seals the deal.  If you can see this on an Imax screen, folks, do it; believe me, it’s worth whatever extra the theatre wants you to pay for the privilege.

With the atmosphere firmly the set, the story itself is allowed to get on with its deliberately paced work.  It doesn’t move quickly by any means, but it doesn’t have to, any more than it needs to be unpredictable to work.  Most of what happens in the first two acts can be guessed with reasonable accuracy by any savvy viewer, as can much (though perhaps not all) of the third.  But knowing in advance how a cake is made doesn’t make the cake any less delicious if it’s done right, and Oblivion is definitely done right. 

There are very few characters in this story, and the creative team wants the audience to know the most important of those characters at least as well as the characters know themselves… which is well accomplished thanks to the aforementioned memory wipe plot device.  (A device that is often sorely misused, but not so here.)  Like the world around them, the characters, too, are minimalistic in that respect, and I can’t help but think that this “blank slate” approach is what makes the lead role so well-suited to the talents of Tom Cruise (who, by the way, doesn’t appear to have aged at all in the past two decades), much like the role of Neo was perfectly suited to Keanu Reeves in The Matrix.  I’d come into the film ready to accept that there’d be no chance of identifying our hero beyond the fact that he was being played by Tom Cruise, but in very short order, I was in the world of Jack Harper, Tech 49… even with the subtle inside references at play.  (I’m looking at you, sunglasses.)  Andrea Riseborough (Disconnect) balances the experience as Vica, Harper’s partner in every respect, displaying an excellent chemistry – and subtle tension – with her co-star that is all-so-important to making this story work, especially considering that for most of it, they’re the only two people the audience gets to interact with.  Her performance is all the more remarkable for the fact that she makes a memorable impact even though she never leaves the confines of a very small “house.”

As for the second-billed Morgan Freeman (here most suitably credited for Science Channel’s “Through the Wormhole,” I think), his appearance very much screams “stunt casting,” and his screen time definitely does not merit the second bill, but so what?  Freeman does here what he always does wherever he goes: immediately elevates everything around him, and that is a stunt worth paying for.

If there’s any weakness at all to be found in Oblivion, it’s that, as written, the character of Julia (Olga Kurylenko, Quantum of Solace) just barely qualifies as a character, instead seeming more like a plot device with lines.  However, between the excellent direction of Joseph Kosinski, and the remarkable atmospherics of the film as a whole, Kurylenko makes it work… though she does have less chemistry with Tom Cruise than does Andrea Riseborough, but even that creates an interesting dynamic that further strengthens a very pivotal moment of the film which I will not spoil here.

When a movie can turn the majority (if not quite all) of its potential weaknesses into strengths, you know you’ve got a winner.  Much to my (very pleasant) surprise, given wheat I’d been expecting walking in, Oblivion is most certainly a winner.

Bottom line, if you don’t need heapin’ helpings of explosives to go with your post-apocalypse experience, Oblivion is absolutely worth your time and money to go see – on an Imax screen while you can, and on a blu ray played on the best-definition screen you can find later on.  (And don’t forget to pick up the soundtrack, while you’re at it; it’s well worth a spot in any movie lover’s music library.)

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, April, 2013


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