Pity today’s sci-fi filmmaker. Gone are the days when the reveal of a jutting, torch-bearing arm can “wow” a generation of filmgoers. In fact, go ahead, find a large city or recognizable landmark that hasn’t been destroyed or altered multiple times on film and television during the last decade. New York’s been engulfed by flood, encased in ice and trampled by gargantuan monsters; Paris ripped apart by the schemes of madmen and mad aliens alike; the Great Pyramids crunched by giant spaceships; Mt. Rushmore redesigned multiple times. (And have you seen Atlanta these days? Zombies everywhere.) As a result, any science fiction filmmaker who hopes to capitalize on the emotional punch—or harder yet, achieve the sustained, dramatic pathos—delivered by the transformation of a familiar present into something devastated and strange faces a tall order. Odds are, much of the audience has seen it, been struck by it and grown inured to it all before.
That doesn’t mean there’s not still pathos to be mined and “wow” to be gleaned from “big event” sci-fi that ravages the future. In fact, compelling characters, rich dialogue, a thrilling plot, and crisp, imaginative production design in such a setting will trump mere noise and spectacle more often than Michael Bay—I mean, “not.” Oblivion, Joseph Kosinski’s new film, delivers on most accounts, though the sleekly designed sci-fi Film That Would Be Epic is hobbled by a mediocre script that tells more often than shows. As a result, Oblivion doesn’t quite attain the escape velocity needed to exhilarate (though it does entertain).
As the inevitable voiceover narration establishes, Oblivion takes place 60 years after an alien attack has resulted in a destroyed moon and pyrrhic victory for the human race. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his partner, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), man a cloud-skirting observation tower, from which Harper repairs and maintains a fleet of drones that guard a collection of ocean-harvesting machines from attacks by leftover aliens (scavengers, or scavs). (The voiceover also establishes that the machines are harvesting water to help maintain and power humanity’s post-apocalyptic home—Titan, a moon orbiting Saturn.)
Cruise delivers an intense yet nuanced performance—his signature, really—as Tech 49. In the role of Harper’s partner and lover, Riseborough does the same. Together, the two actors do as much work to anchor the film as the script allows, working especially hard in between the lines of dialogue. (As the voice of Morgan Freeman, Morgan Freeman also is Morgan Freeman, telling you all the plot points the movie needs to get past to reach its juicier reveals.)
Oblivion carries the usual host of implausibilities and “Wait, why didn’t they just…” flaws. For the most part, they don’t intrude on the actual viewing, striking a middle ground between the “WTF?!” fest that was Prometheus and the Star Trek reboot (whose plausibility bombs mostly explode post end credits).
Ultimately, Oblivion lands between two often competing poles of sci-fi filmmaking—the atmospheric and contemplative versus the action-packed. Frankly, with no shortage of films out there that fall into the latter category, the film’s brush with the former seems the more unfortunate near-miss. If only there had been a bit more time alone with the not-so-new normal life of Harper and Victoria, the viewer might have made that transition from merely watching the protagonist in his, her or its daily routine to actually having that routine soak in—transforming the viewer from observer to at least partial participant. It’s a transition that requires patience—2009’s Moon achieves it, as does Pixar’s WALL-E—and there’s no guarantee the payoff for the viewer will translate to box office receipts.
(Isn’t it high time someone comes along and Terrence Malicks the hell out of the traditional sci-fi epic? Imagine it—three-plus hours of gorgeous cinematography, little dialogue outside of occasional contemplative voiceovers, the likes of Will Smith and Sigourney Weaver left on the cutting room floor )
Still, even if Oblivion comes up short of being the insta-classic sci-fi masterpiece it so clearly aspires to be, it doesn’t miss by much. It may not “wow” a generation—but it will certainly entertain many of them.
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Writer: Joseph Kosinski, William Monahan, Karl Gajdusek, Michael Arndt
Starring: Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
Release Date: Apr. 19, 2013