Science fiction is a genre that exists to tackle big themes and ideas, to explore strange new worlds and use them to shine a light on our own reality. Oblivion is no different, packing in enough Big Ideas to fuel several different plots all at once and referencing a wealth of films that have gone before in doing so. Referential science fiction isn't anything new and if you look back at some of the classics, there are themes that recur throughout like identity, man's relationship with technology or an exploration of what makes us human. That Oblivion revisits these themes isn't necessarily a bad thing. It isn't the first of its genre to do so and it certainly won't be the last, but to paraphrase a well-known saying, it's not the ideas that count, but how you use them.
Oddly enough for a film which deals with issues of identity, Oblivion seems to be having its own crisis, never entirely sure what it wants to be, throwing in a large amount of ideas and feeling like a haphazard science-fiction cocktail.The first half is largely domestic as we watch Jack and Victoria deal with their day to day lives and occupations, picking through the ruins of the Earth that was. Had I not seen the trailer, it would have appeared as if the film was to explore the nature of being the last people on Earth, a meditation on keeping your humanity in such a desolate expanse.
Then after a few subtle hints, and without wanting to reveal too much, it veers off in a completely different direction, packing in as much as it possibly can into half a film. Kosinski layers twist upon twist, picking up one theme before getting bored with it, throwing in a curve ball and picking up another without exploring anything in detail. Having to resort to a lengthy, dull voiceover to bring you up to speed with the events that took place before the film, it is heavy on exposition, but light on actual storytelling. As a result, the plot is too thin and it leaves the film devoid of the philosophical centre that it so wholeheartedly craves, making for a hollow, underwhelming experience.
It doesn't help that Oblivion's flaws are even more exposed because its characters just aren't involving. Characters need be a point of contact for the audience but none of them invite even the basest emotional reaction. Jack should be this point of contact as we see the film through his eyes, his experiences and are privy to his reactions. He is the person that we should care most about. Sadly, Cruise goes through the entire film on auto-pilot, doing the best he can with what little he is given to work with, but it says something when the drones he is sent to repair have more personality. Jack is little more than a symbol, a cypher through which the afore-mentioned themes can be explored and despite the focus being on Jack's innate humanity, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of that there.
It is once again the women who suffer most from this terrible characterisation as they exist only in relation to Jack, granted no other dimension than to be his female companions. Neither female lead has a modicum of chemistry with our main character, despite both being romantically involved with him at points. Kurylenko suffers the most, given little more to do than adopt a pained expression and stare after Cruise. Riseborough manages to give an affecting performance as Jack's wife, though I suspect that has more to do with her ability as an actor than the script she was given. It also wastes a decent supporting cast with Morgan Freeman with exposition setting on full whilst all Nikolaj Coster-Waldau gets to do is show up, look gruff and fire a big gun yet manages to be one of the more memorable characters. That he makes more of an impression in his few scenes than Cruise does in an entire film demonstrates just how blank the central character was.
Oblivion isn't entirely terrible though and, like Kosinski's debut Tron: Legacy, the film's strengths lie in its technical achievements. The world that Kosinski has created through the highly impressive visuals feels complete with the wastelands of the Earth punctuated by remnants of humanity's architecture. It is also refreshing to see a film that doesn't rely overly on CGI to build this world and the use of real locations adds an authenticity that would be lacking otherwise. It also has a clear sense of style based on functionality, even if this means that Jack and Victoria's home looks like the most uncomfortable Ikea exhibition ever.
The action sequences do lack punch, though M83's score does its best to inject some energy into the proceedings. Sounding like they decided to mash Daft Punk and Hans Zimmer into one crazy electro-orchestra, it's not the most original score you'll hear this year but it is certainly one of the most functional, accompanying the visual aspects of the film with a grandiose sound. Points do have to be deducted though for the appearance of the Inception Horn.
Oblivion may seem as if it is striving for new territory with its tale of humanity in the face of destruction, but sadly it has all been done before and dealt with in many better films. And therein lies Oblivion's problem. In trying too hard to explore too much, Oblivion distances you from the proceedings and becomes dull in the process, with nothing for an audience to latch on to, not even a character to care about.
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