Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo
(Universal Pictures; US theatrical: 19 Apr 2013 (General release); UK theatrical: 10 Apr 2013 (General release); 2013)
It seems so silly. It’s the lowest form of criticism… and yet, all throughout the 19 April 2013 weekend, critics have been having a field day with Tom Cruise’s latest sci-fi epic, the oddly named Oblivion (was that title ever explained in the film or did it just sound really cool?). While it easily claimed the weekend box office ($38 million, and counting, on top of the near $112 million it’s already earned overseas), it’s also earned some scathing notices, most pointing out how heavily the movie lifts from previous cinematic staples. Everything from Planet of the Apes (?) to The Matrix has been name checked, with every other bit of celluloid speculative fiction thrown into the mix to maximize the message. Indeed, the consensus appears to be that Oblivion may be great to look at, but it’s also clearly unoriginal and derivative.
Let’s begin with the truth, or at least, this critic’s assertion of same. For the most part, Oblivion is an excellent example of the genre. It falls into the serious category, not the space shoot out kind. It uses familiar narrative elements in a familiar way, but adds enough original vision to avoid most of the above-cited complaints. It has a certified superstar at the center, leading us through the occasionally baffling exposition and a director (Tron: Legacy‘s Joseph Kosinski) with an inventive eye candy sensibility. Sure, there are silly aspects to the story, including Melissa Leo in full “Howdy Y’all” mode and the movie does trade on the tropes that supported ‘60s and ‘70s future shock, but to condemn it for being imitative is endemic of a plague winding through modern film criticism.
Call it the home videoing of the profession, or the undying influence of the Internet, but many of the problems people have with Oblivion have nothing to do with what Kosinski and company “borrow” from. Put another way, if you didn’t know so bloody much about every obscure science fiction effort (or fright flick, or thriller, or Hong Kong action film, etc, etc.) ever made, you wouldn’t be jumping down the movie’s plotline. In 1999, the Wachowskis released The Matrix, and while it was heralded as some manner of instant classic, few found fault with it cribbing much of Dark City‘s surreal set-up. Sure, there are major differences between to two, but Oblivion is being taken to task for cribbing from Neo and his pals, though the only clear connection one can see is that a white hero is schooled by a wiser African American male. Talk about rip-offs!
Similarly, Kosinski is also admonished for taking from Moon (the—SPOILER ALERT—clone angle), Wall-E (the “sensitive last man on Earth” ideal mixed with collecting old junk) and, of all things, Prometheus (ummm…), among others acknowledged, and, again, it seems specious to point these out. Was Duncan Jones’ cult effort the first film to suggest the use of biological copies? Was that Pixar film the first to suggest what life would be like for a only planet inhabitant (ever heard of The Quiet Earth?)? And don’t even get us started on the Alien prequel argument. Sure, there’s an extraterrestrial element involved here (the invading Scavs) but there is nothing to do with God, evolution, ancient astronauts, etc. Still, they continue to reach, dropping everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Blade Runner into the mix.
Backing up a bit, Oblivion‘s story is truly nothing new. Neither was the billion dollar box office smash Avatar. Frankly, very little in science fiction (outside of Harlan Ellison) is. In the movie, Cruise plays Jack Harper, a human engineer working to keep necessary drone and energy technology functioning. The rest of humanity is off on Saturn’s moon Titan. It is 70 years after a war with alien invaders and the planet is being reclaimed by nature. Along with his mission partner, he does his dull job, though he is plagued by dreams of a New York he couldn’t know, and a woman he’s never met but is sure he has loved before. When a shuttle craft lands on the planet, and said lady appears, it puts everything in jeopardy. In the end we learn (SPOILER ALERT) that Cruise’s Harper is the source of a clone army used to wipe out the world, the aliens are trying to wipe out the rest of humanity (which is nowhere near Titan), and there are multiple Harper’s working to keep the ETs in charge.
Sounds a lot like the other movies mentioned, doesn’t it? Actually, no. In fact, there are aspects of Oblivion that are fresher than the frothing pundits would have you believe. In fact, much of the movie uses the barren backdrop of a desiccated globe to explore concepts of identity, duty, and what it means to be alive. Certainly, other films have explored these truisms, but with the aforementioned access to entire genre libraries, it just seems more obvious now. Indeed, so many critics revert to the artform’s overflowing catalog to support a slam that it’s like the pot calling the kettle a cooking utensil. Like referencing things you agree with ala Quentin Tarantino and Rob Zombie, Kosinski is being belittled for honoring and homage.
It’s a shortcut, an easy way to explain a complicated emotion. Inception, another major science fiction film from the last few years, was cheered as an undeniably original vision while others pointed out - to little effect - the similarities to that ‘80s effort Dreamscape, or, again, Dark City. Need to pinpoint a post-apocalyptic example? Draw from a dozen or so you’re familiar with. By becoming so well versed in the medium they are covering, critics are falling into lazy habits. Instead of arguing for better ways for Oblivion to tell the story (which is still pretty damn intriguing, no matter the match-ups), they toss out their own allusion and move on. As a matter of fact, many of the writers taking the film to task are as guilty as it is (or isn’t) for relying on critical stereotypes than actual analysis.
If being unoriginal was indeed a crime, most of mainstream cinema would be guilty of one filmic felony or another. Comedies borrow relentlessly from each other, while approaches (found footage) and styles (the hand-held shaky-cam) are stolen with audacity. Certainly, those who disliked Oblivion and its thinking man’s speculation are entitled to their rejection. It is earned, or at least hopefully earned, on the back of experience and examination. But to simply say it’s bad because it swipes from past efforts is your problem, not the movies. Every film is a bit derivative of its predecessors. In this case, the genre, and the product appear too familiar. Or maybe you just know too much about a medium that used to survivor in the Cineplex only, not on flatscreens and laptops.