When director Joseph Kosinski landed his first job, it came as a bit of a surprise. Rather than spearheading a low-budget, straightforward, “test” film, Kosinski was thrown into the fire with the $170 million franchise kickstarter, Tron: Legacy. What was surprising, though, wasn’t just that it was Kosinski’s first feature: it was that his background was as an architect. He specialized in 3D modeling and graphics — a focus certainly appealing for Disney executives who were looking to cash in on the 3D film trend with a motion picture featuring a brand new virtual world. He’d done some commercials, but that hardly qualified him for a massive feature film… right?
Maybe it did. While Tron: Legacy was far from revolutionary, it was also far from a catastrophe. Raking in $400 million worldwide and earning mostly positive reviews, the long-awaited sequel has generated sequel talk and led the native Iowan to his next directing gig in the Tom Cruise sci-fi thriller, Oblivion Much like his first film, Kosinski was form-fitted for the Apple-mimicking adventure tale. You see, Oblivion was based on Kosinski’s own graphic novel, making him uniquely qualified to bring it to the big screen… right?
Kind of. Though the young filmmaker does a fine job with the visual element of the beautifully lit and insanely crisp futuristic landscape in Oblivion, his visual inventiveness subsides just as his initially intriguing story whimpers to the finish line. What starts as a smartly illustrated tale of a nearly deserted post-apocalyptic Earth (a common trend in film these days) slowly devolves into a romantic mystery that adds up too quickly on paper and not at all for our would-be happy couple. Still, Tom Cruise takes a role squarely in his wheelhouse and helps the audience forget any hang ups they might have by story’s end.
Spoilers lurk after every summarial word for Oblivion but here’s what’s told to the audience in the film’s opening minutes by Cruise’s character, Jack Harper. Earth has been abandoned. The aliens came, attacked, and we attempted to defend ourselves. In the end, we used our nukes in a last ditch effort to defeat our aggressors. We won the battle, but lost the planet. Human survivors escaped to a space station called the Tet while machines were left on Earth to obtain the planet’s last remaining resources (water, mainly). Two unlucky souls were left behind to monitor production and protect the machines from a few leftover alien attackers hiding underground. This is their story.
Jack Harper is a nostalgic repairman who spends his days repairing drones and his nights on board a house in the sky with his partner and lover, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). The duo checks in with their boss (Melissa Leo) on the Tet each morning, confirming the continued production and their status as an “effective team”. Harper, though, is haunted by dreams of his past. Visions he believes to be memories despite a brain wipe performed by the aliens before the war ended. Needless to say, these “visions” are telling and when something goes wrong during a patrol, Harper starts to question the realities presented to him.
Establishing an engaging premise like this isn’t exactly the difficult part. It’s closing that’s hard, and somewhat understandably, it’s where the young filmmaker struggles. It’s always going to be fun watching Tom Cruise sprint past danger and ride motorcycles in front of a sunset. But at some point, there needs to be justification for why we’re watching him do all this. Technically, reasons are given. It’s just the details aren’t quite as juicy or revelatory as one would like. They’re enough, maybe even a little more, than is to be expected from a studio blockbuster, and the ride itself is a fun one.
Yet you’re left with a sense of disappointment. The ending calls for an emotional response that doesn’t really land, but illustrates enough of its intended impact to make you wish you could feel what the characters do. It’s easy to see how Universal executives could see this as the next Inception-esque mind-bender, but while that film had the courage to answer our questions thoroughly, Oblivion is satisfied pounding a square peg into a round hole. If you can accept that and move on, Oblivion is likely to a worthwhile journey (especially on Blu-ray). If you’re more demanding as a viewer, you may find yourself frustrated by its sentimental obtusity.
The aforementioned Blu-ray is the ideal way to watch Oblivion, if you choose to do so. Not only do you get the best of the impressive visual effects and models, but two featurettes and a special presentation of the film are exclusive to the Blu-ray medium. The two featurettes are part of an excellent five-part series titled, “Promise of a New World: The Making of Oblivion”. Lasting about 45 minutes all in, each segment chronicles a different aspect of the production with behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the cast and crew. Cruise and Kosinski — who also provide a feature commentary track for the film — are featured prominently in the segments, which include the process of adapting the film from Kosinski’s graphic novel and creating the score with M83. “Combat” is a particularly interesting inclusion, chronicling Cruise’s stunt work on the film, why he does it, and how many stunts he’s actually doing (hint: a lot).
Also included on the disc are four forgettable deleted scenes, and a bonus feature simply called “M83 isolated score”. What’s that? Good question. First, you should know M83 as the French band hired to create the soundtrack to Oblivion. The description on the back of the package categorizes this features as, “watch the entire film accompanied by the evocative music track.” But isn’t that what any movie is: a film accompanied by music? It turns out they forgot to put “only” before “by” in the description. All you hear with this option turned on is M83’s rather compelling score. No dialogue. No sound effects. Just music. It’s an interesting way to watch. Combining the film’s two best features — the impressive imagery with the equally stirring score — creates a rather appealing artistic product. It’s certainly worth checking out, especially for fans of the band…right?
Yes. Just yes.