I’m a big fan of clever, great looking science fiction but wasn’t really excited by the prospect of the latest Tom Cruise vehicle, Oblivion. The trailer seemed to suggest the great looks but gave little indication of the ideas to back up the visuals. I was wrong. Oblivion is a film which I enjoyed much more than I anticipated and as an overall package is a pretty decent film. It’s 2077 and the Earth has been partially destroyed by a war between humans and an alien force known as Scavengers. Although we won the war, we couldn’t save the planet as the use of atomic weapons left it mostly uninhabitable. With most of humanity relocated to Titan and the rest aboard an orbiting space station awaiting their departure, the last two people on Earth live above the clouds and form a skeleton crew in charge of maintaining drones which protect vital sea based energy converters from the few remaining Scavs.
Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is drone mechanic 49 who spends his days servicing downed drones while dodging the occasional Scav attack. His partner is Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) who monitors Jack from the clouds and she reports back to Control (Melissa Leo) aboard the orbiting space station. Jack finds himself suffering unusual flashbacks to a time before his birth and when a craft crashes into his sector he discovers that its only survivor is the woman from his flashback dreams. As Jack uncovers new and disturbing evidence after an encounter with the Scavs, it appears that all is not what it seems on Earth. Oblivion isn’t a fantastic film but when science fiction blockbusters these days are either comic book based or just loud, shouty, exploding Michael Bay style affairs, Oblivion harks back to the 1970s period of sci-fi about ideas which are set in a fleshed out and realistic world. Oblivion not only looks brilliant but has an engaging plot which is full of surprises.
I’ll admit that I had my suspicions about some of the developments in the plot and I won’t spoil anything here but generally speaking the film does a good job of keeping the audience guessing. Even when something is made too obvious there is often a reason behind it or a further twist to follow. The plot isn’t groundbreaking and many of the ideals have been seen before but I was happy to follow it and never disappointed with where I was taken. The film opens with a last man on Earth vibe which was reminiscent of many classic sci-fi movies and reminded me a little of a cross between Moon and I am Legend. The Moon comparisons can be extended to include design and plot to some extent too. The film also reminded me a little of Silent Runnings at times but it is full of nods to classic sci-fi. The dynamic between the two leads is very good. You always know that Cruise is the hero because he’s Tom Cruise but it isn’t as obvious with Andrea Riseborough. Riseborough is a fantastic actress and here has an otherworldly quality to her which is enhanced by her pale skin, auburn hair and piercing yet expressionless eyes. Unlike Cruise you are never sure what her intentions are and her arc keeps you guessing for a long time.
Like Riseborough, Melissa Leo’s character is also full of intrigue and suspicion. She is only ever seen on a monitor which crackles and distorts her voice. Whereas Riseborough has an alien quality to her, Leo is more mechanical but equally as enigmatic. As the plot develops you learn more about most of the characters but while formulating an opinion about them, Olga Kurylenko is introduced as a crash survivor. She is seen in early, tantalising flashbacks but her appearance throws up more questions than it does answers for several minutes. I won’t go on any further with the plot but I was more than satisfied with how it progressed until the ending which was far too ‘Hollywood’ for my liking. It also, rather crassly, seemed to evoke a popular Biblical story which I wasn’t that keen on.
My favourite aspect of the film was its design. I thought this was spectacular. The Earth looks fantastic as a half destroyed, half buried planet. Shot in Iceland (and obviously so) it again reminded me of many other science fiction films including most notably Planet of the Apes and Star Wars. The remnants of civilisation were well designed and realised although it sometimes felt as though you only ever saw what was left of famous buildings. We can be rest assured that in the event of an apocalypse, our landmarks will survive. I was also a little unsure as to how everything became buried to such a great depth in 60 years but aside from that, Earth looked great. What was even better was the array of technology and machinery on display. Cruise’s guns, gadgets and vehicles were visually striking and full of clean lines and white plastic. It looked like a futuristic Apple range and I couldn’t fault any of it. The drones reminded me a lot of Half Life: Portal and the film as a whole appears to have taken a lot of inspiration from the design of that game. The house in the sky also looked great and like a lot of the movie had a great mix of 1970s and ultra modern touches.
The CGI is also very accomplished. There were very few shots which looked even average, it was mostly excellent. The mix of real world and CGI also works well. Of the acting, Tom Cruise plays the Tom Cruise character but he does it well. Despite his age he didn’t look or seem too old to pull it off. Andrea Riseborough is the stand out though. She is perfect as the clinical, by the book controller who you are never sure about. Olga Kurylenko isn’t bad but isn’t given much to do and there are other actors who I enjoyed seeing on screen. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is excellent in his few scenes and Morgan Freeman does what is asked of him but doesn’t shine. A slight problem I had with the movie was the soundtrack. Despite featuring the sublime Ramble On by Led Zeppelin, I felt the use of music was reductive. Often lyrics matched exactly what was happening on screen and instrumental music had the volume turned right up whenever there was romance or deep drama. This always happened when the music sounded like futuristic Coldplay. Not good.
Overall despite a couple of wobbly areas script wise and a poor soundtrack, Oblivion is a lot better than I expected it would be. It is clever(ish), kept me on my toes and was more than entertaining. It looks about as good as any sci-fi I’ve seen since Moon and I left feeling happy to have seen it, despite not enjoying the last ten minutes.
- Tom Cruise celebrated his 50th birthday on set. As a present, Director Joseph Kosinski gave his star one of the futuristic motorbikes used in the film.
- Disney originally acquired the rights to the movie but were unable to make it as a PG so sold the project to Universal.
- Jessica Chastain was originally cast but dropped out. Other actresses who auditioned included Noomi Rapace, Olivia Wilde, Kate Beckinsale and Brit Marling.