Oct 9, 2020
[Note from the editor: The Agony Booth is currently conducting a search for new article writers. This review was submitted by prospective staff writer Steven Patsel. Feel free to sound off in the comments to let us know what you think of his review!]
Oblivion is Joseph Kosinski’s sci-fi movie that isn’t Tron: Legacy, set in your typical post-apocalyptic future. This time, the premise is that everyone abandoned Earth after some war that no one remembers, because they all have amnesia. Tom Cruise plays the nondescript main character Jack Harper (not to be confused with Jack Reacher, an equally bland character also portrayed by Cruise), who must remain behind on Earth to repair drones that watch over some kind of water-extracting machines. Basic stuff.
Right off the bat, we’ve got the whole “forced memory wipe” cliché, which is a step above “amnesia for no reason at all”, at least, but still not all that thrillingly original. And much like an amnesiac, you’ll embark on an adventure that’s all too familiar, and by the end you’ll have forgotten it all anyway.
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The first half of the movie has great atmosphere. I’m a sucker for desolated, ruinous places, and the beginning of the movie managed to pique my interest long enough to keep me from wanting to turn it off immediately. The visuals of the movie are one of its few strong points; it truly looked like a deserted Earth, with all the ruins and discarded buildings everywhere, all shiny and science-y. Jack’s hideout was also pretty cool, and helped reinforce his feelings of isolation, but alas, feelings of emptiness are about the only thing the movie does well.
Also adding to the strong atmosphere were the sound effects, with the drones making sounds that tickled the hairs on the back of my neck. It’s not often such a seemingly insignificant part of a movie affects me so. Although, I’m not sure the sound design being one of the more memorable aspects of the movie is a good or bad thing. The musical score, what little I remember of it, was pretty good as well, and certainly better than the movie deserved.
Unfortunately, my praise tapers off from there, thanks to the jaded lens through which I usually view sci-fi movies. Oblivion is wholeheartedly a mediocre movie. Which isn’t to say that it’s awful, but just that in terms of the sci-fi genre, it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. And the parts where it does try to be “innovative” either fall short, or come off as contrived and ham-fisted.
Take, for instance, the big reveal that Jack is part of a mind-bending clone scheme. Admittedly, I didn’t see that coming, but therein lies the problem. When it’s first presented, it comes off as so jarring and abrupt that the intended reaction of “Whoa!” becomes more like “Are you kidding me?” On top of that, it isn’t really that new or interesting of a concept, and only ends up on the significantly large heap of unimaginative sci-fi devices that Oblivion is so fond of.
The other plot twists could be spotted from a mile away, and that’s most definitely due to the writing. The script gives us clues that aren’t very subtle, and are repeated often, as if to say “Did you get that?” Eventually, the movie becomes little more than a contest to see how much of the currently established plot and setting can get upturned. Basically, in two words, it’s dumb.
Speaking of silly and absurd plots, Jack mentions that the moon was destroyed during the war, causing massive tsunamis that wrecked the coasts. Interestingly enough, I had previously looked into the implications of destroying the moon (don’t ask), and as it turns out, the destruction of the moon would probably result in calmer seas, not raging tsunamis. That said, it would still be a devastating event. For some reason, I had a problem with that, but I digress.
The movie also resorts to using the same crutch a lot of subpar movies these days seem to employ: Morgan Freeman. Don’t get me wrong. I love the guy, but it seems to me that a lot of mediocre directors think that if they just add Morgan-Freeman-in-a-can to their movie, it’ll go from bland to fantastic in the blink of an eye. But not even a great actor can save a bad script.
As if it weren’t already obvious from the beginning that Oblivion is a cliché rollercoaster, the movie jumps from one try-hard twist to another in a vain attempt to be profound, and is only held together by thin strings of poorly constructed plot and minimal character interaction. There are initially only two characters, neither of whom are particularly interesting, and then a few more show up to move the story along, and the plot is boring and has been done before. A movie with only a few characters and not much dialogue can be done well, but Kosinski clearly isn’t able to pull it off effectively.
The characters themselves are also considerably unlikable, with most of them coming off like hollowed-out robots (for one reason or another) with only one task in mind that they must see through to completion. This makes the romantic subplots even more laughable.
The movie takes itself too seriously for what it’s presenting: a mish-mash of sci-fi tropes and plot devices in a pretty wrapper. Jack’s final line on the Tet space station was clearly intended to resonate with audiences and leave them awestruck, or at the very least make Jack seem cool, but it has the opposite effect, coming across as juvenile and forced. There’s also the introduction of a book that Jack finds, for no other reason than so he can spout off pseudo-intellectual nonsense while the movie comes to an end.
Oblivion is an empty corpse dressed up in an assortment of antiquated clothes. It could be said that the movie is a classic case of style over substance, but the only reason the style part is regarded so highly is that there’s not much to compare it to. The movie is too serious for its own good, and its amalgamation of overdone plots makes the movie seem like Kosinksi’s fan-fiction of the whole sci-fi genre.