Steve Bullin

Oblivion is an interesting piece because: one, it reminds us that Tom Cruise isn’t a bad actor; and two, because we’re reminded that something well done–regardless of the actual material–can still make a good movie. Oblivion is written, produced, and directed by Joesph Kosinski; the director of Disney’s recent franchise reboot, Tron: Legacy. And if you’re expecting a beautiful visual production similar to Tron, then congratulations, stripped to its bare bones that is what this film is. But there is more than just a pretty picture.

Oblivion was marketed as an action packed feature with an A-list cast of Morgan Freeman, Tom Cruise, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Olga Kurylenko, and Andrea Riseborough. But in truth it was more like, “Look, Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman, in Sci-fi!” Every other actor seemed lost in the marketing as well as the production of this film. That’s not to say they didn’t preform their roles well, just that their roles were shallow and uninteresting. The females are there for the soul purpose of being female, being pretty, and bringing that stereotypical female tension. The other characters are simply there for plot progression, it could even be argued that the main protagonist was the least interesting character. The plot is set up to deliver a number of twists that read as classical Sci-Fi tropes the audience will remember from the seventies, and eighties classic Sci-Fi. Without giving anything away, each plot twist is strung together for the sake of introducing the next without it sounding stupid, the reveals spanning from the obvious to the clever, back to the stupid, and finishing with one that is quite blatantly a copout.

So what saves it? While lacking in many areas, Oblivion makes up for those in its execution. The roles and script are weak, but the cast delivers and by the end of the film we know enough about a handful of the characters to empathize or at least understand a few of these characters, even if on a shallow level. Its most notable quality though, by far, are the visuals. Oblivion has these wonderful moments of breathtaking shots, imaginative scenes, and a highly realized setting. The fantastic setting really make this dystopian world believable.

 While Blade Runner was a precursor to the cyberpunk boom, the thing that best survived from the film was the aesthetics of that genre. The design of the buildings, the cars, the Noir elements, it all became the principle example of what it looked and felt like to be a Cyberpunk dystopian world.  Red Dawn would embody the alternate universe World War III trope that would  near fetishized for the next generation. A Boy and His Dog practically invented the genre of the nuclear desert wasteland, post-apocalypse, that would later inspire such classics as Mad Max and an entire movement that would purvey to this day, even expand to influence the rise of the Zombie apocalypse genre. Oblivion might not do that, but it does play very closely with the cinematic style of those classic Sci-Fi films, or at least pay a stylistic homage while presenting a strong representation of what our era of Sci-Fi looks and feels like.  It’s the visual result of the Aeon Flux, Minority Report, Equilibrium, Planet of the Apes, The Matrix Reloaded, and all of the others futuristic Sci-Fi from the early to late 2000’s that have resulted in the style and aesthetic of the future we see so clearly becoming the dominant within our pop-culture.

In Oblivion the particular aesthetic is not influenced from film, but from video games. The video game industry has reached a generation where their aesthetic is not only equal to the cinematic scope of Hollywood, but fueled by artists whose influence and originality is enough to be seen crossing back over into film. While not the first film to do this, it’s be one of the few to do it well. In Dune the switch to the first person perspective was expected, but gimmicky. In Jonny Mnemonic it was awkward and clumsy. In Hackers it was farfetched, yet fitting. It was used well in Natural Born Killers, when it flashed to a behind-the-gun camera it was easy to pick up the visual reference to the arcade shooter; though the symbolism made between cinema’s natural voyeuristic phenomena and the arcade games vs mass shootings discussion was mostly lost on the mainstream audience.

But as the aesthetics endures the pop-culture and blends together it will begin to lose its distinction between media, making it more difficult to tell where exactly the influence originated. In the case of Oblivion, the progression spaced by action sequences, and exposition, feels pulled from any general Sci-Fi shooter. Second the weapon and vehicle designs with the low polygon count look pulled straight out of Valve’s Portal, Bungie’s Halo, or Bioware’s Mass Effect series. Specifically though there is this chase scene with the drones. As the audience is taken to the cockpit vantage point of the fight it feels distinctly like a rail shooter, where the player moves along a set path and have to shoot the enemies they encounter.  Maybe twenty years from now film critics or cinema history teachers will point back to films like Oblivion and say “This is where the video game influence had so permeated the popular culture that the mainstream didn’t even notice, this is where it could appear in our cinema without being perceived as a novelty or distinctly a-typical stylistic choice.”

Oblivion is one of those films that sets out thinking a great deal of itself. It thinks and feels like one of those iconic classic Sci-Fi adventures, and it’s devoted to conveying that to the audience. With the shallowness of the script and the silliness of the majority of the plot, Oblivion falls short: it’s one of those films that will go off to be remembered for its visual merit. If you’ve caught all of the other Tom Cruise Sci-Fi films and enjoyed them then this might be your cup of tea. Otherwise I’d save your money for a different, better film.

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