I’m always pleased whenever I walk into what looks like typical blockbuster fare, the kind of sci-fi action extravaganza that almost specifically asks from me to lower my IQ by a considerable amount of digits in order to even begin to enjoy it. Most films on this level do not disappoint when I use this formula on myself.
With some, like the Transformers series, I cannot possibly lower my IQ enough to even begin to appreciate the sheer dumbassery on screen. And then there are some blockbusters, as mainstream and cliché-ridden as they may be, at least tries to challenge the audience’s mind as much as it manages to stimulate the crap out of all of their senses with a bombardment of special effects.
Oblivion is a sci-fi thriller in which every single one of its numerous plot twists and visual cues are "borrowed" from other sci-fi classics. But as mainstream popcorn entertainment, you can do a lot worse. Based on Joseph Kosinski’s (Who also directed) idea for a graphic novel, it tells the story of a team of technicians, Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), performing routine clean-up jobs on planet Earth, which was completely destroyed and left isolated following a war with an alien race called "The Scavs".
The remaining humans live on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Some of the Scavs remain hidden on Earth, so to protect the rest of the humans, Jack and Victoria’s memories were erased five years ago in case they are captured and tortured for information. However, two weeks before they are to return to Titan (Roger Murtaugh style "Two days to retirement" trope, anyone?), Jack’s suspicions about something smelling fishy in this setup is aroused when he figures out that the Scavs who he assumed were a barbarian alien race, have no intention of killing him.
Finding Julia (Olga Kurylenko), a beautiful astronaut who was suspended in space in deep sleep for sixty years, who also somehow haunted Jack’s dreams even though the two had never met, doesn’t simplify things.
This brief setup barely scratches the surface of the various reveals and twists Oblivion has in store for you. Do yourself a favor and skip the trailers if you haven’t seen them already, because they make a major reveal that happens a good sixty minutes into the movie look as if it’s page one exposition. Of course from that point on, there will still be a buckshot of twists coming your way, none of them particularly original to sci-fi buffs.
However, I did appreciate the way Kosinski and screenwriters Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt (Whose current gig is writing Star Wars VII) evenly sprinkled exposition throughout the story instead of cramming them all into the first and second acts in order to make way for a third act chock full of unnecessary battle scenes. Even the last five minutes of the film has some surprises up its sleeve.
Speaking of the story elements being lifted from other, mostly better sci-fi, here’s a preliminary list just off the top of my head: The set up is disturbingly reminiscent of the criminally underrated Moon. Not only that, the major plot twist in Oblivion will make fans of Duncan Jones’ film tear their hair out while yelling "Rip off!" I’m on the same boat as you, but in Oblivion’s defense, at least it tries to place that twist into a different setting instead of presenting a shot-by-shot rethread.
The reveal concerning the real identities of The Scavs reeks of The Matrix by way of, oddly enough, M. Night Shyamalan’s terrible The Village. Jack’s vague dreams about a former life with Julia, presented by an iMovie black and white filter, belongs in every mediocre sci-fi story about a man with a stolen or erased past. The climax reminded me a lot of the ending of Independence Day, but at least the infiltration crew in Oblivion does not assume that the alien ship runs on Mac OS 7.
At least all these clichés are packaged inside an ambitious, slick and well-executed sci-fi actioner that doesn’t condescend too much to its audience while understanding exactly what its supposed to be. You can say that it’s nowhere near as moody and deep as Moon was, but with a five million dollar budget, Moon could afford to alienate a large chunk of the audience and cater only to the hardest of hard science fiction fans. With a budget twenty five times bigger than that of Moon, Oblivion doesn’t have that luxury.
So of course we have to be subjected to near-endless action sequences involving trigger-happy drones that look like psychotic versions of Eve from Wall-E. As technically well executed and exciting as those sequences may be, they are of course superfluous to the plot. At least Kosinski’s clean and slick visual style turns it into quite a visual feast for tech nerds, especially when seen on IMAX (No 3D, thank heavens). After directing Oblivion and Tron: Legacy, Kosinski seems to be Hollywood’s go-to guy for helming ultra sterilized sci-fi action with an extremely limited color pattern.
Kosinski’s gorgeous visuals coupled with Electronic/Shoegaze (What the hell is Shoegaze? I feel old) band M83’s mind-pounding score makes sure that you don’t think much about the various plot holes you’ll surely uncover later on and expects you to enjoy the ride in the moment. I did. This is definitely a film you have to see on IMAX whose impact will surely diminish when viewed on an iPad Mini.