Oblivion (2013)

Earth is a memory worth fighting for.

Making a return to the science-fiction genre, filmmaker Joseph Kosinski’s second directorial project is a sensory spectacle, adapting his original visual concept into a thought-provoking post-apocalyptic ultra-slick Hollywood blockbuster. Primarily originated as an 8-page treatment written by Kosinski himself, which was pitched to Barry Levine and Jesse Berger at Radical Publishing as a graphic novel back in 2007, Kosinski later went on to use the images and development as a pitch kit to studios. Disney had originally acquired the film rights back in 2010, having already worked with Kosinski on Tron: Legacy (2010), but Universal Studios eventually bought the film rights from Disney after they deemed the picture to be too costly and violent to develop into a profitable feature without heavy rewrites. To coincide with the picture’s release, the project was subsequently adapted into a graphic novel and was made available to the public around the time of the film’s theatrical run to avoid any spoilers.

Tom Cruise ... No stranger to the Science-Fiction genre.
Tom Cruise … No stranger to the Science-Fiction genre.

As a movie-going experience, the less viewers know about Oblivion the better time they’ll have being astounded by the many shocks and surprises on offer as the often complex narrative slowly unfolds before one’s very eyes. The film opens in a war-torn Earth, completely depleted after a sixty-year struggle against a mysterious and terrifying alien threat known as the Scavengers or Scavs for short. After destroying Earth’s moon, the alien threat were defeated by nuclear weapons and the earthlings were forced to move to Jupiter’s moon, Titan, since Earth was completely destroyed during the conflict. The year is 2077 and human, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), works with his companion Victoria ‘Vika’ Olsen (Andrea Riseborough) on the surveillance station Tower 49. Jack Harper is one of the last few drone repairmen stationed on Earth and is part of a massive operation to extract vital resources after decades of war with the Scavs. The two work as a team to maintain the autonomous drones that defend the power stations from the few remaining Scav bandits. The Jack and Vika receive their orders from Sally (Melissa Leo), their mission commander, who is stationed on the orbital Tet station and keeps the couple under scrupulous watch, constantly ensuring that the two are ‘an effective team.’ The Tet station can only make line-of-sight transmissions to the pair. Jack flies reconnaissance-and-repair on the surface, while Vika supervises from Tower 49, a home at around 3000 feet, or 1000 meters, above sea level.

With their mission nearly complete, the pair expects to leave Earth and join the other survivors on Titan in two weeks. Vika is anxious and excited to rendezvous with the rest of the population, finally bidding farewell to the ravaged world, however, Jack — having a secret retreat in a fertile thriving forested area which he sometimes likes to visit, collecting memorabilia from Earth’s past and storing it in his cabin — feels connected with the planet and is somewhat reluctant about parting from his true home, constantly dreaming about what life must have been like on Earth before the fighting. Although Jack and Vika’s memories were wiped five years earlier for security reasons, Jack has recurring dreams and unexplained recollections about meeting a mysterious woman at the Empire State Building before the war — which was before he was born. Living in and patrolling the skies from thousands of feet above on Tower 49, Jack’s existence is soon brought crashing down when he rescues a stranger (Olga Kurylenko) from a downed spacecraft. Her arrival triggers a chain of events that forces Jack to question everything he knows, ultimately putting the fate of humanity in his hands.

... gotta catch 'em all ...
… gotta catch ’em all …

The narrative, while crowded with information particularly toward the first half of the film, is extremely fresh and thought provoking, which is a rarity in this era of tiresome remakes, prequels, sequels and comic book adaptations. Kosinski aims to tackle some big ideas in this post-Armageddon feature, such as themes of love, humanity and identity, and while some are certainly explored and developed stronger and bolder than others, the majority of the messages come across quite clear, resulting in several undeniably weighty emotional moments towards the picture’s climax. Although, due to the fact that Kosinski both wrote and directed the project, he appears to be almost too close to the material and, as a result, the plot may be a little difficult to follow — chiefly in its third act — so a second viewing may somewhat be required to help clarify the events near the film’s involved finale.

Being no stranger to the Hollywood blockbuster, it was initially Tom Cruise, Minority Report (2002), who approached Kosinski to develop the film and story after obtaining a sample chapter of the novella when it was first distributed at San Diego Comic Con in 2008. Consequently, Cruise is in fine form throughout Oblivion, clearly giving everything within his performance, as it was a project he too was incredibly eager and excited about being part of. The rest of the key players aren’t as strong as Cruise, but are still credible enough to carry the film’s more poignant scenes convincingly. Morgan Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption (1994), also makes a timely arrival near the flick’s second act, when there’s a particular need for some additional supporting human counterparts.

'This view certainly isn't what it used to be.'
‘This view certainly isn’t what it used to be.’

With extraordinary cinematography and art-direction, Kosinski has undoubtedly crafted a visual gem with his feature Oblivion. Filmed on the empty, lifeless mountaintops of Iceland, the vast open landscapes and beautiful snow-covered rocky-mountains are some of the most remote, unique and gorgeous locations captured on film to date. Much like Tron: Legacy (2010), the design of the advanced technology and ultramodern equipment is nothing short of stunning, all having a clear pristine stylish look about them. These futuristic machinery and structures are wonderfully juxtaposed against the rugged desolate landscape giving the film a stunning visual contrast. The effects team does an outstanding job combining computer-generated imagery with practical effects, completely creating and constructing several transport vessels by hand — the bubble ship and futuristic motorbike in particular — to give the film a more realistic look.

For a feature that appears to be largely CGI heavy, there are many tangible elements at play that add an authenticity and realism to the fantastical world Kosinski has envisioned. An example of practical effects used over computer imagery is the backdrop to Tower 49, the glass tower set. The sky footage was projected on a 500 by 45 feet screen, consisting of 21 monitors surrounding the set, taken from three weeks of footage of the view from the summit of Haleakala volcano in Maui; the rooms with windows are lit by the light from these projections, making the scenes appear as though they were actually shot from a place perched high above the clouds, casting reflections in character’s eyes and on the shiny, glass covered fittings and equipment, in the end creating an imaginary world that feels real and believable down to its very core.

Andrea Riseborough, patiently waiting for the next take!
Andrea Riseborough, patiently waiting for the next take!

Oblivion features many stylish and strong intense action sequences that are quite unlike anything seen in this sort of a film. It’s surprising that Kosinski didn’t chose to shoot Oblivion in 3D as the visuals and action scenes appear to have been designed perfectly for the format. Comprising what is possibly the greatest score of 2013, Kosinski teams up with musician Anthony Gonzalez from French electronic band M83 to compose the soundtrack. Similarly to the work Daft Punk accomplished on Tron: Legacy, Gonzalez delivers an original impressive sounding spacey electronic score that’s both brave and challenging but at the same time beautiful. The track Oblivion, with additional vocals by Susanne Sundfør, is an ideal conclusion to this film and will undoubtedly leave audiences mesmerized at the spectacle just witnessed as the final credits begin to roll.

A treat for the senses, both a visual tour de force, and sporting the boldest, most unique sounding score of 2013, Oblivion is one of the better science-fiction pictures to emerge within the past decade. While the narrative can be quite challenging and daring, a little more character development — exploring the protagonist’s relationships deeper — would have honestly benefited the flick, making Oblivion a contemporary must see classic. Never quite reaching those masterpiece levels, Oblivion is still a solid achievement in technical wizardry and inventiveness, and comes recommended to any Tom Cruise enthusiast or fan of the presently dried out sci-fi genre.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by S-Littner

Oblivion is released through Universal Pictures Australia