Friday, April 19, 2013

Review: "Oblivion"

Director: Joseph Kosinski
Runtime: 126 minutes

Rather than try to prove his critics wrong with his second film, director Joseph Kosinski seems perfectly content with delivering more of the same. Just like 2010's TRON: Legacy, Kosinski's Oblivion delivers some entertaining moments and stunning visuals, yet is hindered by a disappointingly thin screenplay. Despite its problems, it's difficult to suggest seeing Oblivion anywhere outside of the theater, where Kosinski's visuals do the best job of distracting one from the flawed writing. 

Set some 60 years into the future, mankind is recovering from a devastating attack that occurred in 2017. Most of humanity has been evacuated to one of the moons of Saturn. Left behind are Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). They're part of a crew designed to repair drones that protect energy-gathering machines from the scattered remnants of the alien horde. As Harper informs us in the opening voice over, humanity won the war against the alien attack, yet lost Earth in the process. The pair are guided by Sally (Melissa Leo, appearing strictly on fuzzy video monitors), the head honcho of the ship that will eventually take Jack and Victoria off to join the rest of humanity. 

However, the situation becomes complicated when a craft crashes on Earth containing human passengers. The lone survivor is Julia (Olga Kurylenko), who eerily resembles a woman from Jack's strange dreams of the pre-invasion Earth. Julia's introduction to the plot is, at first, one of Oblivion's high points. Yet it doesn't take long for Kosinski and co-writer Karl Gadjusdek to begin stumbling through the remainder of the plot. 

Where the film starts to come apart is in the script's desire to tackle so many different story ideas that audiences have seen before in science fiction. Once Kosinski and Gadjusdek start piling on the twists and revelations, Oblivion's narrative becomes fractured, and the pacing is thrown off (the second hour feels far too long in comparison to the first). Rather than carefully select a few tropes to tackle, Oblivion tries to throw so many ideas together that the narrative becomes jumbled as it charges into what should be a heart-pounding conclusion. Certain developments lack weight because Kosinski's storytelling simply goes through the motions. This is most evident when, just before a major moment in the story, Kosinski decides to try and create the world's shortest love triangle, rather than just stick to the character relationships that have already been established (empty as they are). 

Compounding the narrative problems is that the role of Jack Harper is too thinly written, and Cruise doesn't bring any sort of spark in his performance to make up for it. It's the sort of role he's played far too many times, and as a result his work here isn't terribly engaging. There's no real sense of who Harper is outside of his job, and Cruise's performance doesn't inject the role with any personality. Thankfully, the supporting cast put in some effort with their roles, albeit with varying degrees of success. Melissa Leo proves that she can be enjoyable even when she's never even seen in person, while Kurylenko is solid as the woman responsible for Jack's disillusionment with his mission. However, the standout, if there is such a thing here, is Andrea Riseborough. More than any member of the cast, she's able to take even the most functional lines and imbue them with a liveliness that suggest that she should have been the film's hero. Though she has just as little to work with as anyone else, Riseborough is the only member of the cast who fully sells her material. 

Yet other than Riseborough's solid work, the only other standouts of the film are technical. And, to be fair, there's a lot to be said for Oblivion's technical accomplishments. As with TRON: Legacy, the settings and landscapes are gorgeously rendered, giving the film an incredibly polished look. Sets are also nicely rendered, balancing the sleek modernism of Harper's outpost with the cluttered remains of Earth.  The film is also carried along by first-rate sound work, and a knockout score from French electronic group M83, which helps keep the film from becoming totally stagnant, even with the flow of events is disrupted. 

Unfortunately, these technical achievements aren't enough to rescue Oblivion from being more than a workman-like mishmash of different concepts. The material is simply too flat to begin with. While Kosinski has conceived some fantastic visuals, he has delivered them without any sort of flair so as to really make them pop. Whatever flaws there are, Oblivion could have been a stronger experience overall if it had been able to create at least a few genuinely rewarding cinematic moments. While there are scenes that are exciting or intriguing, there's nothing about the execution to make them stand out. Kosinski has crafted impeccable visuals, yet seems to have stopped there, content to let them speak for themselves. As it turns out, they have precious little to say. 

Grade: C

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