OBLIVION. Great science fiction movie, but… could have been much more
Science Fiction, one of the noblest film genres. Yes, exactly, you didn’t misread – noble. It has grown from pop-cultural values constituting current cultural trends, playing with the escapist needs of the mass audience; underrated, depreciated, yet – beloved, often the most strongly among all, which is a thorn in the side of all official film critic associations, for whom SF used to be a second class genre, or at least not worthy of detailed analysis, setting it as a cinematic model. It is more of a beloved child of cinema paradiso viewers, not hiding their inherent geekiness, fascinated by the childlike element within themselves.
It’s also not surprising such renown. Despite many examples applauded from all directions, created by eminent creators, the majority of SF representatives lack the ambition to go beyond the pattern, not so much genre-wise, but rather the template of satisfying the viewer. They aim to target the sense of cinematic fun, precisely hitting the viewer’s jaw to make it drop. The spectacle of special effects, costumes, set design, imaginative worlds, extraordinary concepts – all of this, according to the intentions of most SF filmmakers, is meant to surprise, fascinate, and delight.
The above generalization may emphasize what is unique in this genre – what has gone beyond the pattern, beyond previous experiences and expectations. What was an exception and redefined the genre, as if adding new definitions to the existing vocabulary. I mean, for example, Blade Runner, Alien, Terminator, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, The Matrix, Metropolis. They were created in the midst of a whole bunch of often well-received films, made by notable creators, remakes, and sequels, but mainly those that did not revolutionize the genre. Well, that’s why bows are always due to their creators everywhere.
Where am I going with this? Because Oblivion really hurts me, which really had a chance to be among the best, the most distinguished representatives of the genre. It had every chance and possibility to go beyond the blockbuster scheme. I repeat, “had,” so you can guess that it didn’t reach where the Wachowskis or Blomkamp with his District 9 did. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad. On the contrary – it’s a great film.
First of all, let me tell you about my expectations. Honestly, for a long time, I didn’t have many of them. Yes, I saw trailers, I saw posters, but I remained indifferent. Well, Oblivion, a classic pre-summer hit for big millions with Tom in the lead role in a film by a guy who nicely refreshed Tron. For some, this is a reason to impatiently tap their feet, others, including me, stood somewhere nearby, looking kindly at other titles. It just slipped past me, really. Then full soundtrack was released online, and it genuinely knocked me down. I know it’s inspired by Sunshine, but M83 created such a fantastic soundtrack that it hasn’t left my player (hmmm… trio: computer, smartphone, car) for a long time. The fascination with the soundtrack somehow shifted to expectations for the film – such beautiful music, so wonderfully illustrating the fantastic background, having such potential in itself (ha, imagination was at work!) could not be part of a bad movie.
And indeed – it didn’t. In my thoughts, I wished for a replay of Vangelis and Blade Runner – you know well what kind of magical conglomerate of image and sound I mean. In Oblivion, the music is audible from the very beginning, clearly present, although not as much as I would like. It encountered a worthy opponent here: the visual side. Oblivion is wonderfully shot. It’s not just about the quality of special effects, which, suffice it to say, are excellent. But this film is a wonderful aesthetic experience – very plastic frames, skillfully played colors, minimalistic set design, and – most importantly – not much showiness related to exploring the post-apocalyptic world. There are a few meaningful images of New York after the atomic holocaust, but the power is not in them, as it lies in the proper composition of the image and the role that the background plays. It’s not Roland Emmerich’s exaggerated spectacle. Kosinski and Claudio Miranda (another brilliant work after Life of Pi by this cinematographer!) penetrate desolate wastelands that were once cities: sometimes you can see architectural details, but they are not dwelled upon (the posters are a bit misleading). It’s a very cohesive vision because it doesn’t go for cheap spectacle, nor exaggerated futurism, nor post-nuclear visionariness. Oblivion looks classic but also very exceptional. This film demands the biggest screen, the best sound – don’t spare money for a cinema ticket and then for the Blu-ray. It’s a real feast for the senses.
And for the spirit? If you’ve already read reviews, you know that most critics focus on complaining about the genre clichés that fill the Oblivion screenplay. All of this is true because echoes of Mad Max, Moon, The Matrix, Wall-E, and many dramaturgical clichés saturated with popular cinema, which Kosinski likes to use, are visible in it. So what? Dredd from a few years back also didn’t offer anything innovative but could fascinate with its old-school charm. Here it’s similar – excellently executed action scenes (shootouts, explosions, lasers, drones, chases), good and bad characters; the truth that will come to light, twists, slightly pathetic sacrifice, and hope. These are mandatory points, the presence of which is expected. Their sight absolutely does not irritate – the story is skillfully led, developed, and concluded. Sometimes intriguingly, sometimes surprisingly, sometimes literally, sometimes banally. Nothing extravagant, nothing revolutionary. In other words, it is as it should be in an ambitious summer blockbuster. A year earlier The Avengers and Oblivion provides similar joy – surprisingly solid, even in presenting clichéd plot solutions.
Let’s throw a spoonful of tar into the honey barrel. The only thing that puts this film down, or at least doesn’t allow it to rise higher, where it would have the perfect place to hide, is the cast. I like Tom Cruise, and I don’t care about his social-religious carelessness. The guy can act, but Oblivion passed him by. Perhaps it’s because of the construction of the script and its characters throughout the story (I don’t want to spoil), nevertheless, he lacks distinctiveness, uniqueness, some unique characteristic. It’s easy to imagine someone else in this role, e.g., DiCaprio, Bale, Gordon-Levitt – such musings don’t speak well of Tom. Morgan Freeman, appearing on posters alongside Cruise, doesn’t have much to play and is just Morgan Freeman, someone between God, a sage, and a benevolent advisor. Olga Kurylenko’s role can be negatively assessed, as she, for unknown reasons, appears on screens more and more often – she’s on the same, one-note pace, without zeal, without emotion. Her counterpart, less known Andrea Riseborough, is definitely more interesting – diligently doing her job and seeing her place, even in Tom’s life. But that’s nothing exceptional.
Could it be that the script didn’t give much chance to spread wings? Perhaps, especially since none of these characters spoil the scenes, they just fit well into the plot, but without the ambition to create a personality. Ripley, Deckard, Neo – treatises have been written about them and are still being written because without interesting characters, surpassing the plot, there’s no talk of brilliance. Greater emotions and simple empathy follow personalities, and Oblivion doesn’t evoke too much of them. It’s a shame.
Despite the disappointing acting, Oblivion is still the best SF blockbuster in recent times. It’s not just about appreciating audio-visual fireworks – in this regard, the film is a masterpiece – but also about enjoying the genre that is science fiction. With all its advantages: creating alternative worlds, excellent action, unpretentiousness, but also with its flaws, such as plot clichés, which, at least for me, absolutely did not bother in this case. Easy to like, harder to love, but a fantastic romance will come out on top.