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Review: ‘Oblivion’ Is Gorgeous Spectacle Painted With a Very Familiar Brush

By  · Published on April 19th, 2013

Oblivion is many things. [pause for laughter from readers who’ve seen the film]

It’s a thrilling mix of science fiction, action and discovery. It’s visually stunning and filled with beauties both CGI and natural. It’s a major step up from director Joseph Kosinski’s debut film (Tron: Legacy). It’s a thinly-veiled commentary on drone warfare. It’s scored with occasional energy and life by M83. It’s a rare example of a film that almost demands to be seen on an IMAX screen. It’s the near epitome of style over substance. And it’s the most derivative sci-fi film since Avatar.

Jack (Tom Cruise) is a repairman whose sole duty is keep defensive drones functioning. He and his teammate, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), are the last remaining humans on Earth after a devastating alien attack sent our species scrambling for new digs on Saturn’s moon, Titan. A handful of humans including Jack and Victoria’s commander sit aboard a space station orbiting above them, but when Jack’s curiosity regarding alien actions on the planet’s nuclear pock-marked surface causes friction he’s thrown into an unexpected adventure with far-reaching implications.

Oblivion has major problems, and almost all of them stem from its script by Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt. They won’t be mentioned here, but the list of obvious film influences is longer than Cruise’s career and minimizes (or maybe smothers to death) any inkling of originality. Many films share similarities in character and/or theme, but whole elements are lifted wholesale here from previous movies both better and worse than this one. It’s unfortunate to say the least, and it prevents the film from even approaching the realm of greatness.

But that derivative nature can’t stop it from being good.

Kosinski makes a rare decision here in that he lets his film open and build naturally and at its own pace. It may be too slow for some viewers, but it’s a refreshing change from stories that zip us from plot point to plot point without allowing time for the characters to breathe. Jack’s journey is allowed to feel natural (if increasingly obvious) as he moves closer to the unknown dangers hidden behind the truth, and the trip is ultimately a rewarding one.

Make no mistake, this is a Tom Cruise vehicle, but the real star of the film is its absolutely incredible visuals. Kosinski and cinematographer Claudio Miranda (along with surely hundreds of digital artists) have crafted a movie where nearly every other frame is worthy of framing. From Jack and Victoria’s highrise base seemingly designed by the tastemakers at Apple to the desert vistas to the thrilling canyon chase/battle to the various recognizable ruins, this is visual spectacle of the highest order. Many of the most impressive visuals are entirely natural and only complimented by minor CGI tweaks and additives. Your eyes will never be bored.

Even at fifty years old Cruise is not only one of the few remaining true movie stars but also a remarkably believable action star too. His dedication and desire to do his own stunts and action put actors half his age to shame, and his movies are the better for it. He’s also got the whole “hero” thing down giving the film a solid core around which everything else revolves. The only time he falters here is in a series of casual quips Jack makes to himself or his Elvis bobblehead that feel too planned and artificially delivered for the sake of a laugh.

The supporting cast is limited, but almost everyone adds something to the experience. Riseborough’s role is a tough one due both to the character’s arc and its underwritten nature, but she finds a humanity in Victoria missing from many big sci-fi sidekicks. (Not for nothing, but she currently has three films playing between this, Disconnect and Welcome to the Punch, and she’s most definitely a star on the rise.) Olga Kurylenko has somewhat less to do, but like Riseborough she makes the most of her limited time to deliver a character both compelling and sexy. The remaining name here is Morgan Freeman, and about him I’ll only say this. It’s time for him to retire from these kinds of roles. He’s crossed into Jack Nicholson territory where he’s no longer able to immerse himself into a role and instead is simply playing himself.

Oblivion’s lack of narrative creativity and originality are more than enough to keep it from becoming a classic, but it shouldn’t stop people from seeing and enjoying the film. It truly is a beautiful-looking movie… and it just gets prettier when Kurylenko and Riseborough appear onscreen. Its effect will be lessened on your TV, so see it now on the big screen, the bigger the better, and just revel in the visual world-building on display paired with a simple but effective story.

The Upside: Beautiful visuals; exhilarating score at times; Olga Kurylenko and Andrea Riseborough; never rushes itself; solid ending

The Downside: Incredibly derivative script; some ill-fitting and cheesy dialogue; Morgan Freeman; Bob the bobblehead

On the Side: Our own Scott Beggs reviewed the film earlier this week but reached a different conclusion. It’s worth noting that he resides in Germany.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.