April 17, 2013



OBLIVION:  Worth A Ticket – Dramatically Uneven, But Visually Spectacular

OBLIVION is amazing to look at.  Even though it takes place in the same post-apocalyptic landscape where movie and TV audiences seem to spend most of their time these days, the director Joseph Kosinski and his cinematographer Claudio Miranda (he just won the Oscar for Life of Pi) use a blue-gray palette and a genuine sense of epic scale to give their film a different feel, a cooler kind of barren beauty, than we’re used to seeing.  A spacecraft in the film is called the Odyssey in a probable nod to Kubrick, and at times Oblivion‘s visuals and technology do suggest a 2001-esque view of the universe.

It’s no surprise that narratively, the movie aims lower.  Yet it’s to Oblivion‘s credit that the script credited to Karl Gajdusek and Michael deBruyn, based on a story Kosinski created himself as a graphic novel, has an actual plot, one that’s been carefully worked out so it’ll make at least some sense, although its shortcomings increase as the movie goes on.  Unfortunately, I can’t say very much about what that plot is, because it’s one of those stories where Something Else is Going On, and although Universal has hinted very broadly about this in its trailers and promos, explaining just what the Something Else is would be a spoiler.

The premise, at least, can be set out  Oblivion takes place in 2077, 60 years after Earth has been invaded and its moon destroyed.  This has caused the planet to become a giant wasteland, almost empty of humans.  Energy from Earth is funneled up to a far-away space station where the survivors of the war live.  But those structures have to be maintained and protected from nasty-looking scavengers, and although drones handle the heavy lifting and repair, the drones themselves need someone to take care of them.  Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are a professional and personal couple responsible for one sector; Victoria’s job is to interact with Sally (Melissa Leo) at the space station’s mission control, and Jack’s is to go out into the trenches, a live-action WALL-E (some of the technology, probably deliberately, resembles Pixar’s version of the future), to fix and defend the machinery.   When we meet them, Jack and Victoria are two weeks away from finishing their assignment and being flown up to the space station.

But of course Something Else is happening, and among other things, Jack is having mysterious dreams/fantasies/memories of a present-day Empire State Building where he’s with Julia (Olga Kurylenko).  One day a vessel crash-lands in his sector and he finds a suspended animation capsule that has Julia as its inhabitant–and that’s as far as I can go.  To explain just who Julia is, or to specify what part Morgan Freeman has to play in any of this, would be to say too much.  Suffice it to say that Tom Cruise has found a way to play a character who can have his cake and eat it to a new extreme, perhaps the movie star’s ideal of a role.  The actors all do a convincing job fulfilling their places in the plot, although in some cases that’s not clear until near the very end.

Oblivion is involving for quite a while, but once we know what the Something Else is, there are logical and sentimental flaws and the plotting becomes trite and overly convenient, as a routine (if well-executed) spacecraft vs. drone chase and battle scene is shoehorned in, and the movie falls victim to the trap of the ending that won’t end, far too lengthy and attenuated.  Although the last twists in the plot are plainly meant to be crowd-pleasing, they strain too much, until the audience reaction is more impatience than anything else.  Still, this is hokum more sophisticated than we’re likely to get in the summer-movie parade of tentpoles that starts coming our way in 2 weeks.  Kosinski and his partners have at least tried to provide explanations and motivations for what happens, and they’ve shown relative restraint in loading up on the bang-bang spectacle.

Whatever the limitations of the plot may be, the filmmaking in Oblivion is exquisite, with a very spare, effective production design by Darren Gilford and a moody score by M83, as well as editing by Robert Francis-Bruce that knows there are times when even an expensive Hollywood adventure needs to slow down, all of it joining the photography to create a world that has emotional as well as visual cohesion.  Kosinski’s previous feature was the overblown, uncompelling Tron: Legacy, and there’s no question that this represents a major step forward for him, even if he’s still ultimately letting his gimmicks govern his narrative.  Oblivion, with all its flaws, is the first big-budget movie of the year that doesn’t deserve to be sent there.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."