‘Oblivion’ review: Smart sci-fi by committee

Oblivion 1

Oblivion plays its hand too soon. The forward rush to get to the movie’s “here’s what’s really going on!” moment creates a push-and-pull tension between the growing sense of mystery and an apparent need to please blockbuster audiences. It is unfortunately the latter that wins out. For his second feature gig, director, writer, and creator Joseph Kosinski once again finds himself caught between a sharp sci-fi vision and studio focus test reports.

Oblivion2013PosterThis is what happens when you hand over a $200 million budget to a relatively untested creative quantity. Kosinski’s talents as a world-builder are obvious. His TRON Legacy debut is guilty of many sins, but its expansion of the universe that Disney’s 1982 movie introduced is not among them. Oblivion is artfully painted across a fresh, new canvas; its harsh, post-invasion wasteland playing well as a sharp contrast to the clean and polished sci-fi living space erected in the clouds above.

The problem comes in when Kosinski’s creative vision runs up against the check-signer’s need to protect what amounts to a nine-figure investment. Extended action sequences in the back half of the movie serve only to neuter Oblivion‘s eye-widening narrative revelations. The depressingly one-note near-cameo from Morgan Freeman is little more than a distraction. Invisible checkboxes strike off one crowd-pleaser after another. You can’t help but wonder how much stronger this movie would have been with only the four truly necessary actors and zero explosions.

While it’s possible to single out any of the leads and point to one flawed performance or another, it is the dissonant vision that ultimately unravels Oblivion.

Oblivion opens more than half a century after an alien invasion left the planet Earth in ruins. The surviving human race has been carted off to the Saturn moon of Titan, while a skeleton clean-up crew sees to the task of converting the planet’s lingering sources of water into fusion energy, which will in turn be used to keep the human race alive on the distant moon.

Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) form the Earthbound contingent of that skeleton crew. Jack is Tech-49, a futureworld repairman who flies down to the surface each day to perform his duties while communications officer Victoria monitors the situation from their high-altitude home. The two are also lovers, and their close bond makes for what Melissa Leo’s Sally – the smiling company-lady Mission Control who oversees the operation from the orbiting Tent space station – constantly refers to as an “effective team.”

Oblivion 3

Jack’s duties are complicated by the lingering threat of Scav marauders. Earth’s alien invaders might have lost the war, but the remnants of that struggle live on as Scav gangs constantly work to bring down the towering fusion power converters and the flying robot drone orbs that are tasked with defending them. Meanwhile, frequent visions of old New York City and a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) plague Jack’s dreams. It becomes clear quickly enough that all is not as it seems.

Oblivion 4While it’s possible to single out any of the leads and point to one flawed performance or another, it is the dissonant vision that ultimately unravels Oblivion. The push-and-pull between the unfolding mystery and the blockbuster sensibilities spills out into every corner of the movie. Actors don’t get enough screen time, which in turn stunts the character development. Explosions and gunfights chew through enough time to require a blunt-force approach to exposition in the final half hour. You don’t buy into any of it because ultimately, you’re not given any reason to really invest.

Conclusion

Oblivion will no doubt find its audience. There are enough original ideas here to guarantee that, especially when you pair them with the eye-catching sci-fi setting. Kosinski proved with TRON and now again that he knows how to paint a visually arresting movie. He also seems to have the chops of a natural-born storyteller, if the more promising bits of Oblivion‘s narrative are any indication.

Perhaps what Kosinski needs, what he really needs, is less rather than more. A cheaper, more character-focused effort here could very well have fallen into the same realm of smart sci-fi that Duncan Jones’ Moon and David Twohy’s Pitch Black did – perhaps even The Matrix, given the potent, crowd-pleasing mix of strong ideas and artistic flair. Instead, Oblivion feels like it was hatched in a creative place and then developed in a conference room.

Music

From Jay Rock to Saba, these are the 50 best albums of 2018

We've spent the year listening to new albums, digging deep, and culling our master list into 50 favorites. From blockbuster releases to hidden gems, these are the best albums of 2018.
Movies & TV

'Prime'-time TV: Here are the best shows on Amazon Prime right now

There's more to Amazon Prime than free two-day shipping, including access to a number of phenomenal shows at no extra cost. To make the sifting easier, here are our favorite shows currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Movies & TV

Out of movies to binge? Our staff picks the best flicks on Hulu right now

From classics to blockbusters, Hulu offers some great films to its subscribers. Check out the best movies on Hulu, whether you're into charming adventure tales or gruesome horror stories.
Home Theater

The best movies on Netflix in December, from 'Buster Scruggs’ to endangered cats

Save yourself from hours wasted scrolling through Netflix's massive library by checking out our picks for the streamer's best movies available right now, whether you're into explosive action, witty humor, or anything else.
Gaming

Need help getting the Sleeper Simulant in 'Destiny 2'? We’ve got you covered

The Sleeper Simulant is one of the coolest new Exotic weapons you can unlock in the Warmind expansion of Destiny 2, but it's an involved process that will take awhile. Here's everything you need to know.
Gaming

Ditch the meditation app. 'Katamari Damacy Reroll' is pure gaming zen

Katamari Damacy Reroll brings the magic of the PS2 classic to Nintendo Switch and PC. With updated visuals and the same great, singular loop, Reroll stands the test of time. Katamari Damacy is the ultimate relaxation game.
Gaming

Some ‘Fortnite’ players aren’t too happy with the new Infinity Blade weapon

The most recent update for Fortnite added the Infinity Blade melee weapon to battle royale, and some players aren't happy with how much it has changed the game during competitions.
Gaming

Xbox One S vs. PlayStation 4 Slim: Which console is worth your money?

Microsoft's new Xbox One S and Sony's PlayStation 4 "Slim" have bucked the generational gaming console trend. But which of these stopgap systems is worth spending your paycheck on?
Deals

Check out the best Xbox One deals and bundles for December 2018

Microsoft's consoles are just as capable of streaming movies as they are of playing the latest games. Check out our top Xbox One deals and bundles, which include new and upcoming triple-A games like Battlefield V and Fallout 76.
Cars

Best Products of 2018

Our reception desk has so many brown boxes stacked up, it looks like a loading dock. We’re on a first-name basis with the UPS guy. We get new dishwashers more frequently than most people get new shoes. What we’re trying to say is: We…
Deals

The NES Classic is back in stock just in time for the holidays

The NES Classic is back in stock at multiple outlets at its original launch price of $60 in time for Christmas. Retailers offering it online are Walmart, GameStop, Target, and Best Buy -- if you're looking for the perfect holiday gift for…
Gaming

Soulja Boy’s ‘new’ console appears to include stolen Nintendo games

Rapper Soulja Boy recently released his SouljaGame console, and it includes several emulated games that appear to be stolen from companies like Nintendo, SNK, and Capcom. A handheld version is also available.
Computing

Razer’s classic DeathAdder Elite gaming mouse drops to $40 on Amazon

If you're looking to pick up a new gaming mouse for the holidays, Amazon has you covered with this great deal on the classic Razer DeathAdder Elite gaming mouse with customizable buttons, RGB lighting, and a 16,000 DPI optical sensor.
Gaming

Xiaomi’s Gamepad 2.0 turns the Black Shark into a mini Switch

Chinese phone manufacturer Xiaomi has introduced the Gamepad 2.0 for its Black Shark gaming phone that launched earlier this year. The new gamepad is similar to the Switch Joy-Con, with one piece attaching to each side of the phone.