I think that we and Joseph Kosinski got off on the wrong foot.
Though Kosinski made his directorial debut with the spectacular misfire called Tron: Legacy, we all should have known that film was doomed to fail from the start. Looking back on that mess of half-baked storylines and over-inflated hype, it’s obvious that Disney was never interested in making a movie; they were only interested in making a franchise. It was clearly a picture made by a committee of studio execs, and Kosinski was the unlucky puppet who took marching orders from The Mouse only to take the fall when the movie inevitably stunk.
Moreover, say what you will about Tron: Legacy (and oh, there is a lot to say) but two things in that movie are beyond reproach. The visuals and production design are uniformly sterling, with incredible use of CGI and 3D effects (Clu excluded, of course). There’s also the jaw-dropping score by Daft Punk, whose inclusion was a stroke of genius. Both of those aspects of the film can be laid at Kosinski’s feet, and that’s no small thing.
So here’s Oblivion, the sophomore effort from Kosinski, adapted from a graphic novel that he authored. I hasten to add that the graphic novel was edited by Radical Studios, a company set up specifically for developing comic book projects for eventual film adaptation. In point of fact, they never even bothered publishing “Oblivion” after Universal purchased the movie rights.
(Side note: In case you’re wondering why Kosinski didn’t set this project up with his old Legacy studio, Disney wanted to make the project a PG-rated affair. In a rare case of Hollywood execs showing common logic, they realized how totally fucking stupid it would have been to completely neuter the story, so they went ahead and let Universal make their PG-13 movie. After forcing Universal into a heated bidding war, of course.)
The point being that this film is very much Kosinski’s baby. It was his idea from conception to screen, made with full studio support and a reported budget of $120 million. Not only was the film blessed with Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman as its A-list stars, but it also got a prime release date in late April, just before the summer blockbuster season comes sweeping in. Best of all, this film didn’t carry a fraction of the pressure to create a franchise, and it sure as hell didn’t have any of the baggage that comes with a Tron sequel.
So basically, Kosinski was given more than enough rope to hang himself with.
To be clear, everything that was great about Tron: Legacy is still great here. The visual effects are all incredible, and the production design is dazzling. In particular, the film has a kind of “inverted pyramid” motif that I found to be especially effective. In execution, it looked very “space age” and neat, but strangely threatening in an artificial sort of way.
The drones were similarly impressive. Their spheroid appearance might look all friendly and approachable, but only until they come online. Make no mistake, these things are powerful killing machines. Not only are they extremely maneuverable, but they’re borderline invincible and gifted with incredible tracking capabilities. These robots are formidable adversaries, and that makes for some gripping action scenes. In particular, there’s a dogfight sequence that’s remarkably thrilling.
Bear in mind, that’s just the visuals. The sound design of this film is mind-blowing from start to finish. The whole movie is full of great robotic noises that are used to marvelous effect throughout the proceedings. Best of all, the score is flat-out fucking phenomenal. The score was composed by an electronic band called M83, whose “Midnight City” single has been getting heavy radio play for the past couple of years. I don’t know how Kosinski gets these great techno groups to compose such brilliant music for his films, but his works will always have at least one great thing about them so long as he keeps doing it. I’d put this score right up there with the one Daft Punk composed for Legacy, and I mean that as very high praise.
Purely on a technical level, the film is golden. In terms of storytelling, however… meh.
Right off the bat, this film opens with a dream sequence that’s used to convey foreshadowing. That was enough to put me in a bad mood almost immediately. Maybe it’s just me, but I think that the use of dreams for exposition, character development, or foreshadowing is detestably lazy and cliched. Any hack could do that and get away with it, because it takes literally no effort.
Even worse, three of the very first words we ever hear from our protagonist are “mandatory memory wipe.” Really, those three words should tell you everything you need to know about this film going in. We know that our protagonist has some suppressed memory that will come back to him at some plot-relevant point. We know that absolutely everything we see and hear about the premise will come to be proven wrong as the film progresses. We know that his bosses are tyrannical assholes who can’t be trusted.
By the way, Jack’s boss is played by Melissa Leo with an overly happy kind of “southern comfort” that you just know is too good to be true. And once again, I had to go and ask “That was her?!” when I found out it was Leo. The woman’s a goddamned chameleon, I swear.
Anyway, the premise is also a disappointment because of how derivative it is. Right off the top of my head, I could spot parts that were shamelessly taken from The Matrix, Dark City, Moon, Independence Day, the entire Terminator series, the original “V” television miniseries, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and just about any post-apocalyptic film you’d care to name. My mother has repeatedly told me that the film’s ads made it look like Wall-E, and yeah, you can throw that one onto the heap as well.
Of course, remixing aspects of various influences can hardly be a bad thing, so long as they’re made into something good and original. Hell, Quentin Tarantino has built his whole career from the concept. The problem is that for all of this film’s patently obvious influences, it doesn’t really have anything new to say. It tries for some deep and profound commentary on the human condition, but it’s nothing that wasn’t already done and done better in those other films that I previously listed. Moreover, the film doesn’t really have any surprises of its own, since it rehashes so many reveals and plot twists that we’ve already seen before in other movies.
Another huge problem is the involvement of one Olga Kurylenko. Her character is the emotional core of this movie and the key to rediscovering Jack Harper’s humanity. And for some inexplicable reason, Kosinski gave this crucial and dynamic role to someone with no screen presence whatsoever. I know that Kurylenko is supposed to be this up-and-coming starlet, but I’m just not seeing it.
I completely fail to understand how playing a Bond girl in Quantum of Solace qualifies some dime-a-dozen beauty for A-list or even B-list status. I’m sorry, but the woman has no shred of acting talent, much less anything memorable about her. This is the third film I’ve seen in which Kurylenko has a prominent role, and I still couldn’t pick her out of a lineup if I tried. She brings absolutely nothing to this or any other role I’ve seen her in. With all respect, send Kurylenko back to acting school and bring in the next ingenue waiting in line behind her.
On the other side of the equation, look at Andrea Riseborough. She plays Victoria Olsen, Jack’s communications officer. She’s a crucial partner for Jack, watching satellite feeds and keeping in touch with Mission Control while Jack is hard at work in hostile territory. But what really makes Victoria a fascinating character is in how close she is to Jack. They eat together, they work out together, they bathe together, they even sleep together. They’re more than just coworkers, but they’re not quite lovers, either.
It’s like Jack and Victoria are going through the motions of being a married couple, but without any of the sincerity or affection that the label implies. There are clearly feelings between them, yet it all feels strangely off somehow. And mind you, none of this is implied in the script. This is entirely based on Riseborough’s performance and her interplay with Cruise. She’s a very talented actress, she has a nicely distinct sort of beauty, and she makes a clear impression with this movie, so where’s her spot above the title?
As for Tom Cruise, I think I’m more or less done hating on the guy. I know Cruise is still trying to pass himself off as an action star despite his advancing age, but damned if he can’t sell it. There’s just something about him that makes for a satisfying protagonist. Whatever “star power” is, he’s got it, simple as that.
The same could be said for Morgan Freeman, whose dignified presence and legendary voice help — yet still fail — to salvage a totally wretched character. Not only is Malcolm Beech an exposition machine, but he’s a never-ending font of plot holes. At any given time, there’s no way to tell what he knows or how he knows it.
To sum up, Oblivion is the work of a powerfully ambitious and technically gifted filmmaker who’s also a mediocre storyteller. The film so badly aspires to be listed among such works as 2001: A Space Odyssey or even The Matrix, yet it doesn’t have the intelligence or the creativity to reach those lofty heights. Kosinski puts in so much time and energy juggling so many disparate parts from so many different movies that he fails to explore his central thesis in a coherent or thought-provoking manner. Even so, the film is so technically jaw-dropping and made with so much effort that I can find it in my heart to give Oblivion a passing grade. Barely.