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Release Date(s)(2013) August 6, 2013
Studio(s)Relativity Media (Universal)
Warning: This review contains spoilers. Consider yourself warned.
As written and directed by Joseph Kosinski (of Tron Legacy fame), Oblivion is a fascinating, frustrating science fiction film – in fact, one of the most fascinating and frustrating in recent memory.
Its story is seemingly simple: In the year 2017, aliens called “Scavs” invaded the Earth. They first destroyed the Moon, thereby causing unimaginable earthquakes and tsunamis which quickly wiped out most of human civilization, and then came down in force to take over what was left. Using nuclear weapons, however, Humanity fought back and beat the Scavs off, unfortunately rendering the planet largely uninhabitable in the process. Now it’s some 60 years later. Most of the human race has created a new home on Saturn’s moon Titan. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his partner Vika (Andrea Riseborough) have been left behind to supervise great floating harvesters that are sucking up what’s left of the Earth’s oceans in order to generate fusion power on Titan. They’re supervised by a Mission Controller up in Earth orbit in a giant space station called the “Tet.” But in just two weeks, their mission will finally be over and they’ll all get to leave Earth behind and live happily ever after on Titan.
Or so they (and we) think. The real story, of course, is much more complicated.
It turns out that the Tet is really a giant alien AI, and the Scavs are what’s left of Humanity – there IS no colony on Titan and there will be no happy ending for Jack and Vika in outer space. All the work they’re doing is really just to serve the needs of the Tet, and though they’re unaware of it, they’re operating under a lie. And while much of this is certainly very conceptually cool, it’s also where the whole mess of a film breaks down.
As any self-respecting science fiction fan knows, the difference between good sci-fi and bad sci-fi is the actual science part. Another way to put that is to ask the following question: Is it so much to expect that the writers of modern science fiction films pick up an astronomy textbook?
Essentially, we learn that the Tet came to Earth because of the tired old “aliens want our water!” trope. But if the Tet wanted water, there are a number of moons in the outer Solar System with plenty of it – Europa alone has 3 to 4 times the volume of water as the entire Earth! That doesn’t even count all the icy asteroids and comets out in the Oort Cloud that the Tet could harvest for millions of years without ever running out of water for fusion. So why the hell go to all the trouble of attacking Earth, when there’s much lower hanging fruit out there to pick? Then there’s the fact that the Tet destroyed the Moon presumably in order to wipe out Human civilization – except that, while we see the Moon hanging up in the night sky all split in half in a cool visual, the total mass of the Moon is still up there! Which means it’s doubtful that there would even be massive earthquakes and tsunamis caused by all this. And by the way, if your whole point of coming to Earth is to steal our oceans in order to produce power, why would you first waste the immense amount of power that would surely be required in order to split the Moon in half?! There’s also a scene in which we see that New York City has been buried under glacial ice which is itself covered with meters of earth – a geologic process that, if it’s even possible (which I doubt) would take at minimum tens of thousands of years to happen. Not sixty. I could go on. Point is, none of this stuff adds up to a scientifically credible or coherent sci-fi backstory. Instead, we get comic-book science of the type that had Lex Luthor plotting to use a nuke to “drop California into the sea” in the original Superman.
What makes that especially frustrating is the fact that Oblivion is one of the most exquisitely shot, designed and scored films in recent memory. It just looks gorgeous! Its sound effects are absolutely original and stunning! The musical score (by M83) is wonderful! Even the casting and performances are of a surprisingly high quality. But all of this is in service of a sci-fi plot that’s fundamentally incoherent. If you’re willing to go to such great lengths to design and create a stunning film, start by giving the same level of care to the story! (By which I don’t mean just “making it cool.”)
Universal’s Blu-ray Disc release looks and sounds terrific at least. The 1080p high-definition image offers superb contrast with deep blacks and yet abundant shadow detailing. The color palette is subtle yet refined and evocative. Detail is crisp and clean without edging or artifacting. Sonically, the disc’s 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is one of the best I’ve heard in recent months. Bass is deep and resonant, dynamic range is impressive and the mix uses its surround channels to create a tremendous sense of space and atmosphere.
In terms of extras, you get a decent feature-length audio commentary with Kosinski and Cruise – it’s an interesting listen but nowhere do they really address the film’s larger concepts in much depth (and Cruise tends to use buzzwords like “iconography” a lot). There’s a 5-part documentary on the making of the film that covers all the usual design, filming, stunt and music bullet points – it’s all in HD, looks great and runs about 48 minutes in all. And there are a series of deleted scenes that really don’t amount to much – maybe 10 minutes worth. The best extra by far – and I have to say it’s a really good one – is M83’s complete isolated score in high resolution. I could listen to it all day.
Ultimately, it’s clear to me that director Joseph Kosinski is a very talented filmmaker and, if he sticks with the genre, has it in him to make some truly great science fiction films. But it’s also abundantly clear to me that – if he really wants to make truly great science fiction films – he needs to find a science-savvy writing partner or at least a science advisor that can keep his work grounded in the “reality” the genre demands. And I don’t mean the production design part of that equation – Kosinski’s got that down cold. The loose ends here are all conceptual, in the writing, and they could so easily have been tied up.
In any case, Universal’s Blu-ray release of this film is of good quality. Oblivion is a very watchable film – one that even improves with repeated viewings. But it’s one that gets more frustrating with repeated viewings too. Missed it by that much!
- Bill Hunt