by Thom Yee
Here’s a list of all the Tom Cruise movies I’ve seen and enjoyed:
Jack Reacher, all of the Mission: Impossibles except II, War of the Worlds, Collateral, The Last Samurai, Minority Report, Vanilla Sky, Interview with the Vampire, Born on the Forth of July, Top Gun, and Risky Business.
I enjoyed all of those movies, I feel they were all a worthwhile use of my movie-going time, and I think they all benefitted from Tom Cruise’s performances.
When it comes to Tom Cruise movies (and just about every movie he’s in is a Tom Cruise movie, no matter how large or small his part), I always feel like I have to explain myself. It was about eight months ago that I reviewed Jack Reacher, and everybody I talked to couldn’t get past the Tom Cruise part of that movie enough to go see it let alone take my review of it seriously (not that we’re really angling for our reviews to be taken seriously). Sure, there’s the Scientology, the erratic behavior, the maniac laughter, the obviously manufactured-for-public-acceptance personal life… but none of that’s bad enough that it should necessarily be a drag on his box office returns. I insist, as I’ll continue to insist with each new year and each new Mission: Impossible, that these are movies. If you want to argue about his beliefs, you can do that after the movie (and when I’m somewhere else). The last thing I want to discuss, no matter how public they may be, is celebrity gossip (actually, the last things I want to discuss are pets and religion, but celebrity gossip is pretty high up there too).
Oblivion, if you’ll remember, helped to open the 2013 summer movie season. Opening on April 19 to the tune of 37 million dollars, it would go on to a worldwide gross of approximately 286 million on a production budget of 120 million. That basically equates to mild failure, because in Hollywood every movie has to make, like, at least twice its stated budget (which never includes marketing costs) in domestic markets alone for anyone not earning backend points to actually see a dime. At least, that’s what seems to be the case according to what I learned during my brief semester at Hollywood Upstairs Accounting College.
Oblivion is also a Tom Cruise movie, which means get over yourself, it’s not going to be that bad.
In a future too distant to recognize, but not distant enough that it can’t heavily rely on present-day iconography like the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is one of the last people on Earth, assigned to repair drones that protect energy-harvesting plants that power the Tet, a gigantic orbital satellite containing most of what’s left of humanity. You see, while humanity has survived and won its war with the “Scavs”, a race of scavengers intent on taking our world after having destroyed theirs, Earth itself has become uninhabitable after nuclear war, the destruction of the moon, and the colonies of Scavs left on Earth that would continue terrorizing humanity. Having nearly completed his five-year mission, Jack, along with Victoria “Vika” Olsen (Andrea Riseborough), communications officer and Jack’s primary support (you see, communications people are good for something even in post-apocalyptic settings), are in the last two weeks of their mission before returning to the Tet and humanity’s final refuge on the Saturnian moon of Titan. But lately Jack’s been having recurring memories of a life that couldn’t have happened, of people, places and times he doesn’t know, and when he investigates a crash-landed spacecraft, he finds a pod containing the woman from his dreams, Julia (Olga Kurylenko).
It’s pretty obvious that there’s more going on than what we’re initially told in voiceover exposition at Oblivion’s opening. Without revealing the rest of the movie, I will let you know that the “Scavs”, whose destruction Jack has been repairing and who Jack has occasionally fought, are actually humans. But how can that be? Then what have Jack and Vika actually been doing this whole time? What’s waiting for them on the Tet? And who is Julia? All throughout the film, Sally — Jack and Vika’s mission commander seen only on viewscreens, supposedly from onboard the Tet — asks the question, “Are you an effective team?”, to which the answer is always “We are an effective team.” It becomes somewhat of a mantra for the audience, constantly reassuring us that this is the way things are, even though we know they’re not. While the story itself covers familiar territory, and includes fairly direct homages to the sci-fi stories to which it owes such clear inspiration, it still manages to stay true to its own story.
In its visual design, Oblivion is easily amongst the strongest sci-fi movies I’ve cared to see. Directed and co-written by Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski, there’s a clear similarity in the cinematic style, in the shots taken and the way the score is used, but Oblivion comes off as much more accomplished. If nothing else, the tech designs — from the ships, drones, and base stations — will stay with you. The world itself benefits from overhead views of awe-inspiring mountains and forestry, effectively mixed with industrial designs of derelict buildings and machinery. The action scenes are exciting, dynamic, properly restrained, and, most importantly, easy to understand, without a hint of questionable Michael Bay-esque directions leaving you asking things like “Who just got killed?” or “What’s flipping over who to do what?” or “Which one’s the bad guy again?”
Cruise’s performance, as always, is rock solid and benefits the film in a way that only the strongest Hollywood actors can (this being a Hollywood film and all). Kurylenko, as Julia, is suitably mysterious, Melissa Leo, as mission command, is incredibly unnerving in what little she’s given to do, and Morgan Freeman, as the leader of the Scavs, brings gravity and weight to the entire film without overshadowing his co-stars (i.e., he does what Morgan Freeman does in the most Morgan Freeman-esque way possible). In a cast with such major stars, Andrea Riseborough is a standout, bringing much needed humanity to a role that could’ve been annoyingly naïve and self-denying. The only part I questioned was Nicholas Coster-Waldau’s as a grizzled veteran in Freeman’s army. While Coster-Waldau pulls his own weight, it seemed wasteful that there was so little to his part, and it almost feels like there’s an extended edition out there where he had more to do.
From having read other Oblivion reviews, I’ve gathered that none of the strengths I’ve just outlined are really in question, and yet Oblivion remains a movie that critically is not particularly well-regarded. There’s a strong contingent of critics that claim that it owes too much to its sci-fi forebears, relying too heavily on the tropes of other, better films. While I can certainly attest to seeing some plot elements coming ahead of time, I would still argue that Oblivion maintains emough of its own values and personality, and a large part of that comes from the strong, capable performances from stars of Cruise and Freeman’s stature. And I think there’s an even greater argument to be made beyond such face values.
At its heart, like almost all sci-fi movies, Oblivion is deeply existential, though not necessarily in its plot or sensibilities. A movie like Oblivion says something deeply meaningful about who we are and what we do, but not in the form of its story. When I read the negative reactions to the movie, I actively wondered about the fantasies and lies we live with. The stories we tell each other when we insist that things are good and that everything’s going to be okay. If you believe Oblivion isn’t a good movie, you’re admitting that everything’s not okay — if the reviewers truly believe that this isn’t a good enough, complex enough movie, then most of what we see around us isn’t anywhere near good enough. That everything’s not okay isn’t a massive revelation in and of itself, but the pure admittance of such suggests that better exists somewhere out there. As a “writer” who’s gone through the “peer review process” on multiple pieces, I know that if I had written Oblivion, and it had followed the exact same plot, scenes, and beats, it would’ve gone over well. A lot of people would’ve remembered it and wondered where I got my ideas from. But when it’s a movie? When it’s something that’s real, that’s out there, competing on a different plane than the one most of us normally live on, it’s not good enough. So what does that say about us and our own personal stories? To question the strength of Oblivion is an indictment of self and just how far we’ll let the truths we know stay hidden from the people we claim to care for.
There’s a difference between a complex story, an intricate story, a meaningful story, and a good story. The trick is always in getting enough of each of those to form a worthwhile story. Something that captures that which is truly special in life is an incredible trick because what made those things special is often too ephemeral to properly render. What I can say about Oblivion is that it effectively explores the ideas of who we are and what we’ll do when those ideas are threatened. The greatest strength of Oblivion is that, in the end, it asks existential questions that both undermine and expand everything we know about the story in a way that deflates our own self of importance even as we come to understand that the greater truth underneath it all is one most of dont care to find.
Oblivion is a sci-fi movie for people who don’t necessarily like sci-fi movies, a sci-fi mystery for people who don’t necessarily like solving mysteries, an existential crisis for people who don’t want to question themselves too much, and a thought-provoking movie for people who don’t like to think too much. And, despite all of this, it’s still a movie that’s good enough, that’s executed well enough, and tells us something that we need to know even if it doesn’t ask the questions or tell us the answers that we’re looking for.
It’s also a Hollywood movie starring Tom Cruise. And that’s usually all you need to be an effective movie. Or at least one that’s not that bad.
Thom’s Oblivion final score: 7.5
On the Edge
-Zoe Bell! That is all.