I liked TRON: Legacy. Now I know that saying this makes me relatively alone amongst film critics, but I can’t deny that I enjoyed it. Yes, the plot was kind of a mess, and yeah, some of the performances could have stood to be better, but if we’re all being honest here the original TRON was not exactly a masterpiece either. It was an early ‘80s B science fiction movie that focused more on creating an interesting and visually exciting world than it did on story and characters. It’s sequel was very much in that same vein and I’m actually okay with that. It may sound strange for me to say this since I’m constantly advocating for strong characters and interesting, thematically resonant stories, but I acknowledge that sometimes it’s okay to temper expectations and just enjoy a fun, visually spectacular genre flick. TRON: Legacy was just that; it was competently directed, had an impressive and unique audio/visual style, and enough (perhaps misplaced) confidence in itself that I just couldn’t be upset by it.
Similarly, I rather liked Joseph Kosinski’s (director of TRON: Legacy) newest film, Oblivion.
Set more-or-less 60 years in the future, Oblivion tells the story of Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), a drone repairman working with his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) on what is left of the planet Earth. See, fifty years prior to the events of the film an alien race invaded and waged war with humanity. Humanity managed to win the war, but in the process Earth was left in ruins. Over the last few decades Humanity has been migrating to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, while the Tet, a massive space station orbiting the planet, gathers valuable resources from what’s left of Earth in order to aid in the colonization of Titan. Jack and Victoria are scheduled to join the rest of humanity in two weeks’ time, but before then they must continue maintaining the drones that defend the harvesting machines from alien scavengers left over from the war. While Victoria is anxious to leave and join the others, Jack is wistful about Earth and humanity’s history on it, a feeling which is compounded by recurring dreams he has of Earth before the war and a woman he can’t remember ever having met. One day, as Jack is making his regular rounds, a spacecraft crashes and amongst the wreckage he finds the woman he’s been dreaming of.
Oblivion takes direct, and often very obvious inspiration from countless sci-fi films, particularly late ‘60s/’70s films like 2001, Omega Man, and a few of the Planet of the Apes movies, along with newer references including Moon, and even WALL•E. Anyone who has more than a casual relationship with science fiction will see many of the plot beats of Oblivion coming well before the characters of the film do, but I didn’t find it any less enjoyable because of this. While it may rely too heavily on tropes borrowed from other (and in many cases better) films the plot of the movie is functionally much stronger than TRON: Legacy. The story is admittedly thin in terms of thematics and can never really decide what metaphor it’s trying to be, if any, but the story beats connect together with some well-constructed setups and payoffs and it smartly relies and visuals and reveals to tell its story rather than using expository dialogue to lay everything out for the audience. It passes Storytelling 101 which really shouldn’t be a noteworthy accomplishment, but considering how many of these kinds of movies can’t even manage that it’s worth mentioning. It’s flawed, to be sure, but it at least gets the basics right and is sufficiently engaging over the course of the movie which is, somewhat surprisingly, not as fast-paced or action heavy as you might think. As I mentioned, Kosinski was intentionally going for that ‘70s sci-fi feel to the film and that is reflected in the more methodical pace. Personally I never found the slower pacing to be an issue but just don’t expect this to move along at the breakneck speed of most modern sci-fi action films.
Despite the somewhat hit-or-miss aspect of the story, the film succeeds greatly in the areas of visual style and sound design. Between this film and TRON: Legacy Kosinski has proven to have both a great eye and a great ear for his films and they have a distinct audio/visual style that stands out from his contemporaries. Quite simply this movie looks gorgeous; the post-apocalyptic setting is one that is starting to feel played out, but Kosinski realizes it in a way that feels unlike any other take on it. From the stark, clean futurism of the skytower, the drones, and the bubble ship, to the decaying majesty of a New York City that has been buried nearly to the tops of some of its sky scrapers the movie looks fantastic. It also strikes the perfect balance between CG and practical effects. CGI is a great tool, but it works most effectively when it’s backing up solid practical effects work, filling in the gaps that traditional special effects can’t effectively achieve. While many of today’s filmmakers have forgotten that fact and oversaturate their films with visual effects, Kosinski, thankfully knows where that balance lies and blends the two methods flawlessly. There’s a tangible quality to this film that greatly enhances the impact of its fantastic visuals. This is a $120 million movie that visually puts films which used twice that budget to shame.
In addition to the visual style the film has some spectacular sound design. Like TRON: Legacy Kosinski has once again courted an artist from outside the film industry to score his film and once again its led to a strong and unique soundtrack for the film. This time French Electronic band M83 composed the score along with Joseph Trapanese who orchestrated Daft Punk’s score for TRON: Legacy as well as composing the score for the TV series TRON: Uprising. In addition to the music, the sound effects work in the film is wonderful. Whether it’s the lonely isolation conveyed through the sound as Jack is wandering the wasteland or the threatening mechanical noises made by the drones, the sound design works wonders in establishing the feeling of the movie.
It’s also worth noting that the film is being exhibited in a couple different formats: IMAX and Dolby Atmos. Though Oblivion wasn’t shot on IMAX film, Kosinski captured it at the taller aspect ratio and cropped it down for the standard release. The IMAX version, though, opens up the frame to take advantage of the larger screen. As for Atmos (Dolby’s new surround sound format) Oblivion is the first film mixed from the beginning for Atmos and supposedly takes full advantage of the more immersive sound set-up. So far I’ve only seen the IMAX version, but if you have the opportunity I would seek out one of these two options for viewing the film; the sound and visual design, as I’ve said, is amazing in this film and these two formats will highlight each one in a way that a standard theater won’t.
Oblivion is far from a perfect film, but for what it was I enjoyed it quite a bit. Though it was derivative of many other movies I felt the strength of the film’s design and the confidence with which Kosinski directed it made it well worth seeing. This film feels very much like a love letter from Kosinski to the sci-fi films he grew up on, and while it may not be as good as the films it pays tribute to, the heart it has for classic sci-fi is quite endearing. It’s fun, intermediate level sci-fi, that pays homage to science fiction films of decades past. If you can go for something like that without expecting a masterpiece than I recommend giving Oblivion a shot. Granted this isn’t saying a whole lot, but of the films I’ve seen so far this year Oblivion is the one I have enjoyed the most.