Something exciting is happening in Hollywood. It’d been coming for a while, but it really took off in 2010 when Warner Bros. took a gamble with Christopher Nolan and his baffling mind puzzle, 'Inception'. Its tremendous commercial and critical success set of a shift in the projects they now choose to back. Hollywood has started trusting visionaries again. Filmmakers like Neill Blomkamp ('District 9') and Gareth Edwards ('Monsters') are being given more freedom by studios to expand their imaginations and bring their unique visions to the screen, and cinema is benefiting from the unleashing of these new voices. One such voice is Joseph Kosinski, who made his directorial debut with 'TRON: Legacy' (2010). Off the strength of his work on that comes 'Oblivion', a film he has conceived himself, something entirely his own, and with the studio support has managed to achieve it.
Set in a future where Earth has been rendered uninhabitable by a devastating war with an alien invader, 'Oblivion' centres on Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), who is tasked with maintaining massive fusion generators turning sea water into energy for the remaining human colonies relocated on the moon of Titan. While he works on the surface, his partner and lover Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) monitors his work from a secure tower above, and relaying information back to the command ship, the TET. With continuous attacks on the generators from the alien Scavengers that now inhabit the planet, Jack’s job is getting progressively more dangerous, but he and Victoria have only two weeks left till they can join the rest of their race. However, when Jack recovers a survivor (Olga Kurylenko) from the wreckage of a strange crashed ship, the balance of their relationship, and their view of their world, begin to spiral out of control.
Kosinski’s directorial work on ‘TRON: Legacy’ was rapturously received, and earned him considerable attention for his distinctive visual style. He is a student of the films of directors like Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick, especially when it comes to their science fiction work, and while ‘TRON’ showed him stretching his legs, ‘Oblivion’ sees him working on his own terms and sprinting forward. Simply put, ‘Oblivion’ is a visually breathtaking, one of the most beautifully directed science fiction films in years. Kosinski’s vision of post-apocalyptic earth is both very familiar and incredibly distinctive, with sweeping deserts and dunes covering the decayed and destroyed remnants of familiar monuments, gorges and rivers where cities used to be, and a planet completely at the mercy of untameable weather. If ‘Oblivion’ has a protagonist, I’d dare say it is the earth itself, with Jack placed as a tiny, almost insignificant figure against his environment. Just as impressive are the designs for Jack and Victoria’s futuristic tower base, slick, clean, modern and highly reflective, and completely at contrast with the nightmare of nature around it. Kosinski and cinematographer Claudio Miranda approach these rich environments with sweeping, epic photography that uses every inch of the widescreen image. The film has a grace and fluidity to its rhythm, a level of elegance that was once commonplace in the science fiction of the 60s and 70s, but now lost under the explosions and monsters of today. Adding to that strangeness and grandeur is the highly anticipated score from Anthony Gonzalez and his French electronic band M83. In a similar approach to that of Daft Punk and their magnificent score for ‘TRON: Legacy’, their score lends the film an otherworldly quality, distinct but intrinsically cinematic at the same time. Once again, one of the most interesting film scores of recent times has come from outside of the filmmaking world.
‘Oblivion’ is a visually breathtaking, one of the most beautifully directed science fiction films in years.
Visuals are all well and good, but ‘Oblivion’ could never work on images alone. Thankfully, its narrative drive and science fiction concepts are just as arresting and fascinating. Kosinski and Karl Gajdusek’s screenplay, based on the comic book also written by the director, is a strange mix of incredibly familiar and wholly original. Most of the concepts in the film have been done before, and often in major films. Very few ideas are truly original, but what makes ‘Oblivion’ work on its own terms is the manner in which they are executed and weaved together. To say any more would be to ruin many of the surprises, but there’s a real sense of legacy with this film, that it understands its place in its genre and the footsteps it is following in. It isn’t an act of homage, rather an acknowledgement of what has come before, and how those ideas can continue to be developed and explored.
While the prospect of a film starring Tom Cruise seems to turn a lot of people off (I’m still not entirely sure why...), rest assured that Cruise delivers a fantastic and intelligent performance as Jack, a pared-down version of the action hero we’ve come to expect from him. Cruise has always delivered better performances when working with directors he trusts, and that is clearly the case here. He knows that the film itself is bigger than him, and the successful execution of the film is paramount to him. It’s great to see him at such ease on screen again, but with obvious passion and commitment to his work. Just as wonderful is Andrea Riseborough as Victoria. She strikes the perfect balance of a woman both soft and gentle, and carved from ice; the camera absolutely adores her. Olga Kurylenko isn’t far behind. While her performance isn’t as confident as Riseborough’s, she matches the style of Konisnki’s vision perfectly, and provides the right amount of enigma to drive the film forward. Morgan Freeman and Melissa Leo round off the cast with small but memorable, and very unusual, performances. Each actor is aware that they are part of something much bigger - a giant cinematic panorama - and it is thrilling to see them fit themselves into it with such trust and confidence.
The more major studios trust in these new distinct voices, the more exciting a place the cinema will become. ‘Oblivion’ is a stunning return to a memorable era of science fiction, as well as something original and distinct in its own right. Joseph Kosinski has proven himself even further with this second feature, and I can only wait in anticipation for what he will do next. Films like ‘Oblivion’ are a welcome reminder of how powerfully visual cinema is, how it can take you places and give you experiences no other medium can. Find it on as big a screen as you can, sit back, and become lost in this extraordinary visual marvel.