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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

August 23, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

Accent

Review: 1970s science fiction influences adventure film ‘Oblivion’

Director Joseph Kosinski pays homage to 1970s science fiction films with “Oblivion,” an epic, yet personal, science-fiction adventure that reconstructs the environmentalist message of saving the Earth.

Captain Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and communications officer Victoria Olsen (Andrea Riseborough) are the “mop-up crew,” as Jack puts it, after an Earth-shattering war between humans and alien invaders, known as Scavengers, or “Scavs.” The war forced humanity to drain Earth’s last remaining resources and flee to Titan, a moon of Saturn and potential new homeworld, aboard the Tets, massive tetrahedral space vessels. Jack and Victoria spend their days patrolling the ruins of Manhattan and maintaining drones that mercilessly hunt the Scavs.

To avoid giving up information if interrogated by Scavs, Jack and Victoria routinely undergo memory wipes, but Jack is haunted by dreams and memories of a time before the war. These memories lead him to question his mission, the Tets and the true nature of the Scavs.

Cruise portrays Jack’s fascination with Earth well, but his acting in “Oblivion” relies more on telling than showing, especially when dealing with his memories. Riseborough, on the other hand, is able to believably embody both the professional efficiency and the demure passion of Victoria.

Though not necessarily a detriment to the story, the characters in “Oblivion” remain one-dimensional throughout the film. This characterization style was common among 1960s and 1970s science fiction but leaves the dialogue rather predictable.

Earth is as important a character in “Oblivion” as the people are. The destruction of the moon by the Scavs wrought irrevocable damage to the planet, hindering its ability to sustain life. The change in gravity tore apart the tectonic plates and turned the planet into a desert wasteland. Saving Earth is often used as an easy way out to establish tension in science fiction, but “Oblivion” inverts the trope by having the humans harvest the oceans of Earth for rocket fuel and leave it as an empty husk.

The music and art direction are the film’s strongest points. Though all-white color schemes and large, glass houses became science fiction cliches decades ago, Kosinski focuses more on the disfigured beauty of a post-apocalyptic Earth than on the technology the humans use. The last green patches of nature blend seamlessly with Jack and Victoria’s mountaintop outpost.

Joseph Trapanese and French shoegaze band M83 combine electronic and orchestral instruments to compose an epic, otherworldly soundtrack. The musical combination reflects the thematic mix of nostalgia and progressiveness. The desire to preserve the natural wonder of Earth and continue humanity’s technological advancement is contained in both the soundtrack and Jack’s personality.

Jack’s voice-over exposition at the beginning of the film brings the audience into the world of “Oblivion” but could have been cut, because Jack explains it again later on with dialogue. Delivering the exposition only through natural dialogue would have been closer to the 1970s style Kosinski wanted to evoke.

“Oblivion” is a little lacking in terms of development of the fictional universe. The Tets are not thoroughly explained, despite being central to humanity’s planned exodus, and there could have been more meaningful interaction between Jack and the Scavs. The lack of context and misplaced mystery makes the conclusion somewhat unsatisfying.

“Oblivion” offers a new take on the classic environmentalist themes of modern science fiction while harkening back to the early days of science fiction films. “Oblivion” could have benefited from more dynamic characters and explanation of the Tets, but the art and musical style of the film creates a memorable experience on an alien, yet familiar world.

Three stars.

Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough star in post-apocalyptic adventure movie.

Michael Tkaczevski can be reached at mtkacze1@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @Mike_Tka