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FILM REVIEW: Oblivion (2013)

REVIEW SUMMARY: Often visually arresting sequences never save this homage to 1970s science fiction films from flat characters, routine action, and uninspired direction.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Decades after an alien invasion, a memory-wiped drone technician begins to question his assignment after an astronaut who resembles a woman in his dreams crash lands amid the rubble of a ruined earth.

PROS: Breathtaking imagery of a world devastated by an alien invasion.
CONS: Clichéd characters who never generate much life or interest, especially in the affectless performances by Tom Cruise and Olga Kurylenko; uninvolving direction by Joseph Kosinski; generic, uninvolving action sequences; flat screenplay heavily reliant on obvious plot twists; noisy score by Anthony Gonzalez and Joseph Trapenese.

Oblivion, director Joseph Kosinski’s bland, muddled follow-up to 2010’s bland, muddled Tron: Legacy, demonstrates what happens when nearly talent-free filmmakers strip Duncan Jones’s Moon, a sublime homage to such cinematic science fiction classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey Silent Running, and Dark Star, of subtlety, nuance, intelligence, and Sam Rockwell, and replace it with explosions, obviousness, idiocy, and Tom Cruise.  Although its central conceit—earth and its moon have fallen to alien invaders called the Scavengers (Scavs, in a naming convention so tone deaf that New Wave linguistic masters Thomas M. Disch and R. A. Lafferty spin in their graves), and what remains of humanity embarks on an enormous engineering project to relocate to Titan—posits science fiction ideas familiar to even casual readers, its most unforgivable sin (in a string of unforgivable sins) lies in its inability to make interesting anything that takes place over 124 minutes.  Within the first 10, attention wanders from the lives of drone repairman Jack Harper (Cruise) and his girl Friday Victoria Olsen (Andrea Riseborough) to how many different science fiction movies from which Kosinski and his co-screenwriters (William Monahan, Karl Gajdusek, and Michael Arndt) steal in telling their story.  It’s science fiction for Dadaists.

Non-Dadaists, must make something more of Oblivion’s meager parts, which poses problems.  Harper and Olsen, a pair of the last few humans on earth, live in a tower in the clouds (and what a tower it is; it reminds core skiffy fans of the artwork by Jim Burns) and scan the planet for malfunctioning drones that both protect the machines extracting earth’s remaining resources and search for remaining members of the alien resistance.  Jack’s memory has been erased per contract, but he still dreams of a life before the aliens came (making Jack nearly 100 years old), in which he and an unknown woman sightsee on the Empire State Building some time before the invasion.  But Jack, like Fahrenheit 451’s Guy Montag or The Omega Man’s Neville, also obsesses over a life lost to the past; he collects books from the ruins of libraries, and has built a small cottage on a lake where he relaxes amid such 20th objets d’art as record albums (artists include Procol Harum and Led Zeppelin) and sunglasses—an IKEA sales floor for mountain men.

Naturally, such cozy disaster bliss must be interrupted, this time in the guise of a crashing spacecraft, its only survivor a woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko) identical to the one in Harper’s dreams.  Soon Harper and Julia are captured by Scavs, who turn out to be human beings living in underground bunkers.  Malcolm Beach (Morgan Freeman, already shed of so much dignity) leads the scabs as a self-made Muad’dib, and demands Jack reprogram a drone to destroy the space station with which Jack and Victoria plan to join the rest of humanity.  Jack refuses, and then learns the first of many rather predictable secrets: aliens no longer inhabit the planet.  When Jack demands more answers, Beach advises him to venture into the high-radiation zones to find them.

Jack and Julia’s search for answers lead them through a pursuit by heavily armed drones and more plot twists, none of which surprising to science fiction fans (or indeed even the casual science fiction viewer), and many of them by now far so derivative that they sap surprise.  Kosinski renders the ruined earth in eye-popping detail (especially on an IMAX screen) yet the decrepit stadiums, bridges and building sunk beneath the earth’s surface, and cavernous interiors stuffed with ruined pre-invasion detritus remind one of other work crafted with more care (J. G. Ballard’s Hello America) and of more iconic standing (Planet of the Apes and its sequels).  Ideas from other sources, from The Matrix to Star Trek: The Motion Picture to any of half a dozen of Philip K. Dick’s lesser stories, show up so frequently and with such carelessness that they seem stitched together by people who don’t understand the movie they are attempting to make.

Or perhaps they did.  Kosinski obviously wants to pay homage to the science fiction movies of the 1970s, but he makes the error of not understanding how those movies related to the period.  Certainly he gets some of the pacing right—Oblivion smacks of imitation Stanley Kubrick on several occasions—but he also misses the subtext of those pictures, and certainly misses the core point of the period’s best work.  The movie’s final big secret draws more snickers than awe, and never creates a convincing character to make it compelling.  Charlton Heston could make the last man on earth interesting with a squinting glare and an offhand comment, but Tom Cruise is no Charlton Heston.  It even sounds wrong; the score by Anthony Gonzalez and Joseph Trapenese relies heavily on the same musical cues deafening audiences during the coming attractions, throwing aural danger and doom over one like a blanket soaked in kerosene.

One of the movie’s most striking images feels telling.  As Oblivion opens, Harper states in voiceover that the Scavs first dismantled the moon, allowing the planet to destroy itself.  Oblivion strip mines Moon, and many other movies, for its materials.  The result is hollow, barren, and lifeless.

35 Comments on FILM REVIEW: Oblivion (2013)

  1. Well, crap. I WAS planning on seeing this over the weekend…:(

    • This guys review on the movie is a joke. Mans knows nothing on what hes talking about. I gave this movie a 5/5. If youre into visuals and have an eye of an artist. You’d appreciate the creativity in the movie.

  2. I still might in the end, but this does lower my expectations. I don’t always agree with Derek on movies, though.

  3. Squid And Taco // April 19, 2013 at 4:51 pm //

    Wow, what a terrible review…
    First of all, the score is flat out amazing, Gonzalez could have went M83 but didn’t, and it really paid off…
    Cruise put in an amazing performance, I don’t know, I guess I disagree with every major point you make, and was really happy to see a sci fi movie of this caliber at the theater.

  4. Pat Forsythe // April 19, 2013 at 9:29 pm //

    I could not disagree more…saw this today and I totally loved it! Old fashioned science fiction with a real story to tell. Loved the music in it, the acting fit the characters, and the cgi is fantastic. Loosen up, Derek. If you’re looking for an art house movie with lots of navel gazing, this wasn’t it. This was kick ass sci fi!

  5. I disagree that the plot twists were obvious. I found them all surprising, because none of them made a lick of sense. Each new reveal was impossible to reconcile with a dozen things the characters had previously said and done.

  6. I’m with Pat and Squid and Taco on this one. Had high expectations from the moment the trailer was released, went opening night and had all my expectations met. Is the story unique? Is ANY SF or Fantasy story unique? Really? I find the derivative argument tiresome. If a book or film uses well known tropes and makes something interesting and creative out of them then I am satisfied, and Oblivion does that.

    I don’t agree that the performances are affectless. I think they fit the overall mood of the film with perfection and the roles of all three principals, had they been played differently, would have take away from the stark beauty of the film.

    The film is absolutely gorgeous from start to finish, even the critics seem to largely agree on that. I saw it on an enormous screen and it was gorgeous. Had the story completely sucked I would have been in awe of the cinematography, sets and special effects. The fact that it tried to create a mood and mystery rather than rely on non-stop action and explosions may mean it doesn’t make the money it should but it will be what brings me back to see it again. In fact I am planning to do that tomorrow afternoon.

    I respect the reviewers opinion as an opinion and it is valid for his experience. Mine was just different. 4 out of 5 stars.

  7. TheAdlerian // April 20, 2013 at 9:02 pm //

    That’s one of the most bizarre movie reviews ever.

    I image the fat, jealous, comicbook nerd from The Simpsons reciting the lines as I read the text.

    I’ve seen a rash of internet feedback recently, about films and shows, where the project is picked apart and compared to other works. That, and we all know this, can be applied to any story. At this point in history, the protagonist is going to be like another somewhere. The same goes for the main plot points.

    It applies double for movies. They can’t have the deep characterization and complexity of novels, so you’re going to get some simplicity and repeat situations. Thus, you can reduce any original film to derivative destruction, if that’s what you go looking for.

    This film was largely original, had almost photo realistic CGI, was excellently paced, acted, and had surprising plot twists. It was one of the better films I’ve seen in awhile, and I watch a lot of films.

    My Review of the Review: No stars.

  8. TheAdlerian // April 20, 2013 at 9:10 pm //

    If you’re looking for hilarity, check out the author’s review history.

    He gave this film the same rating as Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The giant plot hole, Skyfall, four stars.


    • Ad Hominem attacks are uncalled for and do not sway me to your point of view.

      I have not seen the movie, and do not have a dog in the fight on those grounds, but trying to piss on Derek’s reviewing as a whole is unwarranted. Refute his arguments on the merits of the movie as you see them (as you did in the penultimate paragraph of your comment).

      • I couldn’t agree more! And in Derek’s defense, not that he needs it, I do agree with his assessment of Skyfall. In fact I watched it again last night, first time since I bought the bluray, and feel even more positive about it after another viewing.

        • TheAdlerian // April 22, 2013 at 7:15 pm //


          I would love to sit down and explain Skyfall to you.

          • Feel free. 🙂 Considering I’ve lived with myself and my opinions for over 4 decades I think I’m pretty well versed in what works for me and what I like as well as why I like it. Not certain a Bond film trying to tie up a trilogy of films while reintroducing some of the things that fans of earlier Bond films loved needs any explaining, ha!

      • TheAdlerian // April 22, 2013 at 7:13 pm //


        It’s not an Ad hom, because I don’t know the person, cannot see them, and so my Simpson’s reference was a jokey comparison about a stereotypical attitude, than an actual personal attack.

        However, the person IS a talentless reviewer with poor judgement and I draw that conclusion from reading their “arguments” which are poorly crafted.

  9. Why do the coolest looking SF movies often star the crappiest actors (Cruise, Will Smith, Ah-nold, Charlton Heston)?

  10. Derek,

    What are your credentials? Do you have a film studies background? Journalism?

    What makes you qualified to give your opinion on this topic?

    • Ummm…did I miss the memo where it said that in order to give an opinion of a film (or anything else for that matter) on a blog that features writing by “fans” requires an advanced degree? I think Derek’s thorough review itself is evidence of his qualifications to give an “opinion”, as you point out that it is. The fact that I personally don’t agree means nothing as it too is just my “opinion”.

    • Matte Lozenge // April 22, 2013 at 6:32 pm //

      Every person is qualified to give an opinion by virtue of being a thinking human with aesthetic sensibilities. I think the question you really want to ask is why is Derek a featured reviewer and Mscaff is just another commenter? Let me try to answer.

      A – Derek has a good background knowledge of many 1970s movies that Oblivion is ripping off. If you haven’t seen the greats and the classics of the past, you have nothing to compare with. You have no way of knowing if the newest thing is just a loud shiny wannabe distraction compared to the best movies in the genre.

      B – Derek has written a lot of reviews on SFSignal, so everyone can get a idea what his tastes are and if they agree with their own. I agree with his tastes more often than not so his opinion is worthwhile to me.

      C – Derek is a good writer, he can explain his opinions with solid examples, and he’s fun to read. That takes a lot of work and Derek gives it to us for free.

  11. The less you know about Oblivion, the better. I found it to be a compelling SF story with loads of mystery, atmosphere, and amazing barren landscape vistas. I understand why others might be cranky, but I was utterly entertained. I can’t tell you anything about it without spoiling it, so I’ll say I thought the story was written well enough, acted very well, and I was captivated. It’s a story of identity, longing, and lies and truth. 4 / 5

  12. My 2 pennies: I liked it more than Derek did, but not as much as other folks. Derek was right about several odd plot points and in it being predictable in some parts, derivative in others. It wasn’t as bad as, say, Prometheus, but you will leave the theater asking questions if you think a little past wheat you see onscreen. YMMV.

    And, seriously, can we get past the “your review sucks” grade school playground mentality? The trick with any online review/opinion (which anyone is free to give) is to find a reviewer whose tastes closely match your own. I don’t begrudge anyone their own opinion, whether or not I agree with it. I’m a big boy and can make up my own mind. Usually. 🙂

    • TheAdlerian // April 22, 2013 at 7:21 pm //


      I love the site, but the review did suck, because IT was childish.

      It’s childlike “nerdishness” to take an original work and compare it to a bunch of past projects. You review new material based on its own merit, not what it reminds you of, because nearly any story can be destroyed that way.

      The only reason any of us are angry is because this site is GREAT and we expect great stuff!

      • You bring up a good point, or perhaps better said a good question, which is “At what point do we allow works to stand on their own?” And by that I am specifically referring to works of SFF in book, television, and film. I often feel that there isn’t any consideration given for the fact that every day new potential audience members are born and when they come of age, as much as I’d like them to watch Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, those may not be the films they fall in love with and some filmmaker or author will come along and perhaps purposefully or quite innocently riff on similar themes. Do we automatically score those works as something lesser simply because someone has done it before? Again, just a question, although one that is built on one of my own pet peeves.

        Now I do see merit in comparing current works to older ones, talking about what a book or film reminds us of, especially as that kind of conversation can often lead people to check out books or films they might not have previously experienced. That is a good thing.

        I guess I’ve never quite understood where the whole “cult of originality” comes from in regards to SFF.

        • I think it’s hard *not* to compare films based on what you’ve seen before. If you’re not doing it consciously, you’re doing it subconsciously because everything you’ve seen before shapes your view of what movies are and can do. When you see the same thing over and over and over, even on its own “awesome” merits, it’s gonna bore you. #BeenThereDoneThat

          @TheAdlerian: …Which is why I say that you should seek out a reviewer whose tastes match your own. Obviously, Derek isn’t the reviewer you should be looking towards to find films you might like. And that’s OK. But his reviews are useful for other folks like Matt. And that’s OK, too. And thanks for the compliment 🙂

          • I agree that it is hard not to and am not advocating we do otherwise because, as I mentioned above, I’ve discovered a lot of great books/films because of the comparison critiques. I just wonder sometimes about the objectivity of a review that is negative in large part because of other stories we’ve seen done just like it in comparison to a person who is just jumping into the genre with that specific work and is seeing it as its own unique thing rather than deciding whether or not its ideas may have been inspired elsewhere. And this has nothing really to do with this review at all as I’ve wondered about this for years and think it is an interesting question and not one that I myself even have a specific answer to.

          • Sounds like we are in violent agreement…except for the part about reviews being objective. I don’t think they can be. I think they can *sound* objective, but that is a very different thing. 🙂

            • You are right, “objective” is the wrong word when it comes to reviews. The second we think we are being objective it is probably the first sign that we are not. What I meant would be better served by saying that I don’t mind reviews that compare films/books to what came before but I think there is value in building an opinion on a foundation that includes seeing it as judged against itself and what it set out to do, because every genre film/book has the potential of being a first time for someone and I hate to see reviewers walk all over the opinions of those folks by only disliking the work because it isn’t “new” or “original”. And again, I’m not directing those comments at Derek’s review, this subject seemed to want to settle in my head tonight and figured this was the place to hash it out.

          • Matte Lozenge // April 23, 2013 at 8:23 pm //

            There’s nothing wrong with copying, if it produces a good movie. Even Derek would agree with that, look at his review for Dredd. He described how much of it is copied but still gave it a positive review. Even remakes can improve on the original or bring something new to the story.

            The problem is so much lazy copying and lifeless remakes these days. It just keeps going because the studios can keep squeezing out a couple more dollars from audiences who like the formulas. Or audiences who like eye candy first and don’t care what lazy retread of a story it’s bolted on to.

            But I think originality has a special role to play in science fiction because it’s a literature of speculation, the unknown, wonder and breakthrough.

  13. I saw this on Saturday, and Derek’s review is spot on. I was very let down. I’m a huge M83 fan too and the soundtrack was very disappointing. Sounded like every other action movie soundtrack with a little arpeggiated synth thrown in.

  14. Not surprised this review is from the same person who wrote the review here for The Hobbit. Wasn’t impressed with that one and it’s the same here.

    Actually, this was a pretty terrible review. I thought I’d be less harsh, but then I re-read what you said about the movie and saw that you had no problem taking a dump over someone else’s hard work.

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