Feature: One small step for Universal Studios, one giant missed opportunity for intelligent sci-fi

Oblivion 02

Once again I have watched a movie on Film4 and it’s pushed me towards my keyboard.

After a long week at work I usually like to end my Friday with one of the many films I’ve recorded on the box (I’ve got to clear it before The Bake Off starts on strictest orders from a higher power…).  Last Friday I decided to watch Oblivion, which I thought would be just another Tom-Cruise-popcorn-action flick that would wash over me and leave the brain cells unengaged.  Just how I like my films on a Friday…

…how wrong I was, as Oblivion was not only more intelligent than I gave it credit for but, hypocritically, was also so frustratingly “Hollywood” that it sabotaged its chance to be one of the greatest sci-fi films ever made.

Set in 2077, the Earth has been devastated by a war with an alien race fifty years earlier. Humanity won, but the world has been left so ravaged that humans have had to relocate to the Saturn moon Titan, leaving only a handful of the alien race left on the planet. Generators have been left by the humans to drain the Earth of the water supply for use on Titan, and two humans, Jack Harper and Vika Olsen (Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough) have been charged to protect and repair the drones that in turn protect the generators when they are attacked by the aliens.  Harper however is having dreams of a previous life and gets a feeling that something isn’t quite right with the whole situation, which threatens their mission and Olsen’s hopes to return to Titan…

It sounds pretty hum-drum, and when it starts it doesn’t feel like it will elevate itself from that initial assessment either.  Yet, as the story progresses, the twists and turns the plot takes make this a genuinely interesting and original tale that I’ve not come across in film before.  This was a truly pleasant surprise from what I thought would just be another Tom Cruise vehicle.

Therein lies the problem.  I’m no Tom Cruise apologist as I think he is a fantastic actor and his performance is pretty flawless in Oblivion, but his stardom will always take precedenceOblivion 03 over his acting ability.  He will always be Tom Cruise; not Jack Harper, not Ethan Hunt, not Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, but Tom Cruise, and it’s distracting.  The film as a whole is cast with stars whose very appearance is jarring despite no one putting in a bad show.  Andrea Riseborough is outstanding as Olsen and she maintains the illusion that she is Olsen as she is not that well known an actress yet.

The CGI-action scenes feel shoe-horned into this film also.  They are very poorly put together with some shockingly ropey visuals, and they are just not necessary.  The story would be strong enough to keep the audience’s attention if it was written better but as it wasn’t they must have felt the need to cram in some brainless and empty action set-pieces that only result in the film feeling watered down and, ironically, paced slower.  It’s around the two hour mark but it feels a lot longer and it could have trimmed a lot of flab off to reduce the running time.  It’s such a surprise as this is very much director Joseph Kosinski’s baby, as he wrote, produced and directed the movie from an unpublished graphic novel that he created.  How many writers would jump at the chance to have that much control over the creative direction of their own project?  And what does Kosinski do?  Squeeze in as many Hollywood stars as he could fit on screen, surround them with shoddy computer polygons and give them scripts that must have been thinner than Chief’s in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest!  Such a wasted opportunity…

…oh, and the trailer gives away almost everything.  You may not know this to start with, but as soon as you watch the film and you have some active brain cells you will easily unravel most of the mysteries the film proposes before they are resolved on screen.

It makes no odds as this film was a financial success for Universal Studios but it will be Moon 02forever known as just another Hollywood blockbuster.  In my opinion though it would have been a classic that could have held its own and not looked out of place amongst the indie sci-fi greats of Moon and District 9 if it would have halved its $120m budget and left the A-listers in their mansions by their pools, cast some relatively unknown actors hungry for a shot at stardom that have some acting-chops, spent more time on writing a tighter, leaner and more intelligent script, District 9uninstalled whatever computer software used for pointless CGI mash ups and only released teaser trailers to promote it.  If I had my way I would have gone the whole hog and made it all black and white, filmed it in a foreign language and subtitled it too, but that may be why I only write about films and not make them…

Okay, big stars and big action get bums on seats in cinemas, but smaller sci-fi films can do good business if made well.  Whilst Moon was critically acclaimed and made twice as much money as it cost to make, District 9 received a similar critical response but made seven times its budget at the box office, overtaking the profit made by Oblivion

…put that in your pipe and smoke it, Hollywood!


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