Blu-ray Review: Oblivion (2013)

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Some movies are best approached with as little prior knowledge as possible. For anyone partial to either ponderous sci-fi or anything starring Tom Cruise, all you need to know in advance is that Oblivion falls into both those categories. It’s not action-oriented sci-fi, understand that before going in. Oblivion aspires to be more along the lines of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, or Moon. The production design is terrific, offering yet another spin on a post-apocalyptic Earth but one with distinctive detail. It also presents a slew of thematic ideas, including identity and isolation, yet they’re half-baked. While it’s a fascinating visual experience and an ambitious vision from writer-director Joseph Kosinski, it never gels in a memorable way.

Set in the year 2077, Oblivion depicts an essentially inhabitable Earth. Scavengers (“Scavs” for short), unfriendly beings from the depths of outer space, attacked a few years earlier. For reasons never satisfactorily explained, the Scavs blew up the moon. This disturbed Earth’s natural balance, resulting in catastrophic earthquakes and tsunamis. The “science” part of the sci-fi seems a bit sketchy here, as those “in the know” have theorized that the loss of Earth’s moon would not likely bring about such chaos. Furthermore, the various shattered chunks of the moon apparently remain securely in orbit. Wouldn’t even the tides remain more or less the same? At any rate, war between humans and the Scavs required the deployment of nuclear weapons that rendered the planet a wasteland. Humankind relocated to Saturn’s moon, Titan.

Oblivion in action (380x221).jpgMonitoring drones on Earth is Jack Harper (Cruise). He zips around in a small aerial craft, making sure the drones that protect the power stations (which generate power used on the Titan base) are operating properly. These drones pack a deadly punch, programmed to kills rogue Scavs that continue to roam the planet’s surface. It would be an unbearably lonely life were it not for his professional and personal partner, Vika (Andrea Riseborough). She and Jack live in a tower that rises above the atmospheric disturbances that plague the landscape. She monitors Jack’s missions and communicates progress or problems to their boss, Sally (Melissa Leo), who is stationed aboard the “Tet,” a gigantic space station that orbits the Earth. Jack and Vika are short-timers finishing up their term of duty before departing for Titan. Though his memory has been wiped several years earlier (for security purposes), Jack is haunted by trace memories that pop up in dreams.

So far, so good, as the first act allows glimpses at the bombed-out world that Earth has become. Production designer Darren Gilford deserves high praise, along with his team of F/X technicians, for crafting such striking visuals. We see Jack navigate his craft through lightning storms, as well as his exploration of the remains of New York City. He and Vika’s home appears to almost float in the sky. A nighttime skinny-dip in their glass-bottom pool is as visually arresting as anything in the film. Director Kosinski maintains the entrancing mood throughout the early scenes, placing this couple within a vast but oddly peaceful state of isolation. Eventually Jack has a direct encounter with remaining Scavs and the movie makes a drastic tonal shift and never recovers its footing. Nothing we’ve seen so far is what we were led to believe. The truth about the Scavs and the history of Earth’s apocalypse are as revelatory to Jack as they are to the audience.

Oblivion Vika (380x200).jpgNot only is there enough plot crammed into the second half of Oblivion to fill the first season of a TV series, much of it is borrowed from other sources. Spoilers are a concern with this sort of film, but suffice it to say the truth about the Scavs and their objectives is overly reminiscent of the post-nuclear-annihilated Earth as depicted in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. The overzealous artificial intelligence exhibited by the drones recalls 2001: A Space Odyssey. Morgan Freeman turns up as Malcolm Beech, a member of the small human resistance, looking and acting like a variation on Morpheus from The Matrix. As Jack begins to face mind-boggling questions about his true identity, it’s difficult not be immediately reminded of cinematic adaptions of the Philip K. Dick oeuvre, Blade Runner and Total Recall (the latter especially, when Jack encounters the literal woman of his dreams, Julia, played by Olga Kurylenko). Though not without its own points of interest, Oblivion leaves almost no impression as a whole outside of excellent special effects.

Happily there are no mixed feelings to report regarding the technical specs of Oblivion on Blu-ray. The 1080p transfer, framed at 2.40:1, is at least as stunning as the visuals depicted in the movie. Clarity is as sharp as it gets, with the decimated landscapes captured in breathtaking detail. Much of the film almost looks like it was drained of color, with Claudio Miranda’s cinematography intentionally casting a moon-like desolation on the Earth locations. This makes the greens of Jack’s pristine nature retreat (an oasis Vika refuses to visit) all the more brilliant.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround mix is one of the most intricate I’ve heard. Being that Oblivion isn’t an action movie, the elements that impress aren’t explosions or gunfire. The vehicles, the drones, all the gadgetry utilized onscreen—it all makes noises, some obvious but many subtle. These noises emanate unpredictably from all channels, bringing “immersive audio” to a new level. There are, in fact, instances of floor-rumbling bass from the LFE, but these are sprinkled throughout sparingly as needed. I only wish the screenplay had been as carefully crafted as the sound design. We might’ve had more than a purely sensory experience in which to luxuriate.

Oblivion sky house (380x200).jpgTom Cruise fans will likely be delighted by his inclusion on the audio commentary. He and director Kosinski sat together for the track, discussing the film in detail. Cruise is a bit over the top in his praise for Kosinski’s “vision,” though the director seems a bit more down to earth and humble. “Promise of a New World” is a fine 48-minute documentary that adds some additional voices to the story of how Oblivion was made. There are a few deleted scenes tossed in, as well as an isolated track featuring French electronic band M83’s score in Dolby TrueHD 5.1. The score is yet another example of the craftsmanship that makes Oblivion ultimately worth seeing for sci-fi aficionados, even if the storytelling leaves much to be desired.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is music and film. As “The Other Chad,” he has written for the online magazine Blogcritics since 2008. When he’s not writing, Chaz can be found trolling jazz clubs, attempting to find somewhere to play his sax (whether anyone wants to hear…

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