Oblivion Blu-ray Review
Oblivion invades Blu-ray with a solid presentation of a beautiful and entertaining summer sci-fi movie; albeit one that recycles plot elements from a variety of sources. In its simplest terms, the movie tells the story of one of the last humans stationed on a post-apocalyptic Earth and how he comes to realize that things aren’t exactly what they appear to be. And, again, it’s a truly beautiful film to watch – the design work here is impressive. Just don’t tug too hard at the thread of this sweater, as it unravels quite easily. The Blu-ray’s HD picture and sound are exemplary, and the disc contains a healthy amount of bonus material. Fans of Tom Cruise will undoubtedly enjoy his latest adventure.
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution and Encode: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
Audio: English 7.1 DTS-HDMA, English DVS 2.0, Spanish 5.1 DTS, French 5.1 DTS
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, French
Run Time: 2 Hrs. 5 Mins.
Package Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy, UltraViolet
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Release Date: 08/06/2013
The Production Rating: 3/5
“Are you an effective team?”
“We are an effective team”
-Sally’s question and Victoria’s answer in Oblivion
“I hope life on Earth is everything you remember it to be.”
-GERTY (from the 2009 Duncan Jones movie Moon)
“You don’t really think I’m your enemy, do you? Because…if I were – and please keep in mind that I’m not saying that I am – but if I were your enemy… well, darling, you wouldn’t stand a chance against me.”
-Virgo (from Frank Miller’s Ronin)
Oblivion is an undeniably entertaining movie. It’s a beautifully designed and crafted science fiction adventure that pays homage to a solid tradition of apocalyptic future stories dating back to the classic Twilight Zone series and many feature films from the 1960s and 1970s. The movie features Tom Cruise in the lead role of Jack Harper, a maintenance technician tasked with repairing security drones from the remnants of an alien invasion on a bombed-out post-apocalyptic Earth. As one might expect, Jack learns over the course of the movie that things are very different than he has believed. Cruise gives his usually earnest performance, including doing many of his own stunts in the movie’s multiple action sequences, and he’s supported by good performances by Andrea Riseborough as his partner Victoria and Morgan Freeman as an unlikely friend and supporter. The movie offers a few good science fiction twists along the way, building to a reveal that fans of Twilight Zone will probably see coming a good distance out. The movie also provides a wonderful display of director Joseph Kosinski’s great skill with design and architecture. The movie has a clean, bright look to much of it – reflecting Kosinski’s intention to tell a “daylight science fiction story” and presenting a strong uniformity among all the elements of Jack Harper’s Sky Tower, Bubbleship, Motorcycle and costuming. It’s fun to watch on the first time through. On the second viewing, the architecture of the story becomes a lot more obvious and the logic begins to falter. On closer examination, the whole plot crumbles. Taken just as a simple adventure without trying to look to deep, the movie works as a well-designed exercise. It’s genuinely interesting to watch, but trying to dig below the surface may not bring many rewards. Fans of Tom Cruise will most likely enjoy this adventure, as it stays solidly within his normal range. Fans of post-apocalyptic science fiction will probably enjoy this, but may have some issues with the elements I’ll discuss in the next few paragraphs.
MAJOR SPOILERS HERE. DO NOT READ THESE PARAGRAPHS IF YOU DO NOT WISH TO BE SPOILED: To understand the problems of this movie, we need to be frank about the basics of its plot and the origins of this story. It’s a simple story. Jack Harper is a technician who believes he’s protecting the end of a mop-up operation on what’s left of Earth after an alien invasion that resulted in total devastation. Jack believes that after another two weeks, his tour will be finished, and he can join the rest of humanity on another planet. He and his partner/lover Victoria run operations for the orbiting Tet space station out of a Sky Tower near the remains of New York City, where he repairs the various sentry drone robots that protect some giant water power plants from the Scavs, remnants of the alien invaders who blew up the moon and devastated the planet. In short order, Jack learns that the Scavs are actually what’s left of the human population, and that the Tet is actually the alien force that wiped out the planet. The big twist, likely spoiled already for many viewers from promotional materials, is that Jack discovers he isn’t the only Jack Harper doing maintenance work on the planet. In a major sequence, he encounters a clone of himself and realizes that both of them are but two of many clones in his image doing the same work all over the world. The promised end of his tour is a ruse, as is the whole idea of any happy ending coming to him or Victoria when they return to space. The Tet itself turns out to be a form of artificial intelligence apparently taking as much of the Earth’s resources as it can after having killed off almost all of the population. Jack’s choice to confront the Tet head-on is an interesting conflict between clone and computer, but even this sacrifice is undermined by the fact that there are still plenty of Jacks left on the planet below. (There’s a connected subplot about the clone’s memories of the original Jack’s wife being brought into relief by the wife’s arrival on Earth in the clone’s maintenance area. And there’s an acknowledgement that the limited tours of the Jack and Victoria clones are due to the fact that these clones can only go so long before the latent consciousness and memories of the original people comes to the surface and leaves the clones unable to function effectively.) Looking at these elements, it’s easy to see how the movie can be an interesting ride, particularly given how well it’s been designed.
MORE MAJOR SPOILERS: The first problem any science fiction fan is going to have is that all of these plot elements are borrowed from other pieces of work, and not necessarily in a way that adds anything more than some action beats. The setting on a post-apocalyptic Earth is one familiar to viewers of the Planet of the Apes series, as well as The Omega Man, Damnation Alley, Ravagers and Logan’s Run. Even the pilot movie of the 70’s iteration of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century played on the notion of a bombed out wasteland as a major setting. In nearly all of these movies, characters would travel through familiar landmarks, now reduced to rubble or overgrown with vegetation. Planet of the Apes is probably the most memorable of these, what with the surprise ending at the remnants of the Statue of Liberty. Damnation Alley is probably the most notorious, given its cockroach-infested Las Vegas. The setting was also one familiar to the classic Twilight Zone series, which took multiple opportunities to show viewers what could happen after a nuclear holocaust, usually with a big twist just when the viewer thought they knew where it was all going. (It’s no accident that the first and best Planet of the Apes featured a script by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling.) Aside from the setting, the major plot point at work is the notion that the primary character, working in a remote location with the promise of a return to civilization soon, turns out to be a clone duplicate whose fate will be nothing more than to be destroyed as soon as he’s completed his task. Many viewers have already noted publicly that this is an accurate description of the story of Duncan Jones’ 2009 movie Moon, in which Sam Rockwell realizes he’s a clone when he’s confronted with a duplicate of himself, who he initially fights before he understands the truth of what is going on. The idea of duplicates isn’t necessarily exclusive to Moon – we’ve seen it repeated all over science fiction, from The Twilight Zone to Star Trek to the many clones in the Star Wars movies and books. But this plot element is so precisely similar to what we’ve seen in Moon that it’s hard to see that as a coincidence. There’s a bit of a lift from Silent Running, in which Bruce Dern spends much of the movie alone with 3 robot drones. Beyond these lifts, we also have the alien artificial intelligence directing the clones and supervising the pillaging of the Earth. In one way, we have a neat reversal of the monolith intelligence seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the aliens were actually teaching humans and helping them to evolve to the next steps on the ladder. (And this is also not a coincidence, given that a NASA spacecraft featured in the movie is called The Odyssey.) There’s a strong similarity to the 1983 miniseries V, in which aliens descend to Earth in the guise of being friendly “visitors” while they actually plan to steal all our water and use us as food. But the AI called Sally in this movie is also extremely similar to the out-of-control AI called Virgo in Frank Miller’s 1983-84 limited comic book series Ronin. Just as in this movie, the AI in Ronin manipulates the lead characters while secretly expanding her control over just about everything in sight until a final confrontation pops between the lead character and the AI villain. It’s not a coincidence that both stories hit the same climax. In the movie, just before triggering a nuke to blow up the Tet and the AI force, Jack defiantly faces off against his opponent and declares “F@$@ you Sally!” In Ronin, lead character Billy Challas defiantly faces off against Virgo and repeatedly declares “SHUT UP MOMMA” before blowing her and her facility to smithereens. So what we’re seeing over the course of this movie is essentially a recombination of moments and plot elements that we’ve seen in other movies and stories, but stripped of the ideas and themes explored in those works.
EVEN MORE SPOILERS: Now, I’m not saying that it’s automatically a problem to borrow from other movies and recombine the plot elements. This has certainly been done with great success by many writers and directors throughout history. William Shakespeare never wrote an original play – he always used stories he’d learned in school or historical events as the basis for his works. Many great movies, particularly science fiction works, have liberally borrowed from earlier works to provide them with a basis for telling a new story. Planet of the Apes reverses the roles of a typical conquering hero story to show in the most ironic terms how humans could find themselves going from the top of the pyramid to the bottom. Star Wars itself is built from a combination of multiple sources, including The Hidden Fortress, Dune, Saturday morning serials with Flash Gordon and even World War II combat movies. Moon certainly borrows from Silent Running and from the premise of some Twilight Zone episodes, to say the least. But in each of these cases, the existing plot points were used in service of a deeper idea. Star Wars is a fun movie, but it also posits the idea of spirituality versus reality and does so while presenting its story in a viscerally compelling universe. Moon’s central idea is that of man’s capacity for inhumanity – that the disposable clone on the moon represents a life literally being wasted in a cruel situation that asks the audience how we define what it is to live. Ronin combines futuristic technology with manga comics and samurai stories, but it does so to ultimately tell a story about the difference between fantasy and reality. In a more remote example, the television series Miami Vice in its classic first season used to throw together multiple plot strands people had seen in earlier cop and detective shows. But they were thrown together in a fashion that, as writer Lee Sandlin put it, built up a picture of a world – a chaotic, dangerous world where the viewer wouldn’t know what was coming next. This is the challenge that anyone building their story from other movies and stories must answer – what contribution does the new movie make to the existing body of work?
AND EVEN MORE SPOILERS: The problem with Oblivion is that its contributions appear to be limited to design elements and action beats. And, again, the design is glorious. In prior reviews, I’ve referred to the reboot of the Battlestar Galactica series as a good look at “the last five minutes of a civilization” (lifting that quote from a 1993 liner note by stage director Robert Woodruff). Oblivion is an epic version of that concept, taking the iconic imagery of the Planet of the Apes movies and others, and really using the nearly alien landscape of Iceland to tell the story. (I should note that arial photography of Jack on his motorcycle driving past various ships in the desert brings to mind one of the big added shots from the 1980 special edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.) The action beats are mostly strong, usually when involving sequences where we can clearly see what’s happening. The Tom Cruise vs. Tom Cruise fight is a nice piece of work – particularly as we can easily discern which clone is which. There’s a bit of confusion during a dark interior shootout between the humans and the drones near the film’s ending, and this is an intentional effect, albeit a disorienting one. But we are left with the question of why. What is the thematic story this movie is trying to tell? What lies underneath all these elements to tie everything together? I suppose there’s a basic element of how humanity will out, no matter what the circumstances. But that’s a bit of an obvious conclusion, and it’s something that nearly every apocalyptic movie has included in its package. Beyond that basic idea, there doesn’t seem to be any strong throughline – and several of the plot elements actually conflict with each other if you take a little time to think about them. While this is a beautifully crafted picture, it’s not one with any real depth to it, and it simply doesn’t have any thoughts to offer beyond a simple combination of its disparate elements.
FINAL SPOILERS: There’s one other point that should be addressed here. Oblivion is noted in the press materials as being based on an “acclaimed graphic novel”. The graphic novel, which Joseph Kosinski worked on with Radical Studios, was actually never released. From what I’ve been able to learn, the graphic novel was more of a series of initial passes at the designs used in the movie – a step in the development process for Kosinski and his team. (There are conflicting accounts of what the project actually was – one version is that it was going to be an illustrated novel, with paintings of the action complementing the text.) The work on this piece happened in 2005, and included the imagery of a post-apocalyptic Earth, the Sky Tower, etc. Since nothing was ever released beyond a few paintings, it’s difficult to say whether the Moon elements were present at that time or were added later. It’s entirely possible that the clone concept was always a part of the story going back to the beginning – and in that case, it really would simply be a coincidence that the same elements popped up in Duncan Jones’ movie in 2009. But the more crucial issue remains – that the deeper issues of what it means to be a clone of another man are simply not addressed in Oblivion, while they do get an airing in Moon. If the viewer is looking for a more thoughtful approach to this, the Duncan Jones movie would be the better option. On the other hand, if the viewer just wants to see an interesting scenario and a great fight between two Tom Cruises, Oblivion wins hands down.
Oblivion has been released as a digital download as of July 23rd. It will be released simultaneously on Blu-ray and standard definition DVD on August 6th. The Blu-ray comes with a generous supply of bonus features, including an audio commentary, an isolated score track in Dolby True HD, a few minutes of deleted scenes and a series of 5 featurettes totaling nearly 50 minutes. The DVD includes all but the score track and two of the featurettes. The Blu-ray packaging includes the DVD release on a second disc within the plastic case.
Video Rating: 5/5 3D Rating: NA
Oblivion is presented in a 1080p AVC 2.40:1 transfer at an average 30 mbps which is an absolute pleasure to watch. The design work on the movie really shines here, as the viewer can see the details on everything from the beautiful desolation of Iceland (and the grit of the landscapes) to the smallest aspects of the Bubbleship cockpit or the wardrobe. In purely technical terms, this is a great movie to watch to see the capabilities of a good HDTV – the bigger, the better.
Audio Rating: 5/5
Oblivion is presented in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix (averaging 4.2 mbps, but rising to 7.0 mbps during the big scenes) that really uses the full extent of the speakers for atmospheric sound and music. The M83 score by Anthony Gonzalez and Joseph Trapanese varies from big bass moments that are quite similar to Hans Zimmer stylings to much quieter moments, and the 7.1 mix brings out both with equal effectiveness. This score also receives an isolated track in Dolby True HD 5.1. The Blu-ray also includes standard 5.1 DTS mixes in Spanish and French, along with an English DVS 2.0 mix.
Special Features Rating: 4/5
The Blu-ray presentation of Oblivion comes with a solid helping of bonus material, including a commentary, a few deleted scenes, about 50 minutes of featurettes, and the isolated score track. The packaging also includes the DVD release, which includes everything but two of the featurettes and the score track. A digital copy is available online via pocket BLU or via a code included in the packaging. I should note that I was unable to make any use of BD-Live with this title. However, I should note that recent Universal Blu-rays, including this one, now have a RESUME feature, allowing the viewer to stop playback and pick it up where they left off. This appears to be one of the normal elements to be found in the new configuration of Universal Blu-rays, along with a slightly retuned menu.
Commentary with Joseph Kosinski and Tom Cruise (AVAILABLE BOTH ON BLU-RAY AND DVD) – Joseph Kosinski and Tom Cruise sit down to watch the movie with the viewer in a session that is occasionally informative, but which is mostly filled with mutual compliments. Much of the time is taken with Cruise’s plaudits for Kosinski, his fellow cast members and the crew. (This is a very similar commentary to the one Cruise did earlier this year with Christopher McQuarrie for Jack Reacher.) At different times, the guys do get into the details of how the shoot went, including the observation that some locations (like the Scavs hideout) were shot out very quickly. Cruise and Kosinski spend some time noting the nuances of various performances in the movie, with particular note to the contributions of Morgan Freeman. During the arial photography of his motorcycle work, Cruise notes a moment where he actually wiped out – something that Blu-ray viewers will see on the appropriate featurette. One interesting side note is that the guys mention that there were no reshoots on this movie – unlike many other blockbuster-sized productions this summer. SPOILER ALERT HERE – As the guys say very early on in their discussion, this commentary is full of spoilers for anyone who hasn’t already seen the movie. Kosinski and Cruise repeatedly discuss how earlier moments in the movie relate to things that won’t show up until much later. Kosinski is correct to note that anyone listening to the commentary really should have already watched the movie without it – but you never know…
Isolated M83 Score (In Dolby True HD 5.1) (EXCLUSIVE TO BLU-RAY) – The score by Anthony Gonzalez and Joseph Trapanese is spotlit here with an isolated track in Dolby True HD 5.1. This is an unfortunately rare feature for those of us who are movie score fans, and it’s a delight to hear one on a major studio release. Granted, much of the score is quite reminiscent of the work of Hans Zimmer, but there are plenty of interesting sidestreets along the way.
Deleted Scenes (1080p, 4:25 Total) (AVAILABLE BOTH ON BLU-RAY AND DVD) – Four deleted scenes are included in high definition. There’s an added moment for the initial Bubbleship flight in the movie, including one shot from the previz material. There’s a little more to a stadium scene from the earlier part of the movie. There’s one somewhat extended scene where Victoria performs some first aid work on Jack in the Sky Tower. And there’s a very brief bit in the Scavs hideout where Jack is shown another book. None of this, frankly, is particularly necessary, and it’s fairly obvious why it was all cut out. The scenes can be viewed individually or via a “Play All” function.
Promise of a New World: The Making of Oblivion (1080p, 48:13) (THREE AVAILABLE BOTH ON BLU-RAY AND DVD, TWO EXCLUSIVE TO BLU-RAY) – Taken together, this 48-minute piece comprises a fairly thorough look at the making of the movie. There are five featurettes here, presented in high definition. Strangely enough, there is no “Play All” function, even though this is all clearly intended to be watched together. The first featurette even begins with the overall title of the documentary. One assumes the featurettes were broken up this way to keep everything below 30 minutes for the obvious reason, but still… SPOILER ALERT – THERE ARE PLENTY OF SPOILERS HERE FOR ANYONE WHO HASN’T WATCHED THE MOVIE.
Destiny (11:02) (AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD) – The first featurette discusses the initial idea for the movie and shows some of the paintings done for Radical Studios. The featurette then segues into the location work in Iceland and the set work on the Sky Tower in Louisiana.
Voyage (9:31) (EXCLUSIVE TO BLU-RAY) – This featurette focuses on the Bubbleship. Daniel Simon is interviewed at length, and the various features of the craft are examined. One version of the craft is mounted on a gyroscope, thus allowing Tom Cruise and Olga Kurylenko to be rotated 360 degrees for various shots. To her credit, Kurylenko asks on camera if it’s not too late for her to play Andrea Riseborough’s role…
Combat (15:50) (EXCLUSIVE TO BLU-RAY) – This featurette focuses on the stunt work in the movie. Everything from the fight scenes to Cruise’s motorcycle work is examined here. One moment during the motorcycle work features a wipeout that Cruise miraculously walks away from after a spill that would have badly injured a younger man. Another moment has Cruise running to the top of a sand dune in Louisiana in fairly brutal heat. Cruise’s penchant for doing his own stunts is illustrated here, particularly with one moment that has him being repeatedly dropped through a scored table so he can roll right to camera.
Illusion (5:39) (AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD) – This featurette focuses on the work done by Pixomondo and Digital Domain to accomplish more than 800 shots for the movie. One shot in particular, the opening beauty shot of Tom Cruise walking out to the Bubbleship, is revealed to be completely CGI.
Harmony (6:11) (AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD) – This featurette covers the musical score provided by Anthony Gonzalez and Joseph Trapanese, including everything from traditional instruments to electronic guitars being used in different ways.
DVD Copy – A second disc is included in the package, holding the standard DVD of the movie. It contains the movie presented in standard definition in an anamorphic 2.40:1 picture with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound in English (@448 kbps), French and Spanish. The DVD includes the commentary, the deleted scenes and three of the featurettes.
Digital Copy – Instructions are included in the packaging for obtaining a digital or Ultraviolet copy of the movie for your laptop or portable device.
Subtitles are available for the film and the special features, in English, Spanish and French. A full chapter menu is available for the film.
Overall Rating: 3/5
Oblivion is an undeniably beautiful movie. As an exercise in design and production, it’s really a pleasure to watch. The action sequences are mostly easy to follow, and the movie easily settles into the style of post-apocalyptic science fiction stories viewers may remember from the 60s and 70s. Tom Cruise turns in his usually intense performance, and there are good contributions from Andrea Riseborough and Morgan Freeman along the way. The Blu-ray offers terrific picture and sound, one of the few titles I’ve given solid 5s to in over 6 years of reviewing. But when it comes to the story, the viewer should be warned that things only go to a shallow depth, and much of the material here has been borrowed from other movies, without anything new being brought to the table. Fans of Tom Cruise will likely enjoy this movie. Fans of well-designed science fiction may enjoy the vistas on display here.
Reviewed By: Kevin EK
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