One of my greatest personal shames is my unwatched physical media pile. I’m especially embarrassed by the DVDs I have left over from Blockbuster Video’s going-out-of-business sales and, even further back, the video rental chain’s regular 4 for $20 liquidation deals. 2013’s Oblivion is a perfect, distilled example of how a movie can collect dust for so long in these locked-away stashes. I’ve always had a suspicion that Oblivion would appeal to my voracious love of pulpy, highly-stylized sci-fi. Its general reputation is muted-to-negative, though, so I was never inspired to urgently pop it in the DVD player until a recent, especially idle night. Luckily, it turns out I was smart to hold onto that used copy of Oblivion for the last five years, as its reputation is a total injustice. Directed by Joseph Kosinski, whose only previous feature was Tron: Legacy (speaking of trashy sci-fi I seem to love more than the general public), Oblivion is a visually stunning slice of modern pulp that alternates between introspective sci-fi mystery & video game-style action violence. It’s a deeply nerdy graphic novel adaptation masquerading as a mainstream blockbuster, the exact kind of hidden gem that only improves as you get further away from its initial critical reception. As much as I would have loved seeing this film’s technical achievements projected as large & loud as possible in 2013, allowing it to quietly simmer in a stack of fellow forgotten titles instead was probably my best possible chance for falling for its geeky, trashy charms.
Tom Cruise stars as the last man on Earth, a government drone assigned to stay behind on a dying planet to repair & maintain more literal government drones. He shares an Apple Store-esque sky apartment with his coworker/wife as they fill their days completing routine tasks for a menacing, off-planet government/corporation. An untrustworthy history of Earth’s demise is plainly spelled out in an up-front information dump, the preferred exposition delivery system of all trashy sci-fi. Several major twists throughout the story (some also delivered via clunky information dumps) disrupt this early narrative wholesale, to the point where the story bends in on itself for a genuinely surprising development or three. The answers aren’t always as satisfying as the mysteries, but I do appreciate its most substantial gearshift more than most audiences seemed to five years ago. Even if the story were a turn-off, though, I don’t understand how audiences couldn’t help but be impressed by Oblivion’s visual achievements. The special effects have held up incredibly well and are backed up by a slick, modernist production design that proposes what might have happened if Steve Jobs collaborated with Spielberg on the set of A.I. The weaponized drones that serve as the film’s major physical threat are genuinely opposing & unnerving, resembling a flying antithesis to the wholesome cuteness of BB-8. The tension between the sleek, introspective mystery that builds off the machine-like coldness of the film’s design and the PG-13 violence of its sci-fi themed video game action sequences makes for a thoroughly engaging, deeply nerdy blockbuster experience, one I should have pulled the trigger on much sooner.
It’s not all that surprising that The Edge of Tomorrow was the 2010s Tom Cruise sci-fi action blockbuster that broke through critically instead of Oblivion. Oblivion isn’t nearly as cool, clever, or self-aware as that fellow graphic novel adaptation, but that uncoolness is a distinct factor in its charms. One of my favorite pieces of film writing all last year was Emily Yoshida’s article “Why Didn’t Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets Find its Audience?” In it, Yoshida bucks against the idea that nerds have won the culture war and that geeky media is now officially cool on its own merit. She writes, “When it comes down to it, most people are so, so scared of seeing something uncool. Audiences are conditioned to dismiss unfamiliar, nerdy shit […] If geek culture truly ruled, it would be possible to launch a big budget genre film without an A-lister and a bucket of glib, self-aware jokes, because people would want to see a bunch of weird aliens on principle. We’d have an Ex Machina-grade middle budget sleeper hit every month and nerd-ass shit like Jupiter Ascending would have three squeals lined up.” While it’s true that Tom Cruise is the epitome of an A-lister and has been for a very long time, I think Oblivion easily qualifies as what Yoshida calls “nerd-ass shit.” The film’s endless mythology of its mandatory “memory wipes,” Saturnal moon colonies, and half-buried NYC monuments are almost embarrassingly geeky. That effect is only amplified by its PG-13 rating, which undercuts its brief indulgences in sex & violence to the level of a preteens-marketed comic book. With more self-aware, glib jokes and a hard-R approach to sex & violence, Oblivion might have snuck by the mainstream’s nerd defenses and become a modest hit. As is, it’s an underappreciated gem of slickly-produced, admirably uncool nerd-ass shit I wish I would have seen big & loud when I had the chance, contemporary reviews be damned.
I should also note that this film predicts that the 2017 Superbowl will be the last before Earth falls into chaos. So, if you’re looking to clear those physical media queues before we all bite the dust, now would be a great time to get started.