If you see one science-fiction movie this weekend, it should probably be Upstream Color, because, you know, Shane Carruth, and Primer, and holy shit, and etc. But if you see two—or even if it's a few weeks from now and you still want to see something all science-fictional—see Oblivion, because I'm pretty sure Oblivion is going to get lost, and possibly forgotten, and that'd be too bad.
I know that's a weird thing to say about a movie that cost over $100 million to make and is playing at every theater known to man, but here's the thing: I suspect Oblivion will probably be too highbrow for the multiplex crowd (it bears hallmarks of the sort of dumbed-down changes that come after poor test screenings) even as it's too lowbrow for the arthouse crowd (it stars Tom Cruise and is playing at every theater known to man).
Here's why Oblivion getting lost and possibly forgotten would be a bad thing, though: First, it's pretty good, and second, it's something that's becoming extraordinarily rare: a big-budget, high-concept sci-fi flick that isn't a sequel, isn't a remake, isn't a reboot, and doesn't have "THIS IS GOING TO BE A FRANCHISE WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT" written all over it.
We could use some more of those.
Judging by the tepid applause at the advance screening I attended (and the confused mutterings of people wandering out of the theater afterward), Oblivion's going to confuse and surprise some audiences—and when audiences don't get exactly what they're expecting, they tend to shut down. And they certainly don't go and tell all their friends about it.
I always have to check myself that I'm not grading on a curve when I review a big sci-fi movie—science-fiction is my favorite genre, so I always kind of want to like those films. Some of these same thoughts I'm having about Oblivion came up with last year's Cloud Atlas, actually, which is hardly a perfect film—but it's one, I think, that deserves a lot of credit for taking the risks it did. Unless your name is Shane Carruth, making science-fiction films is usually exceedingly expensive; as a result, when we get sci-fi movies, they're usually hollow, dead-eyed, cowardly things, mechanisms engineered to appeal to the widest possible audience, so they ignore all the things that can make science-fiction weird and exciting and unpredictable and challenging. If you're making a movie that's going to cost millions and millions and millions of dollars, you want to make those dollars back—and the way to do that is to give audiences what they want and expect.
That's not to say Oblivion doesn't check all the blockbuster boxes—it's fun, it's melodramatic, it has some great action sequences, it features Morgan Freeman's voice, and, on an IMAX screen with M83 being blasted at your eardrums, it's as audio-visually exhilarating as anything out there. But once you get past all that, it's a movie that aims quite a bit higher than most genre stuff from big studios. (Again, grading on a curve.) Frankly, it's the sort of movie that wouldn't have gotten made if Tom Cruise hadn't decided to be in it, which is why it's too bad that his presence will turn some people away.
Like I said in my review, I don't want to build up expectations too high—Oblivion's good, but it isn't amazing, and it probably won't blow your mind. But it's a solid way to spend a couple of hours, it's made to be seen not on your TV or MacBook but on the biggest screen you can find, and it bodes really well for the future work of director Joseph Kosinski.
Maybe I'm wrong, and Oblivion will hit big and remind studios that expensive, non-franchise science-fiction movies can be both financially viable and creatively rewarding. I'd love for that to be the case—genre films are frequently the force that pushes the rest of filmmaking forward, and the more people who see those films, the better chance they have of pushing. But just as I get sad whenever I have to tell someone who Shane Carruth is, I'm not super optimistic about Oblivion's chances: It's just weird enough to disconcert the mainstream, but not quite weird enough to develop a following. Instead, it's the broken breed of underdog that can only exist in a dogfight as fucked up as Hollywood: It's a big, flashy movie starring the world's biggest movie star, made for over $100 million, and playing on an insane number of screens... that's still at a disadvantage because it doesn't have a "2" after its title.
Plus, the soundtrack's awesome. Even if Anthony Gonzalez is being all petulant and pouty about it.