What if WALL-E were a live-action movie starring Tom Cruise?
Obviously, Joseph Kosinski’s multilayered sci-fi concoction Oblivion
is about much more than that. But this one-line pitch could have been a nice entranceway into a beautifully shot and well-paced action thriller for parents and kids… if not for a few unfortunate (and dare I say gratuitous) Red Flags – which we’ll touch on below.
For the time being, though, let’s board our bubbleship, repair a broken drone, stare down Morgan Freeman (with his bizarre, face-hugging sunglasses) and figure out when you can watch Oblivion with your kids.
Green Lights: “Are you still an effective team?”
Oblivion takes place in a distant future, during a time when our planet has been damaged and largely evacuated due to an interplanetary war. As is explained in an opening monologue (so don’t view these as spoilers), an alien race that had bled its own planet dry attacks us by destroying our moon. The effect that has on our planet is devastating, with the population succumbing to tsunamis, earthquakes and other natural disasters. Before the survivors can get settled, the aliens attack. We fend them off with nukes… but the planet is ravaged in the process.
Great premise. The image of our shattered moon is the first of many breathtaking sci-fi visuals Kosinki laces through Oblivion. At the very least, Oblivion is ALWAYS gorgeous to look at.
Cruise plays Jack, a “government” employee assigned to repairing security drones scattered around the planet. The drones are protecting larger devices that are pulling moisture from the planet. (At least, that’s what I think they are doing.) Cruise keeps them online, though he and his partner, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), are told by their superior (Melissa Leo) that their work will be finished in two weeks, and they’ll be able to join Earth’s remaining survivors on one of Saturn's moons.
Like I said, great premise. Because if you think Jack and Victoria are going to have a smooth final two weeks, you don’t watch or read much science-fiction. I don’t want to get into what obstacles they incur. Those should be discovered for themselves. But I’ll touch on things that worked (and didn’t work) in the Red and Green sections.
The action in Oblivion is a selling point. Kosinski, who directed TRON: Legacy, draws inspiration from everything from Star Wars to Blade Runner when building his world. And it’s an amazing world to explore. Parents who bring their kids to the theaters to check out Oblivion should spring for the IMAX ticket, because Kosinski once was an architect before transitioning to filmmaking, and his eye for production value and scenery is dazzling.
Parents also can have some fascinating conversations with their kids about the possibility of the premise in Oblivion happening. For once, I’m glad that most of the “war” story is told and not shown, because even when characters are attacked by the drones, it never comes off as a gratuitously violent movie.
Kosinski, like all good sci-fi storytellers, impresses with his imaginative toys. Cruise pilots a sleek bubbleship for most of the movie. Occasionally he races around barren terrains on a futuristic motorcycle. Jack’s headquarters in the sky is a stylish lair, and a fight scene late in the film might be Cruise’s most original fight of his lengthy career.
In general, the movie just comes off as cool… so long as kids can keep up with the relatively dense sci-fi plot.
So why can’t I wholeheartedly recommend it for all audiences? Didn’t I compare it to WALL-E?! Read on…
Red Flags: “We are not an effective team.”
The Oblivion plot is dense, and Kosinski doesn’t suffer fools as he barrels through his material. This is the kind of movie where, if your attention wanders for one or two key passages of dialogue, you might be lost and have a very hard time catching up. Like the best science fiction, Oblivion requires your full attention for a full two hours. Ask yourself: is my kid prepared for that?
Here are a few other things your kids might not be prepared for. Perhaps because they want to appeal to an older crowd, Cruise gets multiple love scenes with Riseborough and the beautiful Olga Kurylenko (whose character is crucial to the plot, though I can’t tell you why). There’s a little bit of indirect nudity… but also no real need for these scenes. I hate that they are in here, because they add little to the overall story.
There’s language scattered through Oblivion, the worst being a well-timed “F” bomb during the film’s climactic showdown. And young kids could be upset – instead of awed – by the shots of our national landmarks (from the National Monument to the Statue of Liberty) in ruin. But in light of some of the more recent stories in the news, war on our planet might not come off as the diversion from reality Kosinski hoped it would be when Oblivion was going through production.
Because of a few noticeable Red Flags, from the language to the gratuitous sex scenes, Oblivion should be reserved for an older audience… which is unfortunate because – on a personal level – I think my nine-year-old son really would have grooved on the premise of the movie and the beautiful scope of the postapocalyptic imagery Kosinski captures with his cameras.
This isn’t an “introduction to sci-fi” movie. This is catered to regular fans of the genre, and they will find plenty to enjoy in the screenplay and visuals, but parents might want to hold off if their children are under the age of 13.
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That with My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Hugo, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Elf, to name just a few.