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Oblivion: A Case Study in Dogpile Criticism

August 6, 2013

Hello all. Mark here.

Oblivion movie poster

Oblivion Spoiler Alert!

The point of this post is to analyze why critics chose to dog pile on Oblivion and point out how unoriginal this original story was.

Nicolas Cage recently sat down with Empire magazine to record a podcast. In that podcast the great Roger Ebert came up in the discussion. Cage stated that he was one of the few critics who judged a film on it’s own merits and didn’t include pop culture references in regards to the film. He let it stand on it’s own and didn’t take actor’s personal lives into account when reviewing the film. The podcast got me thinking about the dogpile criticism heaped upon Oblivion. 

Oblivion is sitting at 56% on Rotten Tomatoes and that is understandable. It focuses more on style than substance.  My problem with the criticism is the lack of imagination and dog pile mentality put upon this film.  If you look back at the last five years, every single science fiction film has the DNA of prior films. Even the best films Source Code,  Hanna, Attack the Block, Safety Not Guaranteed, Dredd, Chronicle, Sunshine, District 9, Jumper (yeah yeah I know), and my personal favorite Moon are familiar to a degree. I absolutely loved Source Code but it could be compared to Groundhog Day meets Twelve Monkeys. In a few short months Cruise will be back in the film Edge of Tomorrow (based on a 2009 Japanese novel) which is similar to Source Code and is about a solider who gets killed and resurrected everyday. Will critics compare it to Source Code not knowing it was written in 2009?

I read a lot of movie criticism. I appreciate the various viewpoints and occasional elegant prose used to review good, bad and classic cinema. While reading reviews for Oblivion I picked up on an alarming trend. The criticism ranged from lazy, mediocre to angry. Words like cover band, grab bag, derivative, cult religion, mishmash, clichés and to show they know big words GORMLESS. In the “gormless” review the critic gives away a massive plot point in the first paragraph in an attempt to be funny.

There are multiple religion slams and the reviewers simply seem annoyed by Cruise and the film. Rotten Tomatoes exclaims Cruise’s performance as solid while many other critics say he lacks chemistry with the actresses and he gives the film nothing.   Also, more often than not the reviewers had no clue Oblivion is based on a graphic novel written in 2005. The lack of research and easy criticism boggled my mind as movies that are not nearly as ambitious get a pass due to likable actors and familiarity.

For example, the Amazing Spider Man. Amazing was a reboot of a series that ended six years ago. Watching the film felt familiar yet it had an RT score of 73% and featured this critical summary “A well-chosen cast and sure-handed direction allow The Amazing Spider-Man to thrill, despite REVISITING MANY of the SAME plot points from 2002’s Spider-Man.” The movie featured montages straight out of Footloose, repeated the Uncle Ben death and copied a similar moment from Spider Man 2 (Crane operators help Spidey in Amazing and Subway patrons help Spidey in 2). The only reason it was made was so the rights didn’t revert back to Marvel. So, we get a prepackaged and familiar film that was celebrated while a new idea was called “unoriginal.”

Dog pile criticism is nothing new. When an auteur or actor (Tom Cruise) shows weakness the blades come out. For instance, I never thought I’d see the day where critics blast a Terrence Malick film. The enigma of a director rarely makes films yet they are always beautiful. However, To The Wonder is getting harped on by critics who started sharpening their axes on Tree of Life. Maybe I am weird but movies like  Oblivion and Tree of Life made perfect sense. I remember walking out of the theater and hearing people breaking down the cosmic world building of Tree of Life. They were looking into it too much because ToL is the simple story of a man pondering life, death and creation on the anniversary of his brother’s death. The dreamy camera movement signified memories brought up by the sad day. It is not confusing, I just think people don’t want to think abstractly. Tree of Life cracked the door for criticism and To The Wonder burst it open.

When you watch a science fiction film you know what to expect. Spaceships, robots, drones, clones, lasers, plunging neck lines, cool outfits, aliens and much more. So, saying Oblivion resembles other films is too easy. Mass critical reception lacked imagination and was oddly angry at times. It reminded me of the critical coverage that doomed John Carter before it was released. Wesley Morris of Grantland explained it like this:

This is what John Carter could have been, and yet Oblivion could have been so much more. Kosinski doesn’t build a new world. He’s just reupholstered a bunch of old ones.

How is that any different from whats comes out now? I’m not saying it is right, I just think the majority of cinema reupholsters old ideas and concepts. Here are the science fiction films from the last five years (Day breakers, Hot Tub Time Machine, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Iron Man 2, Book of Eli, Iron Man 3, Star Trek into Darkness, The Crazies, Predators, Resident Evil: Afterlife, Skyline, Underworld 4, Tron 2, Hulk, Captain America, Thor,  The Adjustment Bureau, Cowboys & Aliens, The Darkest Hour, Battle: Los Angeles, I Am Number Four, In Time, Paul, Real Steel, The Thing, Prometheus, Battleship, Never Let Me Go, Resident Evil: Retribution, Men in Black 3, Total Recall, I am Legend, The Road,  AVPR, Superman Returns, Terminator Salvation, Gamer and  Doomsday). All of these films share reupholstered ideas so why was Oblivion singled out so badly?

Oblivion creates a startlingly real world courtesy of on location shooting in Iceland and Kosinski’s background as an architect. He builds beautiful vistas and knows how to make them shiny and awe inspiring.There are moments in this film that make your jaw drop and those moments totally justify the price of admission.


Many swipes have been taken at Cruise and Riseborough’s high tech base camp. However, did they not realize it was the home of two clones who have been programmed to live a simple life. The sleek edges and apple store vibe are appropriate given the circumstances. Cruise’s spaceship is also a practical tool with it’s 360 view swivel mounted guns. There is nothing wrong with the ship but it didn’t stop critics from saying it looked like “sperm.” As much as I love film criticism it boggles my mind how inconsistent it is.

Oblivion stands alongside Tron: Legacy, Life of Pi, Skyfall and Hugo as the five best looking films of the last five years. Kosinski may have trouble creating three dimensional characters but he is only two films into his directing tenure. The characters might be empty but his films are full of grand ambition and senses pleasing imagery.

We live in a dull movie landscape of remakes, prequels, reboots, sequels, adaptations and reimaginings. Why not appreciate something familiar yet beautiful?

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