Post-apocalyptic Tom Cruise still knows how to smirk, still runs funny, and people will still hate him for it!

Before I watched Oblivion I heard it was bad, even terrible. I decided to watch it anyway, thinking, “this will probably be rough, but I’m in the mood for some crap.” About a third of the way through the film I realized that I was enjoying it. That I thought there were many aspects to it that were well-done. I thought, “People hated this film? Really? WHY?”

Oblivion is science fiction. Sci-fi films need to be judged on two levels: one, in how it relates to all of cinema, and the other, obviously, in how it relates to its genre. Sci-fi films almost never do very well in the former evaluation. Why? Partially because of what a sci-fi film has to do in order to be sci-fi: it has to create a world. Even the most subtle sci-fi is still dependent on a slightly different reality than the one we live in, a projection into a possible future. And  this needs to be established, which takes time and finesse. This often leads to some lulls in the story, or some gaps in the story, or some absurdities, all of which collude to keep sci-fi films, in most cases, from being among the very best films. Notable exceptions are out there, of course, but I’ll allow you to make your own list. Oblivion can’t be great cinema: like most expansive sci-fi films, it relies on skipping past important points (of logic, of narrative, of plausibility). I suppose, in a sense, almost all cinema does that to a certain degree, but the extent to which sci-fi does puts it at an instant disadvantage.

Now if we compare Oblivion to other sci-fi films, it’s going to fare much better. It relies on classic motifs that, while not original, establish some of the big questions that sci-fi is often wrestling with: what is our relationship to our planet and our resources; when do we go from having the machines serve us to the point where we serve the machines; what makes us human when we confront the possibility of other lifeforms? Next, it has some very careful and engaging aesthetics: we expect the future, especially the dystopian future, to look different, so a well-designed aesthetic goes a long way to making a sci-fi film an enjoyable experience for us. Oblivion really played with contrasts: light colors and clean, sleek silhouettes for the “good guys” and all their gear; black, ragged lines, dirt, and shadow for the “bad guys.” This was played out as well in the dichotomy between what was going on in the sky and what was going on down on earth: paradise vs hell-on-earth. Again, none of this is original, but these are the staples of sci-fi.

I’d like to dwell on the aesthetics for a moment to say two things: first, I think that there was some of the most beautiful and fresh play with landscape that I’ve seen in a very long time, at least in sci-fi. The way Earth is represented (after the destruction of the moon, the following chaos, and planetary invasion) was visually stunning. It was not the cornucopia of Avatar (which was just a rip-off of Fern Gully) but it was still beautiful and rich. It make the blue-grey planet of Prometheus seem easy and uninspired. In this sense, I really admire Joseph Kosinski and his art direction team. My second point is that there are so many wonderful allusions to great sci-fi films of the past, showing that what might seem like “lack of originality” can also be thought of as encomium and homage. Again, I’ll let you do your own spotting, though I hope you’ll catch the brief and clever nod to the original Planet of the Apes.

So why did people hate this movie? I admit, freely, that there are some very corny moments in the script that, on their own, prevent it from being a great movie, even among sci-fi peers. I also admit that for some people it will just be too familiar to be interesting. And I can even understand if the acting is never terribly inspired, keeping audience members from being completely taken in. But these caveats aren’t enough to warrant the feedback I’d heard from friends and acquaintances. No, the truth is that people hate Tom Cruise. Not everyone, of course, but a significant number of people feel strongly enough about him that his films will struggle to be taken seriously.

Yesterday I got into some debates about this. The reasoning was varied, but yet still circling a central point: Tom Cruise is a crazy ego maniac, who promotes a cult and probably believes in aliens, and along the way says horrible things in public, doing harm to a certain degree. Okay. I don’t like Tom Cruise much. I despise Scientology and all it represents. And I think the combination of the two has been mostly bad. But I have to ask myself if that warrants the bashing of a film that has almost nothing to do with any of that. I can sit through a Leonardo DiCaprio film and still judge it, I believe, fairly; others can’t do it with Tom Cruise? Is that fair, or in the case of professional critics, is it responsible to let those feelings alter how we critique a film? I worry that maybe this is a bourgeois attitude, to sit back and say, “We can’t judge this film based on the horrible mania and politics of the incredibly rich actor who will get richer from this film.” But at the same time, I can’t see saying something is of bad quality when it is not. Oblivion is a pretty decent sci-fi film, and that’s not dependant on whether you hate Tom Cruise or not. People can choose to boycott the film, blast the director for casting Cruise, or any number of other actions. But saying it’s a bad film when it isn’t? That’s disingenuous.

So, last thoughts: part cliché, part homage; a bit cheesy while still earnest in its meditations; nothing surprising, but comforting in that regard; generally fun dystopian sci-fi thriller. Hate Tom Cruise if you want, but don’t hate the film for that. Even if it was horrible, though, I probably could have watched it just for Olga Kurylenko’s face. Morgan Freeman is fun too. Who were the others? I dunno, I forgot them. TOM SMIRKS.