Movie Review: Oblivion

Right off the bat, let’s get something out of the way. Oblivion isn’t a particularly original film. WALL•E, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind,  Planet of the Apes, 2001, Blade Runner, the overlooked Moon, and most blatantly, Total Recall - you’ll see, ah - homages - to all of them as the 2-hour Oblivion, co-written, produced and directed by Joseph Kosinski, unfolds. 

That being said, there are at least three reasons why I recommend seeing this film. One, for all its borrowings, it’s not a bad film. In a weird way, even though many elements are borrowed, the plot is original in its construction, and it deftly (but too neatly to be a good sci-fi tale) ties up all its mysteries at the end. Two, Tom Cruise is the highest-paid actor in Hollywood and it’s easy to see why. He’s in almost every frame and puts in a terrific performance. Three: Oblivion was mixed using Dolby Atmos. You’re not familiar with Atmos? Read on.

If you wisely see this film in Atmos, you will experience the true state of the art sound design and theatrical playback. Atmos, devised by Dolby which knows a thing or two about movie sound, is a surround-sound format that allows an unlimited number of audio tracks to be mixed for film, for playback over up to 64 loudspeakers (the actual number depends on the theater itself). Because of the greater number of channels, sound can be more precisely located in the soundfield and because of the positioning of the speakers, the soundfield is more enveloping. For example, side-wall speakers provide a more seamless transition as sound moves on and off the screen and extra behind-screen speakers give better coverage with large screens. Most interesting, speakers on the ceiling literally give a new dimension to soundtrack designers.

In Oblivion, when the bubble plane makes its approach and circles overhead, you really do hear the engine whine panning over the ceiling. Likewise, effects like rain on a roof are properly placed above you. When you hear effects such as the omnipresent low rumbles of thunder over and around you, the roar of a ghostly crowd in a ruined stadium fade away behind you, and the cavernous reverberation in a subterranean library, you are exactly there - in that acoustic environment.

You can tell the sound designers had fun. For the drones, they created a language of tones; an “evil R2-D2” form of communication that is menacing and threatening when necessary, lighter in tone when not in attack mode. Because the movie takes place post-nuclear war (we learn that humans won the battle against aliens, but lost the planet) there are no natural sounds in the desolate landscapes. Birds, animals and insects have been almost completely destroyed. So the landscapes sonics are enhanced with just the sound of wind and air, that sweeps around the audience.

The sound effects are terrific, but I particularly liked how Atmos opens creative possibilities for film music playback. The techno score by French band M83 in collaboration with Joseph Trapanese is a perfect fit for the film, and Atmos. In the opening scenes, under an indoor scene, the music is mixed conservatively in the front of the theater. As the scene moves outdoors, the music expands to full surround, complementing the expansive landscape. At one point, the score features M83’s Anthony Gonzalez’s rapid-fire, pointillistic organ notes; they wonderfully appear discretely sprinkled throughout the speaker constellation overhead. Moreover, because the speakers are full range, the accompanying organ pedal tones are also accurately placed in the soundfield.

It’s my strong personal opinion that Atmos audio playback is far more interesting than 3D video playback. 3D is already wearing thin for me, but I can’t wait to hear the next Atmos film. Support quality audio mixing and playback. Instead of paying extra for 3D, choose to pay extra for Atmos. Whatever you say about Hollywood, it listens carefully to its cash register. At least Atmos won’t give you a headache.

Here’s something else to consider: When you see a movie, you don’t know if you’ll walk into the smallest and crappiest room in the multiplex, or the best room. If you ante up another few bucks and choose an Atmos room, you’re guaranteed one of the best rooms in the house. For that reason alone, even if you’re not an audio connoisseur, it’s worth the upcharge.

The number of theaters equipped with Atmos is small but growing (for example, about 450 rooms worldwide will be online in time for Iron Man 3). For now, Atmos mixed films can only be experienced in commercial movie theaters. But, it’s an open secret that Dolby will roll out Atmos to home theaters. When will that day come? Who knows. But it’ll probably be when there is a sufficient back catalog of Atmos movies to make it worthwhile. Another selfish reason to see Oblivion.

If you’ve never heard of Atmos, or heard Atmos, Oblivion is a great opportunity to get up to speed. Check your local listings, make sure you find a room equipped with Atmos (the AMC chain calls it “ETX”) and be prepared to hear true surround sound.

And Oblivion? A solid effort. But next time, I hope the filmmakers man- and woman-up and bypass the easy and wellworn paths, and trust in their own creative exploration. And of course, mix it with Atmos.