Directed by: Joseph Kosinski || Produced by: Sean Bailey, Jeffrey Silver, Steven Lisberger , Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Duncan Henderson, Joseph Kosinski, Barry Levine 
Screenplay by: Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz , Karl Gajdusek, Michael deBruyn  || Starring: Garrett Hedlund, Jeff Bridges, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, James Frain, Beau Garrett, Michael Sheen , Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo 
Music by: Daft Punk , Anthony Gonzalez, Joseph Trapanese  || Cinematography: Claudio Miranda || Edited by: James Haygood , Richard Francise-Bruce  || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 124-125 minutes || 1 = Tron: Legacy, 2 = Oblivion
Few people, including cinephiles, follow many filmmakers from their directorial debut; for most of us, a given film will catch our attention due to its premise, cast, screenwriter, or the larger Hollywood or awards-circuit hype-machine, and thereafter we’ll dive into that particular director’s filmography should our first exposure to their work impress. Robert Eggers (The Witch , The Lighthouse , The Northman ) and S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk , Brawl in Cell Block 99 , Dragged Across Concrete ) are the only recent exceptions to this rule for me I can think of off the top of my head. More or less all other noteworthy filmmakers I’ve followed throughout my cinephilia, including my favorites (e.g. James Cameron, David Fincher, Denis Villeneuve), I’ve appreciated in full only “after the fact.”
Exhibit No. 274 in that category (approximately… ) is Joseph Kosinksi, whose fourth feature, Top Gun: Maverick (2022), took the global box office by storm this year as the latest Hollywood reboot to live up to the hype and surpass all previous respective franchise work (see also: Fury Road ). Educated as an architect and with an extensive background in special FX, Kosinski’s deliverance of only the second post-pandemic $1 billion+ grosser and what is likely the highest grossing movie of 2022 was prefaced by his admirable work on earlier blockbusters like Oblivion, based on his original unpublished graphic novel, and Tron: Legacy, a soft reboot of the 1982 cult science-fiction adventure, Tron.
As I stated in my review of Top Gun 2 (why can’t modern Hollywood sequels use numbers?), I never had much interest in the original Tron and as of this year still have not seen it; I was introduced to the property via a memorable Simpsons (1989-) gag and every screenshot, trailer, and online video-review of the 1982 film has made me less interested in it, not more. I’ve had the opposite experience with Legacy, intrigued by the sequel’s moody, noir-ish lighting and vibrant neon visuals, not to mention samples of Daft Punk’s killer score. I didn’t see the film in full, however, until after Top Gun 2’s massive success and my first blind Blu-Ray purchase in almost a decade.
That impulse buy was worth it from a cinematographic standpoint — the vast majority (see below for the lone exception) of its extravagant special FX hold up to this day, and Kosinski’s memorable blend of practical sets with extensive computer generated imagery (CGI), those aforementioned neon visuals, and creative costumes are wholly immersive — but much less so from a broader storytelling point-of-view. Legacy boasts a clear auteur vision thanks to Kosinski’s dedicated, consistent audiovisual style across both its more dialogue-heavy, dramatic scenes and its action set-pieces, which is a laudable attribute most contemporary Hollywood blockbusters from The Fast and the Furious (2001-) to your average superhero movie lack. The camerawork feels Fincher-esque, with no handheld cinematography I can recall and an overwhelming reliance on motion-controlled, CGI, or static tripod shots throughout the film.
When Legacy stops for its father-son bonding moments and heartfelt characterizations, though (its story is based atop an estranged parent-child relationship between protagonist Garett Hedlund and Jeff Bridges’ older, wiser franchise character from the first Tron), Legacy feels like a missed opportunity. Hedlund gives a solid performance in the prologue set in the real world and is a decent fish-out-of-water main character, but his development and dialogue stall the longer he’s in the Grid (i.e. the shiny, neon videogame-world); Bridges’ double-roles as both a heroic legacy character and the primary villain are inconsistent, as he’s not given enough screentime with Hedlund for the former and the early attempts at digital de-aging FX for the latter make even Disney’s later attempts with Peter Cushing and Carrie Fischer in Rogue One (2016) or Mark Hamill in The Mandalorian (2019-) look acceptable. Making matters worse is Olivia Wilde, whom I’ve never cared for as an actress (e.g. House [2007-2012], Cowboys & Aliens ), whose flavorless female lead feels like an obligatory studio executive-mandate to have least one noteworthy female role in the entire movie.
While Legacy established Kosinski’s control of special FX and notable Hollywood intellectual properties, Oblivion served as his introduction to Tom Cruise, perhaps the most powerful producer-star in Tinseltown since at least the new millennium, as well as original storytelling at the feature-film level. The story is post-apocalyptic in scope, set after a devastating extraterrestrial invasion that left earth barren and near uninhabitable, where Cruise and costar Andrea Riseborough act as temporary stewards of the planet’s remaining resources before humanity abandons the planet for good. While it’s clear from the outset not all is as this premise seems, the screenplay’s Ray Bradbury-esque diegesis unfolds at a patient, natural pace like Legacy and, when taking into account Kosinski’s masterful execution of Top Gun 2, implies the man keeps tight control of his films’ feature-length editing even when those stories’ character arcs leave much to be desired.
Most of Oblivion’s major weaknesses have to do with those aforementioned characterizations, also like that Tron sequel. Cruise’s relatable lead works well in a utilitarian sort of way like most of his signature roles, but the supporting cast portrayed by Morgan Freeman, Nikolaj Coster-Waldeau, and Olga Kurylenko in particular are bland as fuck. On the other hand, minor criticisms could also be lobbied at the the film’s mediocre action scenes, which, though more dependent on location-photography and practical FX than your average blockbuster, at best feel like second-grade prototypes of the well tuned flight sequences in Top Gun 2.
Tron: Legacy and Oblivion are thus best summarized as interesting yet flawed high-concept exercises Joseph Kosinski used as learning tools prior to his ascension to Hollywood superstardom with Top Gun 2. I enjoyed both of them and am even satisfied with my blind purchase of the former on physical media, but I’d think twice before I recommend either of them to viewers uninterested in science-fiction in general. As a pair, the two films struggle with characterizations outside their protagonists, their supporting casts leave much to be desired, and their female leads are empty to the point where they needed either the most charismatic actresses to supersede their clichés or to be written out of their respective scripts altogether. Those weaknesses are a shame, because otherwise Kosinski’s debut and sophomore features contain fully realized fictional worlds whose artistic design beckon for stronger, more creative stories.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Joseph Kosinski’s first two films feel like the larval and pupal stages of his transformation into a Hollywood blockbuster filmmaker. Given that he transitioned from special FX work and short films directly into feature-length, massive budgeted productions, Tron: Legacy and Oblivion’s technical prowess, consistent cinematographic vision, and lackluster human elements make sense. Their cinematic structure relates to their function, and their function is to immerse their audience audiovisually but not, I argue, emotionally.
—> ON THE FENCE
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