Standing all by itself on the movie release calendar, Oblivion has a lot riding on it. For starters, the film predates After Earth, another science fiction film coming out in May 2013, dealing with two people stranded on a post-apocalyptic Earth long after mankind has escaped an uninhabitable home planet. After another steady stream of PR headaches, Tom Cruise has seen his once unparalleled box office run begin to come back to (ahem) Earth in the last few years. If you ignore Cruise’s work with the Mission: Impossible franchise, Cruise has not had a movie earn more than $83 million domestically since War of the Worlds in 2005. And from 1992 to 2005, Cruise saw 12 of his 14 films clear $100 million. So, after Valkyrie, Knight and Day, and last December’s Jack Reacher underwhelmed audiences, has the mighty truly fallen?
A film like Oblivion is sure designed, from the very last CGI mouse click to the last bolt screwed into the set, to restore Cruise to his top shelf celebrity status. Appearing or present in virtually every scene, Cruise plays Jack Harper (a/k/a TECH 49), a maintenance worker who extracts resources and repairs security drones in and around the few habitable areas remaining on Earth. Jack must always be mindful of the threats from Scavs – aliens who invaded the planet and were integral in the nuclear apocalypse which destroyed much of Earth. With just a couple of weeks left in his five-year assignment, his co-worker and girlfriend Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) has divested herself of their work and is ready to move into the next chapter of her life with Jack. Wrapping up things in a home she shares with Jack, thousands of feet above the Earth’s surface, she looks forward to joining the remaining human race on TET, a safe haven for human beings orbiting near Saturn.
During work hours, Victoria is in constant contact with Sally (Melissa Leo), the mission control commander who, via video transmission, helps coordinate whatever Jack and Victoria need in their day-to-day operations and living arrangements. When the TET connection shuts off for the night, the couple share meals and moments, take romantic swims in a beautifully lit pool, and Victoria waxes poetic about their future together.
Jack is burdened with something he cannot quite comprehend. Seemingly without provocation, a haunting vision begins to dominate his thoughts the closer it comes to concluding his work. A beautiful woman, the Empire State Building, a classic coin-operated viewfinder, a stuffed animal, lots and lots of people — these visions arrest Jack and distract him. As Victoria nudges and/or pushes Jack towards their future, the memories bounce back more vivid and arresting. What do they mean? Why are they happening? And who is that woman Jack feels a connection with?
Oblivion is an interesting puzzle to break apart. but in all actuality, putting it back together is a rather simple endeavor. The concepts are intriguing and the screenplay, adapted from director Joseph Kosinski’s unpublished graphic novel and co-authored with Karl Gajdusek (Trespass) and Oscar-winner Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3), tosses in some twists and turns which grab you in the moment. But only for that moment. Kosinski is either paying tribute to personal favorites from his sci-fi movie collection or is shamelessly ripping off moments from influential science fiction stories. Each time the film looks fresh and unique, something occurs which makes you recall something you have seen somewhere else.
That criticism however does not necessarily disqualify Oblivion as a good movie. In fact, I did find myself getting lost in it for a great deal of its running time. Cruise is quite terrific in the role and while he doesn’t completely transform out of his celebrity, he balances the requisite drama and intensity expertly well. Kosinski earns strong performances from most of his main cast with Andrea Riseborough evoking genuine comparisons to Kate Winslet here and Olga Kurylenko effective as the mysterious woman who moves from dream-like vision to confounding reality. Thankfully, Morgan Freeman is engaged and awake here (not napping on screen as he did in the recent Olympus Has Fallen) as the leader of a reclusive group of human beings secretly trying to survive in the desolate and barren Earth.
Kosinski’s visual presentation is impressive, but only adds fuel to the “cover band” mentality of the film, one which does not easily go away. The drones, which Jack must repair and maintain, seem like they were discarded from a Star Wars theme park ride. Morgan Freeman’s scenes evoke the Mad Max films. Excessive radiation pockets all around Jack as he works calls to mind Logan’s Run. For the kids, a scene looks directly lifted from Pixar’s Oscar-winner WALL-E. And don’t get me started on the countless nods and winks to arguably the greatest science-fiction film of all time – Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kosinski simply cannot contain himself I suppose.
And yet, there is a unique visual and aural beauty about Oblivion. A key factor in how much you like the film may come with your response to the polarizing score from Anthony Gonzalez’s collaboration with Joseph Trapanese. Trapenese, who worked with electronic duo Daft Punk for Kosinski’s TR0N: Legacy builds a sonic landscape with Gonzalez that is intermittently soaring and emotional and misplaced and disarming. Gonzalez, the Grammy-nominated leader of electro-rock group M83, has made his mark crafting spacey and synthesized rock and roll. Occasionally Oblivion feels important, big, and enigmatic, especially in the opening scenes with the Gonzalez/Trapenese score contributing to that feeling. However, when the film needs to tamper down its energy and reach for emotion, the score is too ominous, too present, contrasting and distracting from the beautiful production design we are witnessing.
I was not much of a fan of TR0N:Legacy, finding much of the film empty and vacant despite an outstanding visual appeal. I imagine many might feel the same way with Oblivion, but there is some marked improvement here. Joseph Kosinski feels like he is close to delivering a well-rounded and complete cinematic experience. Clearly, he dreams big and envisions bigger. What holds Oblivion back from greatness is the easy reliance on genre-born cliches and those all-too familiar moments, so transparent that even half-hearted science fiction fans will throw up their hands and call back on something they have seen previously.
Ultimately, nothing may appear to be what it seems in Oblivion, but until Kosinski learns you cannot reinvent originality, his films will always fall short of something truly memorable and lasting.