Good news first; the new Tom Cruise science fiction blockbuster Oblivion looks absolutely stunning. Shot on the latest HD wonder camera from Sony that can withstand being blown up to IMAX size without losing detail and directed by architecture-student-turned-Tron: Legacy filmmaker Joseph Kosinski, it’s a visual marvel as pretty as Hollywood can afford.
With Tom Cruise headlining, the budget was clearly limited only by Kosinski’s imagination and he creates a vivid world of rotting 20
century architecture and a slick techno future designed by Apple and Ikea in a nightmare. Unfortunately once the intriguing premise steps aside for a disappointing conclusion, it’s clear those pretty pictures are all the film has to offer. At a certain point all Tom Cruise movies must be about Tom Cruise chasing and shooting bad guys, so any ideas that Oblivion’s screenplay tries to offer up eventually take a back seat to that deteriorating pleasure.
Things start off well though. Cruise stars as one of those “last men on earth” characters. Following a nuclear war against a mysterious alien enemy, Earth has been left in ruins with humanity’s last survivors taking up residence in a space station hovering above the planet. Earth is still being mined of its remaining resources to both protect the survivors and destroy the planet for the alien scavengers (or Scavs) who remain. There are two humans left on the planet to supervise this transition, Cruise as the man on the ground protecting the planet-scarfing devices and his British wife Andrea Riseborough who supervises his activity from a house in the clouds while dealing with a perky Southern-lilted commander on a computer screen played by Melissa Leo. Cruise’s memory was wiped before the mission to minimize his sentimentality for a lost world and his existence with his pretty wife seems ideal…perhaps a little too perfect. One day he finds a crashed ship with a mysterious woman inside (Olga Kurylenko) who stirs up memories from his lost past. For some reason, all the machine-gun packing circular drones supervising the earth’s mining want to blow up Kurylenko and the other survivors, but Cruise saves the pretty lady and tries to bring her home. Riseborough freaks out and when Cruise returns to the crash site to find the flight recording, he’s kidnapped by the scabs who are revealed to possibly be a underground human resurgence run by Morgan Freeman (and with that voice how could you not believe him?). That’s when things get complicated for Cruise. Allegiances are tested, expensive action sequences to follow.
For about an hour or so, Kosinski and co. get away with Oblivion. The apocalyptic world the director whipped up is exquisitely designed and the concepts are intriguing. The trouble is that as the story wears on, the film’s many sci-fi influences go from being name-checked to full on Xeroxing. Scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix Trilogy, Wall-e, Star Wars, The Phantom Menace, and even The Road Warrior play out almost beat-by-beat without any variation. Kosinski wants to create a think-piece sci-fi blockbuster, but doesn’t know how to pull it off beyond stealing from previous examples of the genre. For the first hour that’s fairly minimal with Cruise’s sterile, manufactured world and mysterious origin offering enough genuine intrigue to succeed. Since he plays an idealized human chosen for a special mission, it’s not even distracting to see Cruise in the role (unlike…say…Jack Reacher). Andrea Riseborough is fantastic as his steely super-wife and her relationship with Melissa Leo’s pseudo-HAL is disconcertingly creepy. It starts to feel like Kosinski might be building to something interesting. Then Olga Kurylenko shows up and the wheels fall off.
From the moment Kurylenko’s body falls from the sky, Cruise steps into action hero mode and never returns. He stops wondering through the intriguing rotting landmarks of an old world that he’s trying to piece together through broken memories and starts mindlessly shooting at drones and engaging in high speed canyon chases. Nothing wrong with action scenes in a blockbuster, these just feel tired and uninspired. Kurylenko adds little beyond supermodel beauty despite playing the character who will redeem the hero/humanity. When Morgan Freeman pops up in sunglasses to not only explain the truth, but play a vaguely mystical underground hero like Morpheus from The Matrix, the movie heads to stupid copycat land and never returns. Feel like seeing the pod race from Phantom Menace again? You will. How about the space virus finale from Independence Day, the star baby from 2001 or the machine-face stand off from Matrix Revolutions? Don’t worry they’re here too. When all the secrets are revealed there is a nice and fairly fresh idea at the center of this mystery, but Kosinski wastes too much time with rip off red herrings to get there. Clichés pile on clichés and eventually watching the bad guys blow up becomes tedious. Even when a satisfying ending is reached, a thoroughly unnecessary sentimental coda is tacked on to ensure no one in the audience goes home happy.
There’s probably a thoughtful mid-budget sci-fi movie that Kosinski could have mined from the material that got piddled away once Cruise signed on and the action had to increase to justify the budget. Kosinski’s ideas that work and expensive visuals lead to huge passages of an interesting movie that only serve to make the cop outs and rip offs cut that much deeper. Despite the director’s ambitions, Oblivion is ultimately a big dumb movie with delusions of grandeur. It could have been more, but bad writing and blockbuster expansion soon killed that dream. Still, Kosinski knows visuals if nothing else, so it’s a satisfyingly glossy experience in IMAX. However, instead of lamenting the film that wasn’t, I’d like to suggest a way to enjoy the movie that is. Buy a ticket for an IMAX screening and stay in your seat until Kurylenko arrives. Then take a 45-minute bathroom break and return to watch Cruise fly to space and have the plot explained. Once it feels like the movie is over, sprint out of the theater before the coda can ruin it. Sure, that’s not an ideal way to watch the movie, but if you time things right you might be able to trick your brain into thinking you watched the movie that Kosinski wishes he made.