There’s a moment in Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion where I realized I was in for some shit. A fully clothed Tom Cruise (Cocktail) is pulled into a swimming pool by a naked woman. They slowly circle each other, staring into each other’s eyes like horny sharks. Then Cruise takes off his clingy wet t-shirt and just as the shirt gets over his head the BRAAAAAAHM sound from Inception cues in like a hammer striking an anvil. You know the sound, the one that’s been criminally overused in trailers since 2010, which is supposed to drum up intensity. This time it’s to signify that Tom Cruise is about to get his fuck on.
The rest of the film is just as shallow and silly, as well as brazenly derivative of much better sci-fi films, including Moon, Wall-E, and Total Recall. Even echoes of the Bruce Dern eco-power film Silent Running are present. But while those films have strong story lines, Oblivion streamlines the hell out of its own, resulting in a pretentious homage that lacks any identity of its own. The film fails to transcend the sci-fi genre in any way, making for one disappointing experience.
Cruise plays Jack Harper (like Jack Reacher, but different), a working-class schlub who fixes drones that protect machinery extracting vital resources from a devastated Earth. During a lazily delivered opening narration, Jack explains how aliens have knocked our moon out of orbit, triggering tsunamis and earthquakes. While earthlings were dealing with these disasters, the aliens launched a full-scale invasion. We beat them off with nuclear weapons, scorching the planet in the process.
Jack lives with his navigator/lover Victoria (Andre Riseborough) in a slick-looking “skytower.” The house resembles a giant Apple product and rests above the clouds. Victoria is all business and just wants to get their mission the hell over with so they can retire to a lunar colony. But Jack likes going to Earth, where he’s secretly set up a getaway cabin complete with a record collection and basketball hoop. A nice, subtle touch is his found pair of aviator sunglasses – harkening back to Maverick. The mission is running smoothly until a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) starts haunting his dreams. Then when she shows up in reality, everything Jack believed about his “mission” is shot down.
The rest of the film is a lot of explosions, drone fights, and Tom Cruise running. Fact: it’s in his contract that he gets to run at least five miles over the course of a film. Morgan Freeman (Dolphin Tale) plays the leader of an underground gang of rebels on Earth, but his character is terribly underwritten. After his grand appearance, he barely shows up again until the finale. That’s a big problem with this film: it presents all these weighty ideas and characters, then abandons them for more action. Even when the big “twist” is revealed, it seems like Kosinski got tired of that direction while writing the script and moved onto something else.
When there isn’t action going on, characters deliver lengthy bits of exposition. As straightforward and predictable as the plot is, the characters spell out every single plot element and emotion that’s going on. The script shows a real lack of confidence in the audience and in Kosinski as a writer. What the writer/director does do well are the visuals. Oblivion is as dazzling as a sci-fi film can get. He seamlessly mixes the gorgeous vistas of Iceland with well-constructed CGI to create a genuinely organic looking world. The man knows how to stage an action scene too and has a good sense of control during chaotic set pieces.
Besides Cruise, all of the characters are filler. Freeman is pushed aside and the women blandly deliver their lines so Cruise can kick more ass. Stuntwoman extraordinaire Zoe Bell (Death Proof) makes an appearance as part of the rebels and I was like “Oh hey, it’s Zoe Bell.” They don’t do anything with her though. Cruise feels totally empty throughout the film. I’ve always liked him as an actor, but this has got to be one of his laziest performances ever. His narration is reminiscent of Harrison Ford’s infamous voiceover in the original cut of Blade Runner. Yes, it’s that drab. These kind of sluggish performances give the audience nothing to invest in and painfully drags the movie down.
It would’ve been cool if it turned out that Jack was an actual clone of Maverick from Top Gun. There’s the nod to the film with the aviator glasses and Jack is a skilled pilot, so all of the ingredients are there for a mind-melting Top Gun sci-fi crossover! I would’ve liked that movie better.
Oblivion isn’t a bad movie, just highly disappointing. The visuals and action bits are spectacular and Kosinski shows tremendous talent in those realms. There’s no emotion behind the spectacle though and watching it just reminds you of superior films you’d rather be sitting through. Abort this mission until home video release!
- Patrick Cooper