Oblivion (2013)

oblivion-universal-pict10Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Joseph Kosinski. Screenplay by Karl Gajdusek, Michael deBruyn; based on the graphic novel by Joseph Kosinski. Produced by Joseph Kosinski, Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Barry Levine, Duncan Henderson. Music by M83. Photographed by Claudio Miranda. Edited by Richard Francis-Bruce. Production designed by Darren Gilford. Costumes designed by Marlene Stewart. Starring Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Nikolaj Coster-Waldeau, Melissa Leo.

High above in the clouds sits a command post peopled by two scientists, Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). Having successfully propelled an alien invasion that left Earth and its moon devastated, much of humanity has relocated to a colony near Saturn. The only people left on Earth are Jack and Victoria, their collective task being to ensure the transferal of Earth’s natural resources to the new colony by repairing patrol drones and protecting them from bands of Scavs, alien remnant factions that haunt the bleak landscape like wolves. Jack and Victoria have two weeks left to their shift before they leave Earth behind forever, presuming nothing goes wrong.

This is the intriguing premise of Oblivion, a film that opens with a bold promise of fresh sci-fi that will warm the heart of any genre fan, but then sinks in a quagmire of “been-there, done-that.” It plays less like a fully-formed movie than a compilation of science fiction’s greatest hits, liberally borrowing from a number of classics, some of which are fair to name (Planet of the Apes, Wall-E, 2001, I Am Legend), and others still that would not be. It’s not too much of a spoiler to suggest that things may not be quite as they seem in Oblivion, and that includes its own stance on being something new and exciting.

That’s a shame. Oblivion is not a bad film; it is instead a fair one that with a more focused screenplay, better direction and tighter editing, could really have been something great. The movie greedily stockpiles ideas that it can give only cursory attention to. So thick is the plot with twists and turns suggesting shocking truths that the characters barely have reactions to them. They ultimately provide an engine for a few action sequences when, really, the film should be trying to settle what all of this means.  Curiously (and most frustratingly) for a sci-fi epic, Oblivion raises interesting topics and then ultimately doesn’t really have much to say about them.

The setup is well done, if exposition-heavy. Jack and Victoria are lovers living in domestic tranquility in their outpost, and every day Jack pilots a ship down to the surface and patrols the wasteland. Victoria monitors his progress while reporting to Sally (Melissa Leo), a Mission Control-esque figure commanding a space station in orbit. Sally’s folksy attitude and Stepford smile provoke unease, and Jack already feels uncomfortable about abandoning what he feels is his home. Victoria seems to share the same concerns, but accepts her fate, and perhaps Jack as her hunky consolation prize.

More characters enter after a long-lost spaceship crashes into the planet. One is Julia (Olga Kurylenko), who is either in shock or harboring a secret that would affect everyone. Another discovery is Beech (Morgan Freeman), leader of a band of humans still on the planet, who has a way of speaking in wise, cryptic riddles that Morgan Freeman excels at. Eventually questions are asked about what is really being done on Earth, and with what, and to whom, and it is a mystery that, when revealed, plays fair…but also raises more questions that the film isn’t willing to deal with. The story, which comes from an unpublished graphic novel by Joseph Kosinski and Arvid Nelson (with scripting by Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek and Michael Ardnt) is just too familiar.

The performances are stiff and functional, and although that may be on purpose, it does not render the proceedings compelling. Cruise, who is usually dependable as a confused man pummeled by reality, feels adrift in a leaden performance, and Kurylenko is so passive she mainly exists to hurry the story, not connect with it. Freeman feels less like a character and more like a talisman for summoning quick profundity. The best thing in the film is Riseborough, who seems cold at first but she suggests hidden layers that coil through the narrative, especially when she keeps appearing in unexpected ways.

Kosinski, who also directed, previously helmed 2010’s Tron: Legacy, which was another sumptuously designed movie with flat acting and flagging momentum. Kosinski is a talented visual stylist first and foremost, best exemplified in a swimming pool seduction sequence within Jack and Victoria’s sky home that is almost worth the admission price itself. But he seems unwilling to really depict how people would behave, and while the approach could work for this material, it feels like a shrug of defeat rather than a conscious choice. As it stands, the movie is a pleasant tour through familiar sci-fi tropes, but it commits the cardinal sin of genre filmmaking: it takes a relevant-as-anything conceit like the end of the world, and effectively makes it yesterday’s news.

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