BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Decades after an alien invasion, a memory-wiped drone technician begins to question his assignment after an astronaut who resembles a woman in his dreams crash lands amid the rubble of a ruined earth.
PROS: Breathtaking imagery of a world devastated by an alien invasion.
CONS: Clichéd characters who never generate much life or interest, especially in the affectless performances by Tom Cruise and Olga Kurylenko; uninvolving direction by Joseph Kosinski; generic, uninvolving action sequences; flat screenplay heavily reliant on obvious plot twists; noisy score by Anthony Gonzalez and Joseph Trapenese.
Oblivion, director Joseph Kosinski’s bland, muddled follow-up to 2010’s bland, muddled Tron: Legacy, demonstrates what happens when nearly talent-free filmmakers strip Duncan Jones’s Moon, a sublime homage to such cinematic science fiction classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey Silent Running, and Dark Star, of subtlety, nuance, intelligence, and Sam Rockwell, and replace it with explosions, obviousness, idiocy, and Tom Cruise. Although its central conceit—earth and its moon have fallen to alien invaders called the Scavengers (Scavs, in a naming convention so tone deaf that New Wave linguistic masters Thomas M. Disch and R. A. Lafferty spin in their graves), and what remains of humanity embarks on an enormous engineering project to relocate to Titan—posits science fiction ideas familiar to even casual readers, its most unforgivable sin (in a string of unforgivable sins) lies in its inability to make interesting anything that takes place over 124 minutes. Within the first 10, attention wanders from the lives of drone repairman Jack Harper (Cruise) and his girl Friday Victoria Olsen (Andrea Riseborough) to how many different science fiction movies from which Kosinski and his co-screenwriters (William Monahan, Karl Gajdusek, and Michael Arndt) steal in telling their story. It’s science fiction for Dadaists.
Non-Dadaists, must make something more of Oblivion’s meager parts, which poses problems. Harper and Olsen, a pair of the last few humans on earth, live in a tower in the clouds (and what a tower it is; it reminds core skiffy fans of the artwork by Jim Burns) and scan the planet for malfunctioning drones that both protect the machines extracting earth’s remaining resources and search for remaining members of the alien resistance. Jack’s memory has been erased per contract, but he still dreams of a life before the aliens came (making Jack nearly 100 years old), in which he and an unknown woman sightsee on the Empire State Building some time before the invasion. But Jack, like Fahrenheit 451’s Guy Montag or The Omega Man’s Neville, also obsesses over a life lost to the past; he collects books from the ruins of libraries, and has built a small cottage on a lake where he relaxes amid such 20th objets d’art as record albums (artists include Procol Harum and Led Zeppelin) and sunglasses—an IKEA sales floor for mountain men.
Naturally, such cozy disaster bliss must be interrupted, this time in the guise of a crashing spacecraft, its only survivor a woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko) identical to the one in Harper’s dreams. Soon Harper and Julia are captured by Scavs, who turn out to be human beings living in underground bunkers. Malcolm Beach (Morgan Freeman, already shed of so much dignity) leads the scabs as a self-made Muad’dib, and demands Jack reprogram a drone to destroy the space station with which Jack and Victoria plan to join the rest of humanity. Jack refuses, and then learns the first of many rather predictable secrets: aliens no longer inhabit the planet. When Jack demands more answers, Beach advises him to venture into the high-radiation zones to find them.
Jack and Julia’s search for answers lead them through a pursuit by heavily armed drones and more plot twists, none of which surprising to science fiction fans (or indeed even the casual science fiction viewer), and many of them by now far so derivative that they sap surprise. Kosinski renders the ruined earth in eye-popping detail (especially on an IMAX screen) yet the decrepit stadiums, bridges and building sunk beneath the earth’s surface, and cavernous interiors stuffed with ruined pre-invasion detritus remind one of other work crafted with more care (J. G. Ballard’s Hello America) and of more iconic standing (Planet of the Apes and its sequels). Ideas from other sources, from The Matrix to Star Trek: The Motion Picture to any of half a dozen of Philip K. Dick’s lesser stories, show up so frequently and with such carelessness that they seem stitched together by people who don’t understand the movie they are attempting to make.
Or perhaps they did. Kosinski obviously wants to pay homage to the science fiction movies of the 1970s, but he makes the error of not understanding how those movies related to the period. Certainly he gets some of the pacing right—Oblivion smacks of imitation Stanley Kubrick on several occasions—but he also misses the subtext of those pictures, and certainly misses the core point of the period’s best work. The movie’s final big secret draws more snickers than awe, and never creates a convincing character to make it compelling. Charlton Heston could make the last man on earth interesting with a squinting glare and an offhand comment, but Tom Cruise is no Charlton Heston. It even sounds wrong; the score by Anthony Gonzalez and Joseph Trapenese relies heavily on the same musical cues deafening audiences during the coming attractions, throwing aural danger and doom over one like a blanket soaked in kerosene.
One of the movie’s most striking images feels telling. As Oblivion opens, Harper states in voiceover that the Scavs first dismantled the moon, allowing the planet to destroy itself. Oblivion strip mines Moon, and many other movies, for its materials. The result is hollow, barren, and lifeless.