Here is a film – another Tom Cruise-led high concept sci-fi actioner – that fails to capitalise on its excellent special effects, score (by M83) and production design. Oblivion, directed by Tron: Legacy‘s Joseph Kosinski and adapted by Karl Gajdusek and Michael deBruyn from Kosinski’s unpublished graphic novel, certainly looks good, but unfortunately its supporting roles are meagre and the story doesn’t stand up to any kind of rigorous analysis.
Both problems could be overlooked, in different circumstances, but there aren’t enough original thrills n’ spills here to divert your attention away from the numerous plot holes and the poor characterisation. It doesn’t help that Kosinski pays homage in different ways (sets, costumes, images, twists, themes and so on) to a whole raft of 1960s and 1970s sci-fi films – Planet Of The Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, most obviously – each of which included original stories that truly fascinate on first viewing, and more memorable characters. While watching Oblivion there were a few moments when I wished I was sitting through one of those earlier movies instead.
We’re on Earth, in the aftermath of an alien invasion. Humans won the war, but the planet is largely uninhabitable and survivors have set up a colony on one of Saturn’s moons, heading there via a giant triangular space station. Alien scavengers (‘scavs’) prowl what’s left of the inhabitable land and cities (not much) while Cruise’s Jack Harper (a typically Cruisian hero’s name for a typically Cruisian hero) has stayed behind to keep watch on giant hydroelectric power stations that drain the remaining resources. He is joined by lover ‘Vika’ Olsen (Andrea Riseborough), who monitors Jack’s engineering missions while reporting in to NASA commander Sally (Melissa Leo, sadly a mere presence on a computer monitor, though that is a necessary plot device).
All is not as it seems: Jack and Vika are not alone on Earth, contrary to their belief; both have had their memories wiped so that they will not divulge valuable information to the scavs if captured, but Jack is haunted by memories of a mysterious woman in pre-war New York City (Olga Kurylenko). Is she still on the planet, somewhere? Meanwhile Morgan Freeman plays the leader of a rag-tag bunch of freedom fighters and has dressed for the part accordingly, as if he had been presented with the costume upon graduating from Rag-tag Bunch Of Freedom Fighters College with distinction. Joining him is lieutenant Nikolal Coster-Waldau; both actors’ talents are wasted and they spend most of their time trading concerned looks in one of those typical underground, post-apocalyptic hideouts.
Above ground, however, is where it’s at. Kosinski certainly makes the most of his budget with a film-full of excellent effects shots as Cruise flies, runs, jumps and fights his way around this futuristic, diseased Earth. There’s a dominant blue and white palette, reflecting much of the setting (lots of sky, lots of sea) and it certainly brings to mind the minimal look of the older sci-fi works mentioned above, while also being thoroughly modern. The cloud-high interiors are spartan and the landscapes are too, as most buildings have seemingly been destroyed during the war, or have been destroyed by nature and the scavs in the interim; a few sights remain, such as the top of the Empire State Building or the Washington Monument and Capitol Building, but thankfully Kosinski stops short of allowing the Statue of Liberty to poke out of the barren ground.
Unfortunately, having established this futuristic vision of our world with great skill, Kosinski and his writers fail to finish the job. There are a few ‘big reveals’, but they only serve to pique one’s interest for a short while, and before long we’re back to more of the same old shots of Cruise on a motorbike, or filmed from below, or in the cockpit of his bubble-copter, or grappling with yet another deadly flying football (Oblivion is big on deadly flying footballs). Much of this feels depressingly familiar, while a lack of focus on other characters means there’s nowhere for director or viewer to turn when it inevitably becomes boring.
The blame should lie with the actor, as well as Kosinski. I normally enjoy the Cruise-plus-sci-fi combo, but after seeing this I can’t help but wonder what might have been had he carried on working with directors of the stature of Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, Michael Mann and Steven Spielberg, as he was doing in the late 1990s and early 2000s, or even if he risked the occasional project with an up-and-coming talent every now and again. Cruise was stretching himself back then, and that period contains most of his best performances; perhaps the equivalent parts today just aren’t landing in his in-tray, or perhaps he just doesn’t care any more. Freeman seems damned to spend the rest of his days playing the same character over and over, too; he barely seems motivated at all and there’s little to distinguish his dreary, expository father-figure role here from all the others he has played of late. Well, unless you count the fact that he wears sunglasses. Kurylenko and Riseborough are given little to do, especially the former, to the point where a cardboard cut-out would have sufficed for some scenes.
Directed by: Joseph Kosinski.
Written by: Karl Gajdusek, Michael deBruyn. Based on Oblivion by Joseph Kosinski.
Starring: Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.
Cinematography: Claudio Miranda.
Editing: Richard Francis-Bruce.
Running Time: 125 minutes.