‘Oblivion’ generic sci-fi but hints at depth

Oblivion is something of a strange way to kick off the summer movie season. I’ve been seeing ads for it for a few months, but none of them made any lasting impressions beyond Tom Cruise in a futuristic outfit and Morgan Freeman lighting a cigar. That title is just as forgettable, telling you nothing about the movie. So suffice  to say I didn’t have the highest expectations. And when the movie opens up with Cruise delivering a clumsy, exposition-laden voiceover explaining the state of the world, my expectations sank even lower. Cruise plays Jack Harper, a drone repair technician who remains on Earth after most of humanity is forced to move off-planet due to the aftermath of nuclear war. His job is to maintain the technology that siphons water off the planet to power space-flight, and the film begins with him explaining that he only has two weeks left on the job until he can join the rest of humanity. As you can imagine, things don’t quite play out like that.

After that little introduction to the world, however, the film takes a surprising shift. The first third of the movie is devoted to following Jack in his day-to-day life, and it does so in a remarkably effective way. Whatever expectations I had for Oblivion, I certainly didn’t expect a quiet, almost contemplative tone. Jack’s only other human contact is with his partner Victoria, played by Andrea Riseborough, and their rapport in the early scenes does more to convince you of how alone they are on Earth than any voiceover could. It is truly impressive that a big-budget movie would be willing to devote so much of its running time to a lonely, sparse sequence. It’s basically a series of character moments, and Cruise plays them remarkably well. And sure, there are hints that everything is not what it seems, but they aren’t so urgent as to intrude on the meandering narrative of Jack’s routine. He mentions that his memory was wiped prior to starting the job, which is the sort of clue that will obviously eventually become important, but it doesn’t transform the viewing experience into a hunt for more clues.

Then, as more characters are introduced, the movie gradually loses that tone, becoming more and more like the generic sci-fi action piece it initially appeared to be. Olga Kurylenko plays Julia, a woman Jack rescues from a crashed ship, an action that is the catalyst for the movie’s main plot, and Morgan Freeman pops up in a largely insubstantial role soon afterward. The action scenes that begin at this point are competent enough, but they seem to exist more out of obligation than any narrative reason. And about halfway through the film, the twist occurs. It isn’t a terrible twist by any means. Although it is a little silly, it is in no way original. I know I’ve seen numerous variations on the same type of story in sci-fi before. From there, the rest of the film plays out just as you would expect, building towards a standard action climax. It also gets increasingly melodramatic as it goes on, and Cruise’s performance just keeps getting bigger to match that tone. By the end of the film, I barely had any sense of Jack as a character, since it felt like all I was seeing on the screen was Tom Cruise’s standard action hero.

In a way, the entire movie feels like it was hobbled together from different elements of popular sci-fi. When the first trailer was released, people joked that it was basically a human version of Wall-E, but that is only one of many touch-points. One action sequence is strikingly similar to a scene from one of the Star Wars prequels, while another is reminiscent of Independence Day. Admittedly, the film’s reference points do have some variety to them. Early on, Kosinski uses flashes of memory to hint at Jack’s life before the memory wipe, and he does so in a manner that reminded me of Chris Marker’s avant-garde short film La Jetée, which I was certainly surprised to see referenced in a movie released today. To be clear, I’m not trying to argue that Kosinski is stealing these ideas. Science fiction stories have always built on what came before them. It’s just that Oblivion is so overt about it that it ends up being fairly boring.

Oblivion ultimately subverted my expectations, but in doing so it splits the difference between an action blockbuster and more cerebral sci-fi, which results in a film that lacks a satisfying narrative of either style. Combine that with some of its other problems, such as its lack of original ideas and its horrendous treatment of its female characters, and you get a movie that is difficult to recommend to anyone.

Despite all of that, the film’s opening act is worth seeing. The concept of a man alone in a post-apocalyptic world has certainly been done before, but the way Jack has become comfortable with his loneliness is a new spin on that idea. That sense of isolation is enhanced by the strong score, by electronic band M83. In fact, the music is probably the only aspect of the movie that doesn’t suffer a noticeable drop in quality. There is something heartening about the fact that Oblivion has higher ambitions than it initially appeared to, even if it fails to fully commit to those goals. It’s easy to be cynical about the state of summer blockbusters, but here is a movie that deserves some credit for trying to be something more than generic, although it ends up falling back on those generic ideas.

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