PLOT: Years after a war with an alien opponent has left Earth a barren wasteland, a lone member of the “mop up” team will discover the secret to humanity’s fate.
REVIEW: While watching OBLIVION, it quickly becomes obvious that Joseph Kosinski has seen, and liked, a lot of sci-fi films, TV shows and books. Any geek worth his salt will be quick to point to the numerous inspirations (be they intentional or unintentional) behind Kosinski’s story: MOON, WALL-E, I AM LEGEND, THE MATRIX, 2001; the list goes on as the movie does. It’s definitely not a film of groundbreaking concepts, but it’s also never quite a secret that the director is more interested in the aesthetic nature of his world than the fine print of his simple drama regarding a man discovering the truth about himself and the planet he takes care of.
Kosinski presents a very cinematic landscape indeed: an Earth wrecked by natural catastrophe has been coated with dirt; landmarks such as the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge are up to their necks in solid soil. Many years ago, an invading army of extraterrestrials literally blew up the moon, which of course revved Mother Nature into action, resulting in earthquakes, typhoons, the works. Earth’s surviving residents defeated the invaders, but the planet was left practically uninhabitable. In an effort to salvage what’s left of humanity, we have moved on to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. An effort is underway to transform the water of the oceans into something drinkable for the people inhabiting the space-station beyond the stars.
But the surface must still be protected from stragglers of the alien species and all other potential threats, and so a few brave souls are tasked with keeping tabs on the machines at work on the ground. One such soul is Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), a man of simple pleasures who enjoys his sojourns to the Earth; it’s a planet he doesn’t remember, but has read much about, and any opportunity to walk among its scenic forests or thrashed buildings provides considerable comfort to him. His actual “home” is positioned miles above the surface, a clinical, glass-paneled enclosure he shares with a partner, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) with whom he has a professional-romantic relationship. Jack and Victoria are scheduled to join the rest of society on Titan in two weeks, something Jack is unsure he’s prepared for.
Things in Jack’s world change after a series of events alter his view of his job, his surroundings and his very existence. First, an encounter with members of the enemy alien race, dubbed “Scavengers,” doesn’t go expectedly when it appears that they’d prefer to capture him instead of kill him. Second, the crash-landing of a pod that has apparently been orbiting Earth; a pod that contains a woman (Olga Kurylenko) whom Jack has seen in his dreams.
To go on longer would spoil some of what OBLIVION has to offer in the way of surprises, although to be perfectly truthful, none of the film’s revelations are of the mind-blowing variety. The film’s script (toiled over several writers off an original idea by Kosinski) motors through some fairly predictable material, including the emergence of a scruffy band of human survivalists led by a wise, sardonic old warrior (Morgan Freeman, because who else?). And is anyone surprised when it turns out the government agency (which is represented by the sinisterly chirpy Melissa Leo) that monitors Jack’s work on the surface has ulterior motives? Just about every scene in OBLIVION calls to mind another movie.
However, OBLIVION has something to offer, if not in originality, then in sincerity. The film’s first half has a thoughtful, solemn quality that is refreshingly devoid of the chaotic frenzy expected of a sci-fi blockbuster. Not unlike I AM LEGEND, OBLIVION early on prefers mood and a false sense of serenity over bombast, and though there are visual effects at work in practically every scene, they’re at the service of an expansive palette created by Kosinski and crew. On the technical end, there’s almost nothing to complain about. There are some wonderful moments crafted as Jack surveys the land below in his flying pod, and the sterile home in the air is a knockout. Seen on an IMAX screen, OBLIVION is a beauty. The director has also made another wise musical decision (after enlisting Daft Punk to score TRON: LEGACY), bringing aboard French electronic band M83 to create a powerful soundtrack.
But you can’t avoid the obvious: that OBLIVION is frustratingly derivative, and the more it builds to an expected climax, the more the buzz achieved in the first half deflates. (The stuff involving Morgan Freeman’s Mad Max-looking tribe is especially unexciting.) Cruise, as usual, can be relied upon to bring charm and seriousness to the table, but the casting of Kurylenko as the mystery woman is a serious misstep - the actress is gorgeous, but emits almost zero emotion. Another glossy image without much resonance in Kosinski’s world.
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