Say what you will about Tom Cruise, former biggest star in the world and current resident alien/troll of America, but the man has always been able to light up a screen.
His most recent effort is Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion, a quietly released but stunningly expensive sci-fi epic. The year is 2077 and Cruise stars as Jack Harper, one of the last humans on Earth. Sixty years prior, aliens attacked, destroying the moon which subsequently caused severe earthquakes and floods on Earth. These calamities caused the human population to flee to a giant space station and establish a colony on one of Jupiter’s moons. Jack and his lover Victoria, the memories of their past lives wiped clean, remain on Earth to help harvest resources and rid the planet of remaining alien enemies. When a ship crashes and Jack finds the woman he’s been having visions of, his search for answers leads him to a group of hostiles that turn out to be not what he’d expected.
The world that Kosinski establishes is remarkable and haunting, at once futuristic and post-apocalyptic. Oblivion’s opening and its creation of the world is its strongest sequence–-unfortunately, the story that follows cannot live up to the initial intrigue.
The problem is that, in an attempt at originality, the movie crams the plot with as many tried and true science fiction plot points and concepts as it can. While fun, it feels like we’ve seen it all before. There’re chase scenes, recovered memories, warehouse shootouts, berserk machines, even clone drama and a resulting identity crisis. It’s Blade Runner, it’s Memento, it’s Moon, it’s Total Recall, it’s all of these rolled up into one but without any authenticity. This could be compensated for if the cast was uniformly interesting and likable, but aside from Cruise, the other actors mostly come off as empty cyphers and character types instead of unique and interesting people.
While there may not be much below the surface, those surfaces sure are something to behold. Shot by Oscar-winner Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi, Benjamin Button, Zodiac), the movie is one of the more visually striking and inventive sci-fi films in recent memory, yet it maintains a level of grittiness and realism that anchors the proceedings to some trace of the world we know. While overbearing at times, the score by French electronic group M83 offers a fittingly unique complement to the action. Cruise, ever the quintessential action hero, is more than up to the challenge, but the rest of the cast doesn’t have much to work with. Fun yet unspectacular appearances are made by Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jamie Lannister on Game of Thrones). So, while everything is impeccably constructed and gorgeous, it still feels empty.
The movie’s second half plods along and struggles to build a sense of momentum. It takes on themes of identity, authority, duty and, of course, love, but its stances on them are either unidentifiable or simplistic. While admirable in its ambition and resistance to becoming a big, dumb, popcorn flick, it might be the case that the movie would have been better-off following that path. Oblivion ultimately straddles the line between the mind-twister and political allegory brands of science fiction. In the end, it succeeds at neither.