There really is nothing like the exhilaration of seeing a good science fiction movie in the theater, one that prods at your brain as much as it dazzles your eyes. To be filled with awe and wonderment, even about something bleak, is a really difficult thing for a filmmaker to achieve. TRON: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski’s new film, Oblivion, is a good sci-fi movie. It also happens to be every good sci-fi movie. It’s like the product of a nerd culture Cuisinart, with nearly every image, theme, plot point, and idea stirring in the viewer the memory of various other science fiction heavy hitters, like Star Wars, Blade Runner, The Matrix, and Moon, to name but a few. However, the movie is about memory and holding onto what made Earth great, so it’s conceivable Kosinski did all of that on purpose to prove a greater point. *Shrug*
The film follows Tom Cruise’s character, Jack, who is one of two people left on planet Earth after the entire human race was forced to flee following the devastating impact on the planet of an alien invasion and the subsequent nuclear annihilation. His job is to fly around the world (in the awesome Bubble Ship) to repair hovering drones which protect massive things sucking up all the water from the oceans to take to Titan, Saturn’s moon, where all the humans have settled. What do they need to be protected from? Scavs, which are the remnants of the alien species who haven’t yet all died off. All of this is explained in Cruise’s opening narration, as is the fact that he lives with Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who is his stay-at-home liaison with Sally (Melissa Leo), the friendly boss who checks in every few hours to make sure everything is running smoothly. Jack and Victoria make an effective team, but they’re also a bit more than that… if you know what I mean… they do it.
Jack, however, can’t stop having these dreams about a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) and a trip to the Empire State Building, which makes no sense since, according to his memory, he’s hasn’t been alive long enough to have seen the Empire State Building. Weird, eh? One night, the scanners pick up the crash landing of an old United States space vessel and when Jack goes to investigate, he sees there are survivors in stasis pods. Only one survives, though: Julia, who is the woman he’s been dreaming about. Wha?!
This is a very plotty film, and to try to explain it all would be giving most of it away. Still, the argument can be made that the only way this movie could be spoiled is if the person had never seen another science fiction movie, or a movie at all. Kosinski’s references, whether they be homages or just cribbing, are to things that are almost universal at this point, often borrowing entire shots from films that came before it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in a movie that it so complicated in its storytelling, it would have been nice if the things it was trying to do weren’t so telegraphed.
Kosinski does have an undeniable visual talent, made all the more impressive by the fact that Oblivion is only his second film. His first, TRON: Legacy, while not a film I ultimately enjoyed very much, was undoubtedly a triumph in its visuals. This film is even an improvement on that. They filmed in Iceland, on the eerie, green-yet-treeless hillsides to depict the desolate, abandoned Earth. When a building or other known landmark needs to be shown, it’s added using CGI, but the base of just about all of the wide shots is real footage of a real place obtained via helicopter photography. It makes all the difference in the world to see Tom Cruise acting with an environment that exists and not one that merely exists in a computer. The design of the Bubble Ship, the drones, and the home above the clouds in which Jack and Victoria live are gorgeous, and all look like they belong in the cinematic world they inhabit.
The small cast is very good, especially Cruise and Riseborough, who really convey that they have been around no one but each other for months, maybe years, and yet still mostly enjoy each other’s presence. They each spend a lot of time on screen by themselves, talking to each other via radio and that can be tiresome, but they both keep it interesting. Kurylenko is really making a name for herself in the tough-yet-vulnerable roles and she continues that stretch here. When Morgan Freeman shows up, he is able to spew rather dry exposition very effectively that might not work as well with another, less resonant actor. Nicolaj Coster-Waldau from Game of Thrones also makes good use of his limited screen time.
Really, where the film falters is in its script. It’s a very humorless movie, despite a few decent one-liners. Sci-fi doesn’t have to be 100% serious or 100% goofy; a middle ground can be found. There’s also a lot of telling and not showing people what’s going on, and it relies far too much on the quick filling-in of information without letting the mystery linger until the audience can put it together. The movie works infinitely more when we aren’t sure exactly what’s happening. Kosinski and his writers also seemingly didn’t really know how to end the film, and so the third act piles on references even more than before. I could name four different movies off the top of my head that are directly referenced in the climax of the movie, but I think it would be more fun for others to catch them all.
That being said, despite its obviousness in the movies that inspired it, Oblivion is a very enjoyable trip to the movies. The action sequences are genuinely exciting and the couple of times the story allows us to put things together without info-dumping, it is perplexing and intriguing. You also cannot beat a cast like this, and for all his off-screen quirks, Tom Cruise remains an endlessly charismatic and watchable star. And the movie looks amazing on an IMAX screen and didn’t force-feed 3D on us. Its strengths outweigh its weaknesses 80% of the time; Go check it out and try to turn your homage-o-meter off for two hours.