Sunday, April 21, 2013


OBLIVION: Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko, Morgan Freeman, Andrea Riseborough, directed by Joseph Kosinski (130 min.)

The new science fiction films are dealing exclusively in the currency of dystopia, of an uninhabitable or destroyed Earth where populations relocate to other places in the universe for safety. For now I count three major sci-fi releases this year; there is the Neil Blombkamp film, Elysium, starring Matt Damon releasing this summer, and there is After Earth, M. Night Shyamalan’s sci-fi adventure starring Will and Jaden Smith. First up, however, is Tom Cruise in Oblivion, from director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy). Oblivion is the unofficial signal that the summer movie season is underway, and while there are a handful of negative things within the film, the positives tend to outweigh setbacks in the end. It is beautiful, sometimes exciting, mostly engaging. But despite the notion this is an original science fiction film, it cannot help escape a hodgepodge of genre entries from the past.

The year is 2077, sixty years since Earth was attacked by alien forces who destroyed the moon and sent the planet into mass chaos. With no other options, Earth used their nukes and, as Tom Cruise’s Jack Harper tells us in a debriefing voiceover as the film opens, “we won the war, but lost the planet.” Most of the planet is uninhabitable, with your typical monuments and landmarks jutting out from the new terrain. There is the Washington Monument leaning and partly submerged in new swamp land; there’s the Pentagon disheveled and sporting a massive hole in the middle now. The majority of the survivors have moved out to Titan, Saturn’s moon. This dystopian Earth is fully realized and sometimes breathtaking simply to look at on the screen.

Jack Harper is in charge of maintaining drones which patrol large triangular orbs floating over the ocean collecting resources to take back to Titan. Harper and his partner, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), live as a couple on what amounts to a Jetsons-like apartment in the sky. Daily, Harper scours the planet to repair drones, but there are also members of the alien race left behind looking to kill him whenever the opportunity arises. This is the very basic premise of the film and, as you can imagine, things begin to happen and this world that is set up for Jack and Victoria begins to show cracks.

A space shuttle crash lands with a human survivor in a sleep pod. She is Julia, played by Olga Kurylenko (from Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder), and Jack somehow, some way, knows her from these recurring dreams he has been having. Without explaining much more and ruining the surprises, I will point out that Julia and Jack return to the crash site and are captured by a small faction of humans on the planet, led by Beech, a very Morpheus-looking Morgan Freeman. Naturally, Beech has certain things to tell Jack about who he really is and where he comes from.

The twists can be seen coming early on for the most part. There are a few added wrinkles as the story unfolds, but these are not fresh ideas where the history of sci-fi cinema is concerned. The revelations are a mish mash of previous films, but if I try and list them here the plot points might be spoiled. Regardless of these trappings of the genre, Oblivion still works more than it fails. I have said before, genre lends itself to cliché and repetition, it is how the filmmakers and the cast handle these aspects of the narrative that determine whether or not it is successful. What aids Oblivion is the beautiful scenery and the fully-realized dystopian Earth, shot in cool blues and grays.

The action is exciting for the most part (those drones are some mean machines when they spring into action), but the humanity in between these moments is where the picture begins to wobble. It tries to hit on big ideas, but does better when it stays within the confines of the plot. This is not a sci-fi of ideas, but of adventure. And despite the valiant and dedicated effort from Cruise, the emotion doesn’t quite hit home the way Kosinski would hope. Cruise is an unstoppable actor in these action roles, and whatever you may think about him outside of his work, there is no more magnetic action star out there. He elevates Oblivion and helps hide many of the warts. While it may not have the staying power of sci-fi classics, I cannot dismiss Oblivion due to its sheer effort to go big and its stunning visual artistry.