Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion is what I can only bring myself to call massively OK. It’s certainly not fresh or original. Not a single one of its surprises were surprising — 15 minutes in, I bet my wife five bucks what one of them would be. (I must remember to collect.) It’s also not what I’d call “visually stunning.” Oh, it’s polished and slick and shiny, and the special effects are all clean and mostly solid-looking, but at no point did I have even an inner “wow” moment at how dazzling anything looked. As far as Tom Cruise goes — it’s just another competent, never surprising performance. Like the movie he’s in, he’s OK. (It isn’t his fault that people running around with prop futuristic weapons strike me as silly looking.) That I didn’t mind seeing it — apart from finding the opening stretch on the tedious side — isn’t enough in my mind to warrant its reported $120 million price tag (that’s presumably pre-advertising).
The film’s problem lies in its screenplay, which manages to be both literal-minded and muddled at the same time. It tells too much — even though much of what it tells us (via Cruise’s narration) turns out to be from an unreliable source — and shows too little. There’s a clear desire here to be both thought-provoking and action-packed — not an unreasonable notion, but what results is a slab of one, then a slab of the other without ever actually blending the two. But the biggest problem is that the film wants to present us with a series of startling revelations, few, if any, of which are very startling — largely because they’re all from other movies. In fact, very little in the film isn’t from other movies — all the way down to hero Jack Harper’s (Cruise) little bucolic hideaway where he can kick back and listen to Zeppelin and Procol Harum on remarkably well-preserved pre-apocalyptic vinyl. If you can’t think of sci-fi cross-references to this (as recently as this year’s Warm Bodies), you haven’t seen much sci-fi. That brings me to a strange kind of “read no further” warning. Assuming you have seen a lot of sci-fi and want to stand a chance of being surprised by Oblivion, save the rest of this review till after you’ve seen the movie because the invoking of titles will give what game there is away.
Jack Harper is essentially a kind of human (well, Tom Cruise human anyway) WALL-E, patrolling the remnants of post-apocalyptic Earth to keep some lethal-minded drones running in order to protect some water-extraction business. Like WALL-E, he has also developed a personality (just replace the VHS of Hello, Dolly! with the vinyl and some old books) — despite the fact that his memory has been wiped by his masters. Problem is his wiped memory keeps poking through in dreams — all leading to what I can only think of as An Affair Your Masters Don’t Want You to Remember. (Isn’t it remarkable how readily identifiable landmarks — the top of the Empire State Building, the Washington Monument, Miss Liberty’s torch etc. — always survive an apocalypse?) It’s around the memory-awakening point that Oblivion turns into a knock-off of Duncan Jones’ Moon (2009) — but with added explosions and action biz to make it palatable to a broader public as it winds its way to a crowd-pleasing use of its PG-13 allocated f-word.
It’s mostly Cruise’s — and the effects team’s — show, though there are other cast members. Olga Kurylenko is his past-present-future love interest, while Andrea Riseborough (Made in Dagenham) serves as his biologically accommodating official partner, who likes having her memory wiped. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is on hand because the film needed a hard-headed resistance fighter to distrust Cruise (see also: The Host for this basic character). Melissa Leo (sporting an absurd Scarlett O’Hara accent for no apparent reason) has the restful role (she only appears on monitor screens) of the overseer. And Morgan Freeman shows up to do his standard Morgan Freeman thing. Everyone does efficiently what they’re paid to do — and not a penny’s worth more, which pretty much describes the whole picture. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, brief strong language, and some sensuality/nudity.