Movie Review: Oblivion: Some Things Borrowed, Some Things Cruise, Much That’s Old, and Nothing New

By April 19, 2013
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by James Rocchi

Rating: One out of Five Stars

After watching Oblivion, Joseph Kosinski’s follow-up to Tron: Legacy, it’s as apparent to see, as it is unkind to say, that Kosinski’s now the official big-studio choice for when you want a script that’s as dumb and pointless as a bag of hammers made of meth to look astonishingly beautiful. Credited to a number of writers, Oblivion feels less like a film than it does a flip-book of ’70s prog-rock LP covers: Here’s a house seemingly floating in air, here’s the lonely last man alive in the wreckage of a great city, here are the terrible creatures, here are the gigantic machines hovering over our bright blue planet. Oblivion skitters through your mind’s grasp like loose mosaic tiles through your fingers; it’s bright and shiny in its small scattered bits, but there’s nothing at all to connect one moment in it to the other. Kosinski is to science fiction what Baz Luhrmann and Tim Burton are to their respective genres: A extraordinary set designer promoted far, far past his competency level into the realm of directing.

60 years after humanity won a hard-fought battle against alien invaders that ended in a Pyrrhic victory and shattered the earth, Tom Cruise’s Jack is the clean-up man for the drones who scour the planet looking for the few alien ‘Scavs’ left on earth, aided by his desk-bound helper Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). They have two more weeks on-duty, then they return to The Tet — a huge ship hovering above earth about to take what’s left of the planet’s cleanup crew to the human refuge on Titan, where they will rest, their work done. (And is ‘Tet’ short for ‘Tetrahedron?’ Nothing else explains the name of it …..)

Jack and Victoria were ‘mindwiped’ before they started work — a throwaway side note other smarter directors could make their own meal of — and while Jack mourns the dead Earth, questions what he’s doing and loves the planet’s few living spaces, Victoria is a more indoorsy sort and a company woman, preferring to stay in the couple’s safe transparent house that is somehow above the clouds and yet attached by a pole at its base to…something. (Kosinski had a degree in architecture, then moved on to directing. As a director, he makes one hell of an architect.)

If you’re looking for Oblivion to explore, explain or expand on any of the ideas it lifts or re-uses from other sci-fi films, well, good luck. Kosinski is too busy lifting from other movies like The Matrix, Moon, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, WALL-E, Thundarr the Barbarian, Blade Runner and too many others to make a movie that works in and of itself.

When Morgan Freeman shows up — his character’s named Beech, but you can just call him “the Intoner” — he fills Cruise in on the real deal, which anyone can figure out from the soul-deadening marketing and give-away-the-shop trailers Oblivion’s been saddled with. (Remember when a movie could surprise you? I do; I miss it. Because, Universal, if you’re trying to sell me a movie about Tom Cruise as Earth’s last man, Photoshopping Morgan Freeman onto the billboard right behind him is kind of giving things away.)

Olga Kurylenko literally falls from the sky to kick start the saggy plot  thanks to a deus ex machina that only happens when it does because without it, there’s not a movie, which is always a bad reason for a plot point to happen. Melissa Leo is the distant face and voice of management, always praising Jack and Victoria for being an “effective team.” Riseborough is fine, too, but everyone here is hampered by a script that’s both crammed with irrelevant details and empty of any larger meaning.

To be fair, Cruise is light and lively and invested in everything from sweet nothings-dialogue to harsher-something action scenes; he’s a movie star through and through, and if he looks a little lost against Oblivion’s widescreen Imaxed-out vistas of a shattered planet, well, maybe he should have looked at the script more closely before signing up. Unlike the recent, excellent, under-seen Jack Reacher, Oblivion doesn’t require Cruise to act or allow him to demonstrate charisma — just to be a marquee-name mannequin, posing as the awful script demands.

I cannot deny that Oblivion looks and sounds pretty; much like Daft Punk’s score and soundtrack were the sole endurable aspects of Tron: Legacy, M83 provides a super soundtrack here — but it’s a screensaver, showing isolated moments from other, better films before flickering to the next one while nice music plays. A friend asked me why the film was even called Oblivion; I suggested that it was named for the state you’d want to drink yourself into when you realize Hollywood is eager and willing to spend well over a hundred million dollars on a script as hollow and borrowed as this one.

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James Rocchi lives in Los Angeles. Born in Canada, he's a regular contributor, interviewer and reviewer for MSN Movies, Indiewire's The Playlist, GeekNation, ScreenCrush.com and the Toronto Star. He's also written for ifc.com, Netflix, Mother Jones magazine and The Guardian UK. A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, you can find him on twitter @jamesrocchi.