The argument that original ideas in Hollywood are a rare beast is pretty difficult to refute if Tom Cruise’s slick, but highly derivative new slice of dystopian sci-fi is anything to go by.
Director Joseph Kosinski has followed up the visually resplendent Tron: Legacy with another sumptuous spectacle that uses smoke and mirrors to deft effect to disguise its shortcomings.
Kosinski has openly admitted the stream of serious, pre-Star Wars sci-fi films made in the first half of the 1970s – in particular Silent Running, The Omega Man and Soylent Green – were a major influence on the look and feel he wanted for Oblivion.
However, there are also glaring nods to Planet Of The Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Total Recall and, more recently Duncan Jones’ excellent Moon and the Pixar classic Wall-E.
Set in 2077, Cruise plays Jack Harper, who we learn in a long opening voiceover is part of “the mop-up crew” alongside partner/lover Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) for an Earth half-destroyed by an invading alien force 60 years previously. The war against the aliens, we are told, was won, but the planet was ravaged beyond saving and Jack and Victoria are preparing to rejoin what remains of humanity on Saturn’s largest moon Titan.
Their only contact with home is through a glitchy feed to Mission Control (Melissa Leo), who seeks regular assurances they remain “an effective team”. Jack is tasked with maintaining gun-wielding drones (a cross between Robocop‘s ED-209 and the robots from the classic Commodore 64 computer game Paradroid) which hunt down alien “scavengers”, but is haunted by a nagging memory that threatens to undermine everything he believes.
There’s no doubt Kosinski (previously attached to a remake of another 1970s sci-fi classic Logan’s Run) has an eye for a memorable shot. Indeed, there are times when what you’re looking at takes your breath away, most indelibly when Jack is sat atop a mountain looking out onto a beautifully ravaged landscape (in reality Iceland). His ambitions have been given life thanks to the remarkable work of cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who won an Oscar for Life of Pi, and Darren Gilford’s incredible production design.
Kosinski also has a cool ear, having secured French dance pioneers Daft Punk to score Tron: Legacy and fellow electro-inclined Frenchies M83 to provide a Vangelis/Hans Zimmer-esque epic sci-fi soundtrack here.
A charge levelled at science fiction of this ilk is that it can come across as cold and aloof to the viewer and, unfortunately, Oblivion fails to avoid that trap. Stunning visuals do not a great film make and somewhere along the line an engaging and logical narrative got lost amid the search for the next jaw-dropping shot.
No stranger to dystopian sci-fi following Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report and criminally underrated War of the Worlds, Cruise does his best to find a fully rounded human being in Jack Harper but is let down by a disappointing script co-written by Kosinski.
Olga Kurylenko is given little to do as the enigmatic Julia, while Morgan Freeman and Game of Thrones‘ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau are entirely wasted as leading figures in the film’s dubious and confused second half. The real standout is Riseborough, who injects empathy and humanity into what could easily have been a cardboard cut-out role in lesser hands.
Serious, cerebral moviemaking on a sizeable budget is something of a rarity these days, but however visually dazzling and ambitious Oblivion is, it ultimately gets lost in a void of its own making.