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Oblivion: Of Cruise and Nothingness

By (April 29, 2013) No Comment

oblivion-posterAh, the tyranny of “cool ideas.” Any young, imaginative genre fan (be it of sci-fi, Westerns, crime, or romance) no doubt had school notebooks festooned with doodles and descriptions of ideas birthed along the lines of, “Wouldn’t it be really, wicked-awesome, cool, gnarly if…,” followed by descriptions and drawings of Ligers and their ilk.

Written by Karl Gajdusek and Michael DeBruyn from a story by director Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy), Oblivion is intended to be a “hard sci-fi” post-apocalyptic mind-bender thrill ride starring Tom Cruise.

But what ends up on screen is a lovely mishmash of “cool ideas,” most of which, frankly, are kinda cool, but none of which adds up to much other than a nostalgia trip through dozens of other sci-fi films of the past few decades.

Hopping around the late 21st-century blasted, burned-out Earthscape (there was an alien invasion or something) in a sleek, sexy airship, Cruise plays Jack Harper (aka Capt. Strong Name!), a technician tasked with keeping giant hydro-rig machine things and a fleet of attendant robo-drones running while the rest of the humans have scooted off to a New World utopia on Saturn’s moon Titan.

Tom Cruise in OblivionOf course, Jack’s not a total loner—he spends his nights high above the scorched Earth in a nicely minimalist Castle-in-the-Clouds home base, taking hot showers and frolicking in a sky pool with his work partner, Victoria (English actress Andrea Riseborough).

Right from the start, Kosinski sets up his game plan for Oblivion: Tons of stunning, soaring sky and wasteland views, with the potential monotony of non-stop visual splendor punctuated by Jack occasionally getting into tight scrapes down on the surface as he zips about, leading with his cocky daredevil grin.

And just when you start to wonder what it’s all supposed to be about, Kosinski drops the other half of his sci-fi formula: “Whoa!” revelations of The Truth about Jack and Victoria’s mission, including the sudden appearance of a woman from a past Jack can’t fully remember (Quantum of Solace’s Olga Kurylenko), and of course, Morgan Freeman as A Post-Apocalyptic Morgan Freeman.

oblivion1It all sorta, maybe entertains and diverts, thanks to Kosinski’s undeniably impressive eye and yes, Cruise’s always-solid, charismatic hold on the center of the film. Mock all you like at the Scientology Scion, but there’s no doubt his unflagging, “just a regular super-skilled guy” magnetic screen presence often elevates otherwise routine genre material, especially dystopic sci-fi thrillers like Spielberg’s Minority Report and War of the Worlds.

But after a while (and there’s plenty of “a while” in its 124-minute running time), The Prometheus Effect starts to settle in: It starts off with great stuff to look at and hints and teases of Big Ideas about humanity and identity, but as the film rolls along, the Cool Ideas leave bigger and bigger plot gaps and logical sink holes in their wake, until by the end you’re left with a very nice looking pile of WTF?s that, for all Kosinski’s effort to make Big Sci-Fi, add up to lots of pretty and not much point.

oblivion3Contrary to popular impression, good science fiction, at least hard sci-fi, is not about suspension of disbelief or escapism, but is about making us believe in a technologically and emotionally realistic future or alternate world. But Oblivion feels like it’s playing at science fiction rather than exploring ideas–almost all of which are cribbed from other, usually better films.

You can make your own list as you watch, but for starters there are echoes both faint and strong of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, Solaris, Independence Day, Total Recall, and The Matrix. (SPOILER ALERT: The fact that in this future, the Moon is all busted up comes off as a clever if maybe unintentional visual conceit. To paraphrase from Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back: “Duncan Jones is gonna sue somebody’s ass!”)

oblivion-bubbleshipOblivion would have you think it’s about deep philosophical themes and hard-sci-fi dystopian premises, but at its heart it still wants to live in a pretty spiffy, super-cool future full of nifty gadgets and empowering heroics, where you can save the world and still kiss the girl at your private cabin by the lake.

It may be the post-apocalypse, but with all those long, hot showers, and naked swims in the sky pool, it’s a damn sexy post-apocalypse. Kosinski has a great design eye, but too often in both look and depth, Oblivion feels like a perfectly proportioned, ergonomic Sharper Image chair. Welcome to the iPocalypse.