Oblivion, the new Tom Cruise sci-fi vehicle which is currently serving as king of the early spring movie dead zone, is a film that is very well produced, stuffed full of clever ideas, and is boring. That last one isn’t something they were aiming for but it happened anyway. And the reason that is happened, despite the mysteries and firefights, is that at its core Oblivion is a very conventional film. The way that it is directed and the way the plot unfolds have a lowest common denominator focus, unnecessarily condescending to its audience. One example of this is the plodding narration that will allow you to guess the entire film due to its clumsy foreshadowing. Approached holistically, Oblivion is a solid but flawed sci-fi film that is elevated by great production values but ultimately inspires little awe. This is a strange outcome for a movie which is clearly inspired by and pays visual homage to a range of great films including (just to name a few) Planet of The Apes, Close Encounters and of course 2001.
To the films credit, the plot starts off slow and allows for a good amount of world building. Jack (Cruise) and his wife (Riseborough) are two of the last humans on Earth, overseeing an automated resource collection fleet for the survivors that fled to Saturn after a disastrous war against alien invaders. The landscape is barren and lonely, and as part of his repair duties Jack gets to know its nooks and crannies. And for part of the film, this exploration is very effective. The apocalyptic context means we don’t really know much about Jack, his wife, or the big picture so it’s a well metered treck over the wastelands finding out about them, abetted by slick production and design. Jack lives and flies around in half-Apple, half-Frank Lloyd Wright designed crisp circles and rectangles. The drone fleet Jack repairs consists of hovering death bots which move and react with realistic physics and bracing speed. This makes them suitably apprehensive to be around. In a good early scene Jack shoos a stray dog away from one because he’s unsure how malevolent the drone will turn out to be upon awakening and you can feel the trepidation.
Once the plot awakens though, you’ll know exactly how malevolent things turn out to be. One of the major themes of this film seems to be the idea of self and choice, reflected in the ways Jack revolts against the films antagonist. But the script is carefully constructed so that there is only the illusion of choice. Everything that Jack is compelled to do is practically the only reasonable choice in whatever situation he is in. Whether he is braving destruction or trying to save lives, there’s never any inkling that he could have made a different choice. Maybe part of the problem here is Cruise, who has made his trade revolve around playing perfect men who can run very fast. He’s hasn’t reverted to the robotic agent you see him play in Mission Impossible, in fact in the beginning his repairman schtick is quite charismatic, but in Oblivion Cruise is only given enough information that he does what anyone would do. This includes questioning things only when it’s convenient and fighting back when he would die if he didn’t. And the plot seems like it has no choice also; Cruise wins fights, escapes death and loses allies because he has to, often shortchanging the previously established logic of the film. Similarly the events of the film conspire to give us chases and explosions unearned by the patchwork complications that bare them. An important element of science fiction is considering how the choices we make change (or stay the same) as our situations radically change, but Oblivion becomes so caught up in hitting Star Wars beats that it subverts its own themes. This is where most of the flaws in the movie emerge and why when you emerge from your dark theatre you will probably also shrug your shoulders at this $120 million picture.
Eschewing the laundry list of flaws spawned by this issue (okay I can’t resist here are a couple – canyon chase scene, morgan plot-man, and pointless gotcha twist near climax so that no one will be sad) there are some cool things at work in a picture as big budget as this that are worth talking about. Probably the only dynamic handled with any subtlety is the relationship between Cruise and Riseborough. He is innately questioning and she prefers homeostatis. Their interactions are perfectly explained in the film through a very well done flashback near the end of the film and it works on a “show don’t tell” level that the rest of the film fails to maintain. The body language and attitudes between them as their idealic life is threatened comes closest to a mature discussion of what our memories and situations make us. There are also some clues about how humanity and the aliens fought the war and organized themselves afterwards that is imaginatively conveyed by small bits of dialogue and flashes of imagery here and there. In particular I liked the way the Jack’s supervisor, Sally, was handled.
Oblivion has some good ideas in its pretty little head but in the end it falls back on Hollywood’s old blockbuster behavior. There is plenty of cleverness to appreciate but you get the feeling this movie was noted by execs and maybe even Cruise into a piece of entertainment artillery. What you end up with is a movie pulled in two different directions. It’s neither sufficiently thoughtful nor action packed. I think this hybrid can work but the directing makes it feel like everything happens because it must happen which obviates empathy, something that a pounding M83 score cannot replace. In the end Oblivion is a solid piece of craftsmanship and maybe a good sign that Hollywood is starting to embrace intelligence, but it left me cold.