Oblivion director Joseph Kosinski knows how to shoot a film that makes your eyes pop. For his debut feature, TRON: Legacy, he tapped into the nostalgia of an ‘80s cult classic and delivered one of the most staggering visual delights in recent memory. The only problem was it had a plot so bereft of any emotion, character or interest that while it left an indelible visual blot on your mind it did little else. So can Oblivion go one better by maintaining those stunning visuals and balancing them with an interesting story or is Kosinski simply oblivious to potentially becoming the next Michael Bay?
When an alien race, known as Scavengers (Scavs), destroyed Earth’s moon it cripples the planet just enough for them to launch an invasion. Man, as is their want, turns to nuclear weapons fending off the Scavs but rendering Earth a wasteland. Sixty years later humans now live off planet on Titan but harvest Earth’s water for energy. Jack ‘Tech 49’ (Tom Cruise) is a drone repairman. His job is to maintain the battle-bots that protect the harvesting machines from the remaining Scavs. Partnered with his girlfriend Vika (Andrea Riseborough) and overseen by boss Sally (Melissa Leo) on the orbiting station known as ‘The Tet’, Jack and Vika only have two weeks left on their rotation before they head back to Titan. But with old memories surfacing, Jack soon comes face to face with Julia (Olga Kurylenko), the girl in his dreams, when she crash lands on Earth. Her presence defies everything Jack thought he knew about his world and soon the Scavs are the least of Jack’s problems as he is forced to confront a more deadly foe.
Heavily influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and bearing an uncanny resemblance to Pixar’s WALL-E meets Duncan Jones’ Moon, Oblivion has a story to tell. At times an interesting one that is immediately more engaging than anything TRON offered up. A story of memory and how it defines us. But there is one key drawback to this story and that is that, for most of its running time, Kosinski, who wrote the graphic novel upon which the film is based, tries to keep the main plot a secret. Instead of progressing the story we’re kept in the dark, asked to bask in the glory of the action and images on screen. It’s frustrating because the pacing is all off, so much so that come the end massive questions and plot points have to be filled in via a ‘little black box’ recording and a clunky voice over.
What makes this all the more frustrating is that Oblivion, possibly more so than TRON, is stunning to look at. Taking a lead from other major sci-fi films of recent memory – Prometheus and Star Trek Into Darkness in particular – the film is shot predominantly in the jaw-dropping vistas of Hollywood’s latest playground Iceland. Kosinski’s scorched Earth is a revelation, a stark, beautiful vision of a planet littered with the leftovers of buildings that perfectly play into the theme of faded memory.
And then there is the design of the film. If TRON’s look was Sony monolithic then Oblivion’s is Apple Mac white. A fresh aesthetic which is allowed to grow increasingly grubby the more dirty Jack’s hands get. So clear and absorbing is the look of the film that you can forgive Kosinski for his lack of forward momentum in the plot department. In his defense, at times you’re probably too mouth-aghast to take in story lest the scenery offer you something to delight in. By the time the climax comes around, Oblivion wears its influence on its sleeve, as HAL like designs and powerful presences creep further and further into the composition of the film allowing that stark white of the opening to fade into something entirely darker and foreboding.
Throw in a pounding electro-synth score, which heightens the epic sci-fi agenda on offer, the likes of which would have Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner nodding with approval, and Oblivion certainly satisfies the senses.
Tom Cruise is, for the most part, on cruise control. Never feeling the need to inject any huge emotion into his character, Jack always feels a little one-dimensional and flat. That he seems to open up more to a bobble-head on the dashboard of his spaceship, is about as close to an emotional investment as he gets close to. Kurylenko is asked to do little more than be a welcome bit of eye-candy. Lurking in Jack’s dreams before popping into reality, all big-eyed and alluring, to do little more than runaround behind Cruise and look good in a jump-suit. But perhaps the least surprising thing about Oblivion is that Andrea Riseborough continues to be the best thing in most of her films. Her Vika might not be the most likeable character, in fact early on she’s a veritable cold fish, but there is a charm and prowess to her performance. A grace under fire that keeps you invested in her character.
Plot issues aside, Oblivion is at least an original film, albeit heavily influenced by key films of the genre, rather than a tried and tested sequel or reboot and as such it keeps you guessing as to where its leading you, even if that is down a black hole of plot flaws.