Does Oblivion cut the futuristic mustard? Yes and no. The last Cruise sci-fi film I can recall that was any good was Minority Report (more a noir thriller, but anyway) – so this latest offering has a lot to live up to. Actually, looking back through his filmography, he’s not been in that many sci-fi films, perhaps with good reason, but we’ll come to that later.
In terms of Oblivion, the story begins by telling us earth as we know it has been ravaged and left largely uninhabitable, the result of war with an invading alien species known as scavengers (scavs). Humanity won the war but lost the planet. As a result the human race is leaving earth on a giant ship called the Tet. In order to do so they’re sucking energy out the oceans to power their voyage into space.
With the planet still inhabited by scavs, drone machines roam the earth protecting the big ocean-sucking machines. Maintaining the drones are Jack (Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who live in a sort of suspended bubble dwelling in the clouds. As they near the end of their maintenance assignment Victoria is more than ready to leave, whilst Jack is still quite attached to planet earth and begins to have other ideas.
All of what I’ve just described takes place in the first few minutes, so if you hit the cinema five minutes late you’ll have missed a lot of plot. However, never fear! What you’ll find over the next two hours of cinema time is essentially a game of spot the sci-fi reference, as the film is literally littered with them.
To backtrack a second, it all begins with Jack doing his maintenance rounds on the planet’s surface, fixing drones, bombing around on a motorbike, doing his Tom Cruise thing. Scavs are hinted at in teasing, telling shots – Jack is being watched but he doesn’t know it. This part, for me, is the most effective – taking its cues from films like Moon, I am Legend and so on. There’s a sense of loneliness and isolation, one man surviving against the odds, clinging on to his humanity. It’s also tense, edge-of-the seat stuff – director Joseph Kosinski uses space and silence well in this apocalyptic setting to play on our fears of the unknown.
From there we have ‘major plot point 1’ when a ship crashes in Cruise’s maintenance sector. He investigates, only to find and rescue Julia (Olga Kurylenko) a woman he’d been dreaming about for some time. Not every day the woman of your dreams comes careering out the sky to crash on your doorstep is it? Well this is Hollywood, keep up.
Needless to say Julia has a noticeable impact on Jack. This is when the movie begins to show its hand and the scavs aren’t all they appear to be. Neither is anything else for that matter. Much like the first five minutes, there are a lot of twists and turns near the end, so you’d better be on your A-game come the finish; nudge nudge, wink wink.
In terms of performances, Cruise does ok. I mean, it’s not a dramatic stretch for him. Kurylenko doesn’t have a vast amount to do other than run around and pout a bit. The biggest revelation, for me, was Andrea Riseborough. She gave her character depth and complexity in what was essentially a small but vital role.
This film was Kosinki’s baby, taken from a half-finished idea and a half-finished graphic novel, sold to the studio and the star on some beautiful concept artwork. But that’s exactly what it is, a half-finished film. First half with Jack alone on the planet’s surface, maintaining drones, building the tension and silence was suspenseful and beautiful. Indeed, the film in general was a visual joy, all clean lines; blue, white and grey. Polished, futuristic, yet wistful, eerie and a touch ominous. As soon as it revealed its hand the tension fizzled out and we had a standard Tom Cruise action tale. No bad thing, but it could have been so much more, simply by doing less. Often the hardest thing to achieve.
Overall, a decent, beautiful looking sci-fi with a promising start, that perhaps loses its way a little in the third act, but does so in an entertaining fashion.