‘I’ ON CULTURE
The magnificence of the sets and special effects in Oblivion is so startling that it almost covers up the fact that the story is derivative, a mishmash of many earlier movies. It speeds along, showing all sorts of possible wonders of the future: great little rocket ships, homes in the sky that even have swimming pools, high technology galore. The shame is that the story, while interesting enough to make this a pretty good movie, keeps reminding me (as well as other critics) of science fiction movies we’ve seen before.
Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is a drone repairman, leaving his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) back in their stunning home in the sky every day. He hops in his little jet to repair drones that guard huge, automatic nuclear processing plants, which provide power to enable what is left of humanity to survive after a raid by aliens called “Scavs” (short for “Scavengers”) wipes out most of humanity. Most people now reside on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. Cruise flies in, fixes broken drones, always watching out for possible danger (sort of a human WALL-E). But Jack, who knows he has had a memory wipe, somehow has memories of a woman from years earlier that he doesn’t understand.
He’s also a romantic, creating a little, bucolic cabin in a small area that escaped devastation, where he sometimes goes. He plays old records, reads books and lies back to enjoy nature. Despite all of this, he knows his work is absolutely vital for the survival of humanity and works (and plays) hard with Victoria as they come close to the end of their tour of duty. Then a space capsule crashes, and the woman he had remembered, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), survives.
Suddenly, he is captured and learns that most of what he believed true was not. I will not go into detail on the secrets, since they are the actual major plot points of the film, but suffice it to say they are remarkably derivative. There’s more than a bit of Total Recall, a bit of Independence Day, some Star Wars. The movie moves along almost fast enough for sci-fi fans to ignore the obvious weak points.
Good science fiction winds up examining the human condition, and Oblivion attempts to do that, but does it clumsily. I was about a half-hour ahead of the plot for a while and figured out just about everything around halfway through the film. Cruise’s Jack had to be particularly dumb not to figure out at least some of what was happening far earlier than he did. But that’s show biz.
Moviemakers often gravitate toward bad science fiction. 2001: A Space Odyssey was made from a very minor Arthur Clarke work while his brilliant Childhood’s End sat on a shelf. Rumor has it that Syfy (the cable channel) may actually do that seminal work. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein is a brilliant, scathing look at many of our institutions, and it has been ignored despite its strong plot lines (and plentiful use of sex). There are dozens of great books that are ignored while Hollywood focuses heavily on computer-generated effects to cover up weak plotting. Oblivion fits that mold very well.
The acting is about as good as it has to be. Cruise is, as usual, a strong, slightly quirky leading man (and his love interests stay at the same age, leaving larger age gaps between romantic leads as he gets older) and does his work well. Riseborough and Kurylenko as the women in his life do their jobs reasonably well. We see Sally (Melissa Leo), their mission control person, only through a monitor, but Leo does her character well. Morgan Freeman has a key role, and he chews up the scenery and gets away with it as only he can.
But this is not a character-driven movie. The plot keeps moving quickly, obviously hoping that no one notices how hackneyed a lot of it is. The movie is diverting: Just sit back and enjoy the ride. But like a roller coaster ride starts to lose its charm once you ride it over and over, there is a strong sense of having seen the movie before.
That makes this a good, but not very good, movie — a solid B. The designers did the best work on this one. Too bad the writers did not match them.
On the other hand, it provides a nice couple of hours away from all the craziness that’s going on in the world right now.