For speculative-fiction fans, the least interesting part of any modern science-fiction movie is its final act. The opening of films like Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion tend to be about world-building, about creating a future and establishing its rules. The second act lets the characters explore and make significant decisions. But like Leo Tolstoy’s happy families, science-fiction movie endings tend to all be alike, a big pileup of chases and explosions. The acts are extended in Oblivion, which applies an intriguingly complicated mixture of wonder and workaday tedium to its world-building, then lays on the developments fast and thick in the discovery phase. But it all comes down to blowing things up in the end.
Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough star as a placid couple living in a spectacular, spartan glass-and-steel spire in the post-apocalyptic ruins of New York City. As Cruise establishes in a tediously overstuffed opening monologue, aliens called Scavengers, or “Scavs,” attacked Earth 50 years ago, and the battle to drive them out left Earth ravaged and unlivable. The remnants of humanity are moving to Saturn’s moon Titan, once a series of giant harvesters have turned the oceans into fuel. Cruise, Riseborough, and a handful of sinister gun-bots are the last people pulling guard duty on the planet, protecting the harvesters from the scattered Scavs until their deployment ends in a few weeks, and reporting in to mildly sinister mission controller Melissa Leo.
In spite of that hushed, heavily oversold opening monologue, co-writer/director Kosinski takes his time in unfurling Oblivion’s world, from Earth’s stark, abandoned, IMAX-friendly vistas to Cruise and Riseborough’s relationship. Oblivion shines in the moments that are least crucial to the plot, as Cruise explores a thunderstorm in his sleek futuristic personal conveyance, or Riseborough trades pleasantries with Leo that seem just a bit too barbed. An unsettling sense of not-quite-right coats all of the film’s steely surfaces, and Kosinski and his co-writers give audiences plenty of time to absorb the unease and gear up for the action.
Oblivion’s primary issue is that everything that comes next supposedly emerges from Cruise’s character’s humanity, curiosity, and personality, yet given that he’s Tom Cruise, he doesn’t evince much of any of these things. His Earth-loving, nightmare-having, order-disobeying daredevil comes across as the exact same intent, vaguely desperate, vaguely angry protagonist he played in Minority Report and the Mission: Impossible movies, and there’s nothing here to differentiate him from Generic Heroic Template To Be Personalized Later.
Instead, Oblivion’s personality comes from the CGI production design; co-writer/director Kosinski and cinematographer Claudio Miranda (Life Of Pi) previously worked together on Kosinski’s debut, Tron: Legacy, which had a similar style-over-character aesthetic, with plenty of gloss and no warmth. Oblivion is a terrific-looking movie, alternating spare, sterile environments with homey organic ones, and making both look tremendously pretty. Kosinski also handles his action well, with cut-and-dried clarity and edge-of-seat energy. And while the story developments heavily echo other science-fiction films—some classic, some recent, but all earlier to the finish line on these particular plotlines—Kosinski and his screenwriting partners wind them into the action effectively.
But this remains the kind of film where viewers know Cruise is sad because he says, in voiceover, that he’s sad; they know he’s in love because he and his partner rotely announce it. And they know he’s driven because he keeps mechanically repeating a Thomas B. Macaulay poem about death while facing fearful odds. There’s a clinical remove to virtually every step in Oblivion that doesn’t get in the way of the pieces as they slot into place, but does make the story feel hollow. All it’s missing is Cruise proclaiming in a monotone, in the middle of the final battle, “This is very exciting.”
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Oblivion’s Spoiler Space.