Oblivion is a solid production, and another indication that Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski will be one of the notable visualists of the next decade. Unfortunately, that doesn't prevent the Universal Pictures release from being fairly derivative: It's not just that it contains an often-told story, it contains several. The appealing aspect is that they're told with great craft.
The story follows Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), the field agent of a two-man team tasked with repairing sentry drones that protect some sort of fusion reactor whatsits as mankind prepares to abandon the Earth for the icy pastures of Saturn's moon, Titan. Although his minder, a hauntingly beautiful woman named Vika (Andrea Riseborough), appears to offer companionship, Jack is lonely for a woman he sees in his dreams (Olga Kurylenko) and homesick for an Earth long destroyed.
And then, as often happens in these stories, his dream woman appears in the thawed-out flesh after being held in suspended animation for 60 years.
I intend to avoid most of the spoilers for this, but I will say the trailer itself is a massive spoiler. If you’ve ever watched a sci-fi film from any decade, you've pretty much seen Oblivion, written by Karl Gajdusek, Michael Arndt and Kosinski from an original concept by the director. You’ll guess every twist five minutes into the film, and it will not fail to prove you right at every turn – which is unfortunate, as the presentation of these staid ideas is an exceptional display of craftsmanship.
One thing you can certainly credit Kosinski with is an eye for appealing 21st-century images. His future-world, an Earth ravaged by tectonic upheaval after an alien invasion destroyed the moon, is gorgeous. Even if you have seen a ruined New York in a dozen other films, few have ever looked this inviting. The ruins, reshaped by tides and earthquakes, make a splendid backdrop.
Equally arresting is the production design of the future tech. Although achingly modernist, it can't help but hit that sweet spot. The Sky Tower apartment Jack and Vika share is totally made of interior-design porn; everything gleams in white, offset with black accents. In some shots, it's the inverse of Tron: Legacy, but no less chic and appealing. It's also accompanied by an excellent score courtesy of M83, adding to the cool embrace of the set design. In short, I want to live there.
Also appealing are the three principle leads. I generally dislike Cruise in any manifestation, be it rich vampire, rich industrialist or child of rich parents. Even in roles where wealth isn't an issue, I'd rather see someone else play the part, but here his presence works. Stripped of much of the off-screen persona that made him a joke in the past several years, his Jack Harper is a wistful, lonely man -- and for the first time in his career, I buy him as defeated.
Now that is a special effect.
"Appealing" is perhaps the most delicate word I could use to describe Kurylenko, who’s a vision to behold on an IMAX screen. As a mysterious dream woman made flesh, she's amazing. Unfortunately, the movie serves her poorly once all her secrets are revealed. Much of the time, she's strapped to the seat adjacent to Cruise. (You'll note I haven't even bothered to name the character because the film has done little to make it stick in my memory.)
Vika is a much more intriguing character. She lives in perpetual fear that any screw-up on her or Jack's part will get them booted from the trip to Titan. As the true nature of their work is revealed, however, her real fear is one of the more subtle and effecting character traits in the whole film. In fact, it’s never completely spelled out in dialogue. Instead, Riseborough's sublimated emotions are employed to convey Vika's real situation. She fits Kosinski's steely futurescape almost as perfectly as Olivia Wilde in Tron: Legacy: pale techno-organic entities uncomfortable in their own organic-ness.
You might be wondering why I haven't counted Morgan Freeman as one of the principles. In a film with nine or so speaking parts, Freeman really is more of a supporting character who comes into the story every so often and does his Freeman best. I think I might have appreciated him more if he was a surprise instead of prominently displayed in publicity for the film. But even in that capacity, he’s as solid as the rest of the production. Just don't go in expecting a huge friendship to emerge between his character and Jack.
Instead, watch it for a truly excellent chase between Cruise's Bubble Ship, a sort of high-tech ornithopter-hovercraft, and the sentry drones. This chase actually has some tension. I think it's because you can tell Cruise and Kurylenko are getting thrashed about in a mock-up of the Bubble Ship and not just sitting in front of a static blue screen. They're being affected by gravity and even if all the wide shots are mostly CGI, the skill put into the close-ups gives the scene a tactile sensation so often missing from special effects actioners.
And despite the derivative storyline, the skill and craftsmanship on display in Oblivion deserves recognition. If not with great critical praise (because, really, the story's faults make that impossible), than at least with an opening weekend gross that keeps Kosinski employed. He's a director with a design and camera team that is distinctly working for every shot. There's no phoning in what you see on the screen. Given enough tries, a filmmaker that engaged with the craft will overcome his deficiencies as a storyteller, or at least find a collaborator who is as gifted in those arts as he is with cinema.
Oblivion opens Friday.