Joseph Kosinski’s second film, Oblivion, is an earnest sci-fi starring Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough, in which the Earth’s moon has been destroyed by an alien force, and the surface of the planet has been devastated.
Cruise stars as Jack Harper, an engineer left behind on Earth to monitor the extraction of the planet’s last remaining energy, before humanity – the remainder of which resides in a massive space station called the Tet – makes for Titan (one of Saturn’s moons) to start a new life. Victoria (Riseborough) is his operational assistant, monitoring him from their secluded tower while he ventures out into the scorched wasteland. As the film begins, the pair are just two weeks away from the end of their mission, at which point they can rejoin the rest of humankind and leave the Earth behind. Victoria is looking forward to this, while Jack is confused by dreams and visions of what appears to be a past life in pre-invasion New York.
Jack’s primary concern is the maintenance of a fleet of drones, (a far cry from the cuddly dustbins in Doug Trumbull’s Silent Running – an obvious reference point), which protect the power stations in the oceans. He also has to contend with ‘Scavs’ – little bands of aliens who roam the surface causing trouble – the remnants of the invading force which mankind, at great cost to the planet, managed to defeat.
Kosinki’s last film was Tron: Legacy, another visually ambitious sci-fi epic. While Oblivion’s landscapes are mostly barren – a far cry from the techno-stylings of Tron – there are nice visual touches throughout, and the film looks good.
Naturally, as the story progresses, we learn that everything is not as it seems. The plot actually spreads a number of revelations throughout its runtime rather than saving everything up for the end, which works to its advantage and keeps us interested. There are obvious reference points for some of this stuff, but to name them would risk spoiling things; suffice it to say there are visual and narrative nods to a number of sci-fi films of years gone by. Jack Harper is even comparable to Pixar’s Wall-E, working diligently on a scorched Earth and carrying around a little plant in a pot.
The story loses some momentum in the final third, and the conclusion feels rushed, despite the film having taken its time to get there. It also abandons logic slightly in order to ensure a final confrontation. Given that the story is generally interesting and engaging (in spite of the largely underwritten characters), it feels a bit petty to complain about the lack of a standout action sequence, but the action that’s in there is pretty underwhelming, right down to a Death Star trench-esque sequence featuring some unintentionally hilarious cockpit reaction shots. Anthony Gonzalez, frontman of French electronic band M83, provided much of the music, alongside Joseph Trapanese (who collaborated with another French electro act, Daft Punk, on Tron). The soundtrack is certainly bombastic – genuinely rousing at times, but slightly comical at others. Some of the loudest aural declarations in the film come during the romantic sequences, which can feel a little over the top as a result.
All things considered, Kosinski’s barren wasteland is not a bad sort of wasteland to spend a couple of hours in. If the characters end up feeling a little underdeveloped, at least the story itself is interesting, while the visuals are sporadically impressive. That it can’t match the classics it takes as inspiration shouldn’t be used to condemn it too harshly.