Joseph Kosinski strikes me as a director who gets all giddy when he’s designing the world he wants to set a film in, but then forgets to actually make the film. While his feature-debut, “Tron: Legacy,” was an example of this problem at its worst, “Oblivion” manages to engage from time to time, but ultimately doesn’t feel like a complete movie going experience.
The plot of “Oblivion” is the sort of thing someone would be excited to pitch in a college screenwriting class, but wouldn’t know how to follow through on. It’s derivative of other sci-fi movies, but not a rip-off, and has an interesting hook or two that would need to be fully developed in order to work. We’re told aliens invaded Earth, humanity won, but the planet was so ravaged the survivors had to relocate to another planet (well in this case a moon, Titan, one of Saturn’s many). A quick Wikipedia search will tell you Titan is the “only object other than Earth for which clear evidence of stable bodies of surface liquid has been found,” so it would seem an ideal candidate for this sort of endeavor.
Sixty years after the war, Tom Cruise is Jack Harper, a high-octane repairman on Earth who flies around repairing equipment that is being used to gather the rest of Earth’s resources. Still on the planet are some remaining aliens called Scavs, and Harper is assisted by mechanical drones in warding them off when they become a problem. Cruise can essentially do this role in his sleep at this point, and that’s not to insinuate that he does, the man brings his reliable movie star game to the table as usual. His assistant, Vicka, played by up and comer Andrea Riseborough (“Welcome to the Punch” and the soon-to-be-released “Shadow Dancer”) is suitably effective as his partner on the mission (and in the bedroom). She does an interesting job alternating between vulnerability and a steely reserve that Kosinski seems to actively be working to undermine with his lifeless staging of emotional exchanges. This is also a problem when a woman Harper has been having mysterious dreams about, played by Olga Kurylenko (who can also currently be seen in Terence Malick’s divisive “To the Wonder”), crash lands on the planet. The actors are clearly delivering lines of dialogue, but I kept hearing “We’re supposed to like each other, right?” Cruise even has to say the line “Dream of us” not once, but twice. So help me if I missed a third.
As the only primary African-American character in the movie (though the cast is quite small), Morgan Freeman, seen here as a Morpheus-type, is playing a character similar to ones we’ve seen from him before, but remains compelling. He’s given little screen time, but Freeman lighting a cigar in the dark and saying something like: “I've been watching you, Jack. You're curious…” is enough to warrant bringing him on set for what I would imagine was about a week. He manages to convince us he could physically dominate everyone in the room without ever getting in a fight, or even running for that matter. AND he’s 75. He does, however, briefly wield a large machine gun turret at one point.
From a technical standpoint, the film is a marvel at times. After working with David Fincher and Ang Lee, Claudio Miranda continues to prove he’s an incredibly skilled cinematographer. The aesthetic here is crisp, almost too crisp. I couldn’t tell if that dirt was on Cruise’s eyelashes or my own. A good deal of the film was shot in Iceland, and besides the obvious stuff (spaceships etc.) much of it without CGI, and frankly it shows. Unfortunately, Kosinski has yet to prove himself as a real director, and remains more accomplished in the restricted terms of a visual stylist. At this point he lacks something fundamental as a filmmaker, and in the most basic terms I would simply say it’s “a pulse.” I walked out of this and “Tron: Legacy” feeling I had seen half a movie, but two really long, super expensive commercials for some futuristic product. While “Oblivion” is more effective, it’s just not there as a movie yet. This incomplete feeling might be more forgivable if it was more experimental, or was trying to do something new, but it’s a big, clean, studio product. Not that I have anything against that, but that sort of movie should at least fire on all cylinders. It does try for some narrative twists, but they would work better if they were actually invested in what’s happening.
At the screening I attended, Kosinski and Cruise did a Q&A afterwards, and you could tell Kosinski was more excited about the gadgets he used and the visual look of the film than he was about the film. He clearly has potential as a director, but until he fully realizes the human aspects, and honestly improves his pacing, I think his films will ultimately feel hollow. Tom Cruise, on the other hand, had more personality than the entire theater could contain. That guy’s going to be making action movies until he’s 70, and I’m sure the future will hold a vehicle more worthy of his efforts.