By Inkoo Kang
It’s hard to blame Tom Cruise, now aged 50, for clinging to the kind of high-concept, spectacle-heavy, sci-fi action films he’s made his career on. Between his limited thesping skills, increasingly unhinged private life, and refusal to hang up his leading-man aviators, the middle-aged star is facing fewer and fewer ways to stay on the A-list. After three decades in the biz, though, you’d think that Cruise, who stars in and produced Oblivion, would know how to spot an obvious turkey by now.
Oblivion takes place on a whitish-gray, post-apocalyptic Earth with two inhabitants, pilot/drone repairman Jack (Cruise) and his ground controller/wife Victoria (Andrea Riseborough, W.E). Decades ago, Earth was destroyed during a war against extraterrestrial invaders called Scavengers, a catastrophic event that left the planet under human control but inhospitable to life. The human survivors settled on a moon off Saturn and have been converting the remaining water left on Earth into energy.
Jack and Victoria’s mission is to oversee the drones that perform energy extraction. They know their memories have been wiped to make them an effective team, but they seem surprisingly fine with that. They live in a glass house in the sky (because hey, it’s the future), but Jack keeps a secret lake-side cottage where he goes to try on baseball caps, read old books, and talk to his belongings – traits that are supposed to prove his likability, but just remind you of your not-totally-there grampa.
Two weeks before the end of the mission, a space capsule crashes near Jack during patrol, and its lone survivor turns out to be the beautiful, not-at-all age-appropriate woman Jack always sees in his dreams. Her name is Julia (Olga Kurylenko, Skyfall) and she claims she’s his wife, leading to an awkward Three’s Company scenario with Victoria.
The rest of the film is structured as a series of reveals: who Jack and Julia used to be, how Julia ended up on Earth, where the Scavengers come from, and what’s really on the Saturnine moon. Two, maybe three, of the reveals are genuinely surprising and presented in visually imaginative ways. One even complicates the romance between Jack and Julia in a way that seriously threatens their relationship.
But audiences can only be expected to care about character- and universe-subverting twists when we have a firm grasp of their specificities and an emotional investment in them. Sadly, neither the script nor the stars – all of whom act as if they were in completely different movies – provide any reason to care about any of the characters. And it doesn’t help that the film’s mysteries unravel so slowly that the film is three-fourths over by the time Act One breaks, nor that the plot developments are, on the whole, so by-the-numbers it’s impossible not to dwell on the crater-sized plot holes and the countless cribbings from much better movies like Total Recall, Planet of the Apes, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Ultimately, Oblivion is aptly named – no other movie so far this year has been so instantly forgettable. For those who need their fix of movies about ravaged dystopias, they should wait a few months for the can’t-be-any-worse-but-could-definitely-be-better Elysium, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, After Earth, or World War Z. (It’s nice to see Hollywood’s so hopeful about the future.)
See it now, see it later, or run in the other direction? See it later, ideally when you’re bedridden with the flu and the syrupy slowness of the plot will lull you into sweet dreams of Olga Kurylenko.