Starring: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo, Zoe BellRating: PG-13, for action violence, sensuality and brief profanity
Director/co-scripter Joseph Kosinski’s “Oblivion” hearkens back to 1970s sci-fi thrillers that involved lone heroes struggling against horrific situations that weren’t quite what they seemed, at first blush.
Kosinski and his fellow writers — Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt — definitely caught that vibe. Their film carries strong thematic echoes of “Planet of the Apes” (the original 1968 version) and “The Omega Man,” with an added dollop of the psychological tension and heightened paranoia present in “The Matrix.”
Factor in some rip-snortin’ action sequences — which are freakin’ awesome on a giant IMAX screen — and the result is 126 minutes of clever, well-paced, post-apocalyptic suspense.
Which is not to say that “Oblivion” is destined to become a classic. Kosinski has a tendency toward overwrought bombast even when unnecessary: such as, for example, a love scene that rises to a frankly silly soundtrack crescendo from composers Anthony Gonzalez, Joseph Trapanese and M.8.3. I’m reminded of Giorgio Moroder’s similarly gaudy scores for 1980s rock-video movies such as “Flashdance,” “Scarface” and “Top Gun”: a suitable musical environment for those popcorn flicks, but not quite the right tone for an otherwise thoughtful sci-fi drama.
The year is 2077, decades after an invading alien armada blew up Earth’s moon as the ultimate first-strike assault; the resulting environmental havoc destroyed civilizations around the globe. But mankind rose to the challenge and beat back the so-called Scavengers, although the cure may have been worse than the disease; thanks to the widespread use of nuclear weapons, most of what remained of Earth became uninhabitable.
Humanity’s remnants constructed a massive orbiting space station dubbed the Tet, from which the survivors hope to mount a massive exodus to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. In pursuit of that grand scheme, Earth’s remaining resources — particularly water — are being extracted by huge, computer-driven factories, and sent to the Tet.
Two-person “monitoring teams” are stationed near each factory, ostensibly to handle any necessary repairs. Unfortunately, pockets of the Scavengers — Scavs — still remain on Earth, and are doing their best to sabotage these operations. In order to help safeguard the repair crews, globe-shaped weaponized “drones” scour the devastated landscape, seeking and eliminating any remaining alien resistance.
Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), also known as Tech 49, is one of the resourceful repairmen. (Think of him as a human WALL-E.) He flies a highly maneuverable “bubbleship” to respond to situations detected by his communications officer and lover, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), with whom he shares a tower “home base” protectively built thousands of feet above the planet’s surface. Jack and Victoria maintain constant contact with their commanding officer, Sally (Melissa Leo), who monitors their efforts from the Tet.
OK, yes, that’s a lot of back-story to absorb in the first five minutes. The thin strand of technological credibility also gets stretched way beyond the usual point of endurance, much the way we had to swallow the concept of the huge, forest-filled domes that humanity sent into stable orbit after paving over the entire Earth, in 1972’s “Silent Running.” As was the case then, we simply have to accept these jaw-dropping details and move on.
Once past that introductory hump, the plot’s remaining details more or less hold together.
Jack’s daily responsibilities have grown more harrowing, because the Scavs have become more adept at damaging the protective drones, forcing him to repair them. But that exposes him to land-based dangers, even when granted the protective cover of another drone. Repairs are becoming more frequent, and spare parts are growing scarce; it would appear that the Scavs’ guerrilla tactics are succeeding.
Victoria, noting the weary despair in Jack’s eyes, counsels patience: Their Earth-bound tour of duty is almost over, and in two weeks they can return to the Tet and join the colonists heading for Titan.
But Jack’s exhaustion isn’t due solely to a growing concern for personal safety; he also suffers from recurring dreams and flashbacks to a vibrant New York City that he couldn’t possibly have experienced.
“Is it possible to miss a place you’ve never been?” he wonders aloud, with Cruise adding poetic bewilderment to the question. “To mourn a time you’ve never known?”
Perhaps even stranger, his dreams always show the same smiling, cheerful woman standing beside him, on the observation deck of the Empire State Building.
Victoria isn’t interested; she has her eye on the prize, and doesn’t want any protocol or psyche deviations to screw up their impending return to the Tet.
The entire scenario is grim, to say the least, and visual effects supervisors Eric Barba and Bjorn Mayer don’t spare our sensibilities. Whereas the original “Planet of the Apes” had to be satisfied with the final, single-image reveal of a half-buried Statue of Liberty, this film becomes almost casual with its depiction of a ruined North American landscape, as Jack makes his daily rounds: cratered cities, identified by the remnants of familiar locales or iconic monuments; rusted ships listing in the sands of dried-up oceans; and everything surrounded by computer-gridded “radiation zones” that he must take care to avoid.
You’ll also likely notice vague inconsistencies: things that seem out of place, occasional comments between Jack and Victoria that don’t ring quite true. There’s a greater mystery at hand, and Kosinski and his co-scripters tantalize us while carefully building up to not just one, but several provocative surprises (one of which, sadly, is revealed in this film’s shows-too-damn-much preview).
Cruise is reasonably persuasive as the story’s haunted protagonist, a spit-and-polish soldier whose hardened training has begun to unravel. Cruise loves his tortured gazes almost as much as he embraces any excuse to prove that he’s still got what it takes, in terms of physical endurance, on the far side of 50. And this storyline gives him plenty of opportunities for running, jumping and getting smacked around.
We also can’t help smiling when Jack’s bubbleship hardware is shown to include a futuristic motorcycle, for land-based reconnaissance; Cruise also loves his choppers.
Riseborough’s Victoria is an intriguing presence. Her appearance is peculiarly formal for somebody permanently stationed indoors, by herself for half of each day; we assume that the runway model appearance is a ritual intended to stabilize her sense of self, but even so … the high heels seem an odd choice. And there’s a strong sense of something going on behind her thoughtful, often worried gaze: an intriguing, quiet complexity that Riseborough also brought to her supporting roles in “Never Let Me Go” and “Made in Dagenham.”
Olga Kurylenko, who burst on scene as Bond girl Camille, in 2008’s “Quantum of Solace,” is properly enigmatic as the woman in Jack’s dreams. Melissa Leo, in turn, adds a subtle but distinct undertone of menace to Commander Sally’s superficially cheery radio exchanges. Somehow, her morale-building mantra, delivered daily to Victoria — “Are you and Jack an effective team?” — begins to sound sinister.
Other actors are worth discussing, but I can’t; their mere mention would involve too many spoilers.
Which leads to my strong recommendation that you see this film quickly, if it’s on your radar, before all the plot’s secrets are spoiled by the usual gaggle of media idiots. Kosinski & Co. have orchestrated an opulent and genuinely exciting sci-fi thriller, which also deserves credit for its cunning and reasonably intelligent narrative.
And yes, it’s worth shelling out the extra $$$ to see it on an IMAX screen.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com