The “memory wipes” mentioned in Joseph Kosinski’s second feature should be made mandatory for incoming viewers. Since cinemas don’t sell them, Oblivion can’t quite deliver on its promise of a mystery-steeped, original sci-fi contrast to 2013’s franchise heavyweights (Iron Man 3, Fast & Furious 6 et al).
Repeating both the visual wow and storytelling stutters of his Tron: Legacy, Kosinski’s riff on his own unpublished graphic novel dazzles but lacks vital parts: the pace or twists that might have made it easier for us to forget the genre classics it fairly brazenly echoes.
If at first that’s not a problem, you can thank Kosinski’s striking vision of a world ravaged by alien war. Crumbling like a stale muffin, a shot-to-bits moon has reduced Earth to an eco-disaster zone scoured by alien “Scavengers”.
Another big plus is Tom Cruise, who starts the film pounding a treadmill and never stops. Back in the sci-fi saddle for the first time since 2005’s War Of The Worlds, the star engages as last-man-on-earth Jack Harper, a repairman tasked to monitor the drones protecting hydro-rigs that send energy to humanity’s survivors, now based just off-Saturn.
He also gets to play (almost to the point of redundancy) with a bubble-ship and a space-age dirt bike, groovy toy-tech made to match the slinky sky-tower he shares with co-worker Andrea Riseborough. Their sexy-time together briefly helps you forget you’re watching WALL-E humanised, though the deadening dialogue could’ve benefited from WALL-E’s wordless reserve.
The plot could’ve benefited from some spark, too: taking ages to get moving, it leaves you homing in on the echoes of other movies. Silent Running, Solaris and Moon are good echoes, true, but the low-powered scripting (by too-many-cooks trio William Monahan, Michael Arndt and Karl Gajdusek) fails to match their lean punch. Even when the crash-down, barf-up arrival of Olga Kurylenko’s mysterious Julia jolts the story awake, it slumps again into a sombre serving of “Previously in Oblivion” exposition.
The pace perks up when, repressed memories stirred by Julia, Harper revisits Earth and uncovers complications involving Morgan Freeman’s posse of Batman cosplayers. (That’s what they look like, anyway.) Spoiler turf begins here, as Kosinski splices mysteries, airborne mayhem and M83’s driving techno-Zimmer score with arthouse-meets-blockbuster intent.
Intelligent, innovative and intimate sci-fi is always welcome, but Oblivion isn’t quite it. Maybe 2013’s other one-word genre originals – Elysium, Gravity – will give us more to remember them by.
It isn’t a reboot or reimagining, refreshingly, but Oblivion plays like a stylised remix of superior sci-fi ground-breakers. Cruise and Kosinski: they might be an effective team, but pioneers they’re not.