Once the special effects and sound crews for Oblivion were factored in, there must not have been room in the $120 million budget for a decent script. Trying its damnedest to overcome the film’s myriad story gaps, over-reliance on exposition, and uninspired cribbing from more accomplished genre predecessors, the impressive sci-fi eye and ear candy only go so far and gradually give way to larger issues beneath the veneer.
From the clunky opening narration that establishes why Earth is in its decimated state and the mission of mop-up technicians Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), it’s clear that Oblivion is uninterested in subtlety. That’s fairly standard for works of this scope, but the rampant telling in Joseph Kosinski’s film is a bit at odds with its parallel aspirations of being a conspiracy-laden mind bender.
In Jack’s overview, the instant he mentions a “mandatory memory wipe,” there’s little doubt that something foul is afoot. For much of the first act, traversing the ravaged planet via clean, expensive-looking aircraft and piecing together various fishy details make for an engaging quest that not even another phoned-in Cruise performance can ruin. Aided by deadly spherical (yet oddly cuddly) drones and hunted by what’s left of the Scavs (humanity’s alien invaders who resemble S&M Tusken Raiders), the story’s intrigue grows. It all comes to a screeching halt, however, when the answers begin to take shape and the means through which the core mystery is unraveled fail to line up with its intended shock revelations.
Euthanizing Oblivion’s buzz is a combination of undefined boundaries and multiple simplistic turn of events. While the film’s technology certainly seems advanced, the extent of its capabilities are surprisingly fallible. The gadgetry can pick up a DNA trail and remotely analyze the genetic sample, yet Jack is able to evade its reach and regularly escape to a secluded forest getaway. His cabin and cache of old Earth treasures at this site raises all sorts of questions, none of which are explored, and it’s therefore fitting that he receives no questioning from lover/co-worker Victoria upon his return home, despite the gist that he’s been MIA for hours.
Plot holes like these are frustrating, but in a film that wants to be sexy and smart, these stumbles make it difficult to be wowed by the eventual “stunning truth.” Lacking the build-up necessary to induce the intended gasps Kosinski is so blatantly after, the film is likewise plagued by Jack’s swift acceptance of this information and a near immediate dedication to the new cause. Any hope for surprise is further muted by a deep rooting in sci-fi forebears and a recycling of their iconic sights. Nods (few of which may actually be intentional) to Moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Independence Day, and even Wall-E are fine, but when their distinct motifs are used at major narrative junctures, Kosinski may as well ask his audience to shout out the telegraphed “twists.” Bereft of such competence, Oblivion is merely a big, loud, pretty space movie with mush for brains and a title whose appropriateness extends beyond the realm of its characters.
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, brief strong language, and some sensuality/nudity.
Oblivion is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.