Great looking but not very filling, Joseph Kosinski’s “Oblivion” is superior to his first picture, the pretty but pointless “Tron: Legacy,” which was no less a misfire than its inspiration. But this stately, solemn film is yet another sci-fi epic that’s technically accomplished but narratively derivative. The script, adapted from Kosinski’s graphic novel, is meant to provide a series of surprising twists, but all of them turn out to be familiar from other pictures about a dystopian future, and they’re ladled out so slowly that the staleness becomes even more apparent.
To deal with the positive first, the depiction of a depopulated, mostly destroyed earth of 2077, with the fragments of a blown-to-bits moon still hanging motionless in the night sky and bits of recognizable landmarks scattered across the landscape, is visually striking, if—as so often is the case—rather sterile. The premise is that the planet was attacked by aliens called Scavengers some sixty years earlier, leading the defenders to make use of nuclear weapons against them, which resulted in a barren, uninhabitable wasteland. The surviving terrestrial population have almost all been transported to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, for a new home.
But two humans have been left behind with an essential job—to keep in operation huge devices that are extracting energy from the sea waters for the Titan community. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is the tech who takes care of any mechanical problems, patrolling the planet’s surface in his cool bladeless helicopter or speedy motorcycle to attend to any trouble with the rigs. He also must defend them from attacks by the ragtag bands of Scavs that are trying to sabotage them. In this he’s aided by a passel of circular drones equipped with artillery that can blast anything they aim at to smithereens. Jack also has to keep these automated weapons on line and in working order.
Back on their sleek mountaintop base, Jack’s partner Vika (Andrea Riseborough) monitors what he’s doing from her big console, in turn watched from deep space by genial but demanding Sally (Melissa Leo) from a Titan command post. Still, he occasionally slips away to visit a lovely green valley where vegetation has begun to reappear and he’s created a personal utopia, complete with a primitive hut, books and LPs he’s collected. (If this reminds you of everything from “Wall-E” to “Warm Bodies,” you’ll be in good company.) Jack is obviously yearning for the old earth life, and is conflicted over the fact that his mission is due to end in a mere two weeks.
Complications arise, however, when Jack rescues the sole survivor of a spacecraft that crashes one day—a woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko), encased in a hibernation capsule, who just happens to be the person haunting his dreams, even though his memory was wiped clean to prepare him psychologically for his assignment. Who is she, what’s her relationship to him? But that’s not all: Jack is taken prisoner by a band of Scavs headed by sonorous Morgan Freeman and volatile Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Who are they, really, and what do that want with Jack?
“Oblivion” answers these questions with revelations that are presumably meant to be clever but fall far short of that goal, instead coming across as standard-issue stuff reminiscent of scads of novels and short stories, not to mention past movies, often adapted from them. The particulars will be omitted here to prevent spoilage, and it must be said that Kosinski and cinematographer Claudio Miranda have fashioned them all with a degree of visual sophistication all the more remarkable for their complexity. But ultimately the last half-hour brings a been-there, done-that vibe that makes the earlier ninety minutes seem like a lead-up to an end that while not dead is pretty tired.
Cruise handles Jack’s heroic duties with his customary tight-lipped aplomb, and after his many hand-to-hand combat scenes against myriad villains over the last ten years or so in pictures from the “Mission Impossible” franchise to “Jack Reacher,” he gets to engage in what might have been a dream of his—literally doing battle with himself (at last a worthy opponent!). The women have less to do but Riseborough brings a nice wryness to Vika and Kurylenko an appropriate sense of turmoil to Julia. Freeman contributes his patented sageness and Coster-Waldau some hirsute energy, while Leo makes a strong impression though all her scenes are on a video screen. The drones are cool.
For the most part “Oblivion” moves very slowly, and one might be inclined to fault Richard Francis-Bruce’s editing. But he’s merely hewing to the pace that Kosinski obviously desires, and he keeps things admirably clear, except for a few cluttered action scenes. The score by M83 is happily sparer than the bombast usually offered in such fare.
But while the film isn’t the disaster many of these would-be sci-fi blockbusters have been, in the final analysis except from the visual standpoint it’s just a middle-of-the-road futuristic action picture, lacking the sense of mystery and majesty that Kubrick brought to “2001”—as well as a saving sense of humor.