Science fiction is one film genre that seems to wear its ancestors, the films that inspired it or, less charitably, that it “borrowed” from, with pride.
Thus, “Oblivion” has “Scavengers” who dress like Sand People from “Star Wars”; round, red-eyed killer drones from “2001” and “Robocop”; a finale from “Independence Day” and a director from “TRON Legacy.”
And Joseph Kosinski brought his blatting synthetic tubas score, used in the original “TRON” and in “Inception,” with him.
That doesn’t make “Oblivion” a bad movie, just a familiar one – generic.
Decades from now, we see a depopulated post-apocalyptic Earth, where the moon is but a debris field in the night sky. The humans have fought and won a war against the invading Scavengers but lost the planet in the process. The A-bombs, earthquakes and tsunamis rendered it almost unlivable. And surviving Scavengers fight on, interfering with the efforts of those on the gigantic space station, Tet, to drain the seas for fusion energy for the human colony on Saturn’s moon, Titan.
Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is one of “the mop-up crew” who keeps the drones that protect the ocean reactors running on this drying planet, drones the Scavengers keep shooting down. He’s got a partner, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who monitors his work from the control tower they live in, and a smiling, drawling, no-nonsense “Mission Control” boss (a disembodied Melissa Leo) up on Tet. But Jack has little memory of what Earth used to be like.
He has dreams of a woman he can’t quite place, is prone to insubordination and reveries when he stumbles across the ruins of the stadium where the last Super Bowl was played. Tumbling into the buried remains of a great library, he picks up a book, Lord Macaulay’s heroic poems about Rome – “How can man die better than facing fearful odds?” Perhaps Jack is remembering his “Top Gun” past. He sneaks off to his cabin in a forested corner of the planet, listening to Led Zeppelin records and fantasizing a life there. If only Victoria would go rogue and visit the surface with him.
And that’s when a spaceship crashes and the woman he rescues (Olga Kurylenko) turns out to be the woman from his dreams. Whatever made sense about his world, his past and his mission goes right out the window.
The action beats involve shootouts with Scavengers and epic chases involving drones, which are depicted as heartless killing machines that take humanity out of the equation of war. It’s not giving too much away to say that Morgan Freeman pops up and presents further moral quandaries.
Cruise is more effective than empathetic in the lead role, Kurylenko is still a pretty (and pretty bland) screen presence, and the humorless Kosinski is still a filmmaker who could use a vigorous edit in the script stage.
That makes “Oblivion” exactly the sort of sci-fi film one would expect in April – epic and often exciting, but too familiar and too bland to cut it as a summer release.
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