Despite being the biggest movie star on the planet (must … resist … obvious joke … about height …), Thomas Cruise Mapother IV still divides audiences like a hot knife through butter. “Just look and marvel at his filmography!”, his supporters will declare. “The man is a chameleon; he has played superspies, 200-year-old bisexual vampires, alcoholic American soldiers that earn the strength of samurai … what other leading man can lay claim to such a diverse body of work?”.
Nay-sayers would declare this to be baldersdash. “Balderdash!”, they’ll claim (see, told you); “the man has played superspies with a cheeky grin, 200-year-old bisexual vampires with a cheeky grin, and alcoholic American soldiers that earn the strength of samurai with a cheeky grin. He always plays Tom Cruise playing a character, and lacks serious dramatic chops”.
The reason for all this focus on the celebrated Scientologist? Your tolerance for the man will have a significant impact on your enjoyment of Oblivion. It may be his first genre entry since cheekily grinning his way through a Wellsian alien invasion in 2005, but it’s also every inch A Tom Cruise Movie.
Answering the frequently-posed question of what Hollywood planned on doing when they ran out of printed properties to adapt, the film sees Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski bring his own unpublished graphic novel to the screen (start dusting off your dissertations ladies and gents, they could net you a million-dollar screenwriting contract in a few years). It’s an undoubtedly ambitious project, and a real visual feast with plenty of moments to widen the most cynical of eyeballs. Alas, the same level of care has not been slavished on the script.
It’s clear that Kosinski intended Oblivion as a loving homage to the classic science fiction flicks of the 70s, right down to the fetching silver-heavy costume design. Unfortunately amidst all the attempts to emulate the slow-burn world-building of such classics as Silent Running, Kolinski and his co-conspirators on screenplay duty (William Monahan, Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt – the latter of whom is currently tackling Star Wars: Episode VII) forgot to inject enough story to cover the films two-hour plus running time.
The world of Oblivion – a post-nuclear scorched Earth – is established early with an exposition-heavy opening. This is unlike Kosinski, who is clearly a gifted visual storyteller; however, the helmer opts to tell rather than show this time, reciting events through a Cruise-delivered monologue in the opening moments, leaving his movie with an opening hour where very little of any importance actually occurs. Whatever your views on The Cruiser there’s no denying he’s a charismatic sort, and he manages to carry the movie on his impressively muscular shoulders, but more story would not have gone amiss.
Even the most dedicated viewer will find their bottom stating to numb and mind starting to wander at the lengthy scenes of unconvincing dialogue between Cruise’s Jack (has he actually played a character without that forename in recent times?) and his wife Victoria, played with suitably cut-glass and dead-eyed distraction by Andrea Riseborough. Jack pilots futuristic aircraft, ponders dreams and visions of a mysterious beautiful woman on a pre-apocalyptic Earth, and takes in the occasionally unspoiled scenery. Sadly none of this is as interesting as Kosinski seems to believe; no doubt it would have looked dazzling on the page, and the effects certainly impress on a cinema screen, but it’s asking a lot of an audience to devote so much time to a script that seems to be going nowhere, and to invest themselves emotionally in Jack when he shows few particuarly interesting character traits.
Business picks up when Jack finds a Bond-girl shaped stranger crash-landed and abandoned on the planet surface. Interaction with Olga Kurylenko’s Julia leads to a capture by an insurgency led by Morgan Freeman (and Jaime Lannister himself, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who is given little to do except point guns and look mildly perturbed by Cruise’s presence) who seems to know more than he is willing to let on, and the real thrust of Oblivion’s plot begins. Who is Jack? Why is he on Earth, and why does he keep dreaming about a life before the war? What is his connection to Julia? Should we really care about any of the above?
The answer to that depends on your stomach for a mish-mash of genre tropes and highlights. One development will bring inevitable and unfavourable comparisons with one of the most celebrated SF flicks of recent years, and the flick generally lurches from one set piece to the next without any real coherence between them. Spaceships are flown and crashed, shit is blown up, space age guns are pointed and teeth gritted, and audiences remain largely ambivalent. It’s all been seen and done before, frequently better, sometimes worse.
If you’re looking for a Friday night popcorn muncher, there are worse options out there than Oblivion – it’s no Minority Report (mainly because Kosinski is clearly no Spielberg), but as mentioned, it’s visually striking enough to avoid becoming a complete yawnfest and Cruise is always good value. In what promises to be a gala year for original science fiction with Pacific Rim and Elysium to follow in the coming months though, it’s unlikely to linger in the memory beyond breakfast on Saturday morning.