Epic sci-fi can be hard to pull off, not to mention epic sci-fi with something to say. So it's not surprising that Tom Cruise's latest star-vehicle directed by visual mastermind Joseph Kosinski ("Tron: Legacy") is something of a toss-up. With a compelling premise, good acting, astounding visuals and a killer soundtrack by M83, "Oblivion" has a lot going for it. The problem is, it doesn't totally succeed as a story, which is kind of the point of doing a movie in the first place.
Cruise plays Jack Harper, a "tech" assigned by Earth's space station (led by Melissa Leo) to make sure cylindrical drones tasked with eliminating aliens are kept functional. You see, 60 years earlier, an alien invasion occurred that drove the remaining humans to another planet and left Earth a wasteland.
By Jack's side is his "watcher" Victoria (Andrea Riseborough, "W./E.") with whom he has fallen in love. They spend their days doing the task assigned and spend their nights in a sleekly pristine "tower" home with amazing views and an even cooler pool. But when Jack makes an unusual discovery while out on a drone mission, and later when a woman falls from the sky, Jack's whole understanding of himself and his life is thrown into question.
I don't want to say too much as the best part of "Oblivion" is just experiencing it fresh. That's not to say that there aren't a whole lot of clichés and blatant steals from other sci-fi films, among them "2001," "Moon," "Wall-E," "Mad Max" and even "Return of the Jedi." But there is something fascinating embedded into the film that is hard not to appreciate.
Director Kosinski misfired with the long-awaited follow-up to Disney's '80s cult classic, "Tron." It was cold, leaden and difficult to understand without any charismatic characters. On the other hand, it looked fantastic and had an amazing soundtrack by Daft Punk. Here, Kosinski has evolved nicely. He gives his characters more depth and likability and also gives them more story to work with.
Granted, there is still a coldness to it that creates a distance with the audience. For example, despite Jack and Victoria being the only ones on Earth, why does Victoria dress to the nines every day in sleek fitting dresses, stylish pumps and flawless make-up? Who is she dressing for? And why is she so cool and controlled all the time? (We don't get answers to this.)
The script by Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt, based on the graphic novel by Kosinski and Arvid Nelson is, again, an interesting premise, but falters with earnest dialogue and a convoluted plot that becomes confusing. There are also a number of plot holes (large and small) that keep you scratching your head and asking questions once the film ends.
Furthermore, there is so much information thrown at you in the opening monologue that the plethora of information we get after that begs for an index. Despite the film's open landscapes and stripped down aesthetics, it's a complicated narrative that probably works better in graphic novel or book form.
But that's where the complaints end. Yes, a less than stellar script is certainly a big problem when the script is the foundation of the film. But there is so much to like otherwise that it's hard not to praise in some ways. The look of the film is truly astonishing.
Production designer Darren Gilford gives the film a sleek, glossy look that still resonates in the scenes within caves or at a secret log cabin Jack has made as a getaway. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda soars with his endless shots of a covered up New York City, lush green canyons, and spacious deserts.
Usually, sci-fi films are dark and chilly. Here, we get a different kind of sci-fi where the glorious sun illuminates the amazing vistas, and the broken moon lights up the nights with crystalline clarity. The technology and special effects are flawless, the costume design is lovely and the music by Anthony Gonzalez and M83 is gorgeous, haunting and appropriately dramatic.
The actors all do fine work, even when directed to say their lines and move very, very slowly. Cruise is a bit off at first, but slowly grows comfortable in his sci-fi shoes. Riseborough is exquisite in a controlled performance that keeps you wondering if there's something behind her sculpted persona. Morgan Freeman as the mysterious Beech is only around to give sage advice and then he has practically nothing to do.
Olga Kurylenko, however, is the true find here. Between this and "To the Wonder" she is becoming the actress to watch in 2013. She's shed her Bond girl trappings and is proving she is a haunting actress that can express more with her face and body language alone than most actresses can in an entire monologue.
You're not going to get any sort of "wow" ending and most of the twists are a bit predictable or anti-climactic; not to mention a second act character choice makes it look as though all jealous women are raging bitches. But there are moments that work and there is a beauty here that is undeniable. Don't expect Cruise's latest to be an important addition to the sci-fi film lexicon, but it's a fairly entertaining distraction, despite its numerous problems.