Review: 'Oblivion'

A sleekly furnished blockbuster ideal for the mash-up age, Joseph Kosinski’s “Oblivion” seems bound to blow the mind of some 14-year-old kid somewhere. As a potential gateway drug to the genre, the ambition of its ideas and extent of its world design are considerable attributes; as the latest studio stride towards so-called “original” sci-fi (in that it’s not a sequel, prequel, remake or reboot), those aforementioned ideas are glaringly indebted to several earlier works and the film overall remains beholden to one established brand above all others: Tom Cruise.

Sixty years hence, the human population of our war-torn planet has been evacuated to an orbiting space station, from which all will soon travel to Titan to begin life anew. Until then, massive hydro-energy whatsits harness what’s left of our oceans, devices protected from meddlesome scavengers by robotic drones, which are themselves kept in working order by Jack (Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). He takes to the planet’s surface for repairs by day while she keeps tabs from sky-scraping living quarters and reports back to the sweetly authoritative Sally (Melissa Leo), and once drone duties are done, they keep one another company in their luxury limbo, situated as it is between the heavens and Earth.

Two more weeks until Titan, Victoria reminds, imploring to the ever-curious Jack that he shouldn’t get any bright ideas, that he shouldn’t break protocol, that he shouldn’t take nightly nookie in their translucent sky pool for granted. Jack being Jack -- which is to say, Jack being Cruise -- he fails to sit idly by as emergency pods fall from the sky without warning, and once he retrieves Julia (Olga Kurylenko), a lone survivor with an oddly familiar face, her questions only serve to fuel his own.

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Just as Harper is forced to repair drones using only recycled parts, Kosinski builds his universe mostly using the same. Jack’s bubble ship and sky condo have all the polish of any given iDevice; the evident destruction of New York City landmarks bring to mind “Planet of the Apes,” if somehow nothing else; while a bomb-minded resistance movement led by the Morpheus-like Beech (Morgan Freeman) more specifically evokes “Beneath the Planet of the Apes.” Our hero’s fondness for rare post-apocalyptic plant life and women with a strict work ethic can’t help but remind one of “Wall-E,” while the sight of a shattered moon often looming over the horizon finally gives one cause to recall 2002’s update of “The Time Machine.”

There are even more evident signposts beyond that initial set-up, but to simply name them would be to give up “Oblivion’s” few intended surprises. The more that Jack tries to remember, the more that sci-fi-savvy viewers will try to forget as they beat him to an inevitable awakening. However unoriginal they are, the fact that this film is even entertaining Big Ideas automatically marks it as a step forward from the monochromatic monomyth exercise that was “Tron: Legacy.” The case might soon be made that this film’s second-half revelations prove conceptually critical of its very own existence; alas, we’ll return to biting our tongues for now.

What can be said is that Kosinski’s emphasis on style over substance informs “Oblivion” much as it did “Tron,” offering forth only the most handsome stretches of desolate wasteland and glimpses of plasticine future tech for our enjoyment, as the helmer fulfills Zack Snyder’s absence in bringing bitchin’ album art to life on the big screen. (On a related note, M83 and Joseph Trapanese’s score here unsurprisingly evokes Daft Punk’s like-minded electronica soundtrack for “Tron” when not outright parroting Hans Zimmer’s “Inception” cues -- yet another element rendered with equal parts urgency and familiarity.)

The sight of an aggressive drone floating slowly through billowing, flaming curtains at one critical moment epitomizes the director’s eye for the coolest cruelty, and everything else about the film, from the characters to the plotting, reinforces the extent to which sheer functionality dominates the proceedings. Anyone who isn’t Jack only serves to nudge him towards his destiny, and every big reveal finds itself sandwiched cozily between suitably slick action beats, themselves each doled out with clockwork precision. In turn, the human components all do their part, with Cruise running, gunning, yelling and jumping while Riseborough comes closest to introducing much-needed passion and vulnerability to an otherwise routine revolution.

The title itself even has a certain generic grandeur to it, promising extinction-scale stakes in the moment while begging to be accurately remembered a year from now, let alone sixty. Somehow setting aside its exhaustively derivative central mystery, the base-level spectacle of “Oblivion” does manage to be Big and Loud and Not Entirely Incoherent for those willing to watch Tom Cruise serve his primary purpose in the guise of a man trying to uncover his primary purpose. Sure, I may not sound overly thrilled by the end result, but just go back and ask 14-year-old me what he thought.

SCORE: 6.7 / 10