'Oblivion' consciously follows in the footsteps of its predecessors, but never finds itself
Oblivion Universal Pictures
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Screenplay: Joseph Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt, based on a graphic novel by
Kosinski and Arvid Nelson
Starring: Tom Cruise, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Morgan Freeman, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Melissa Leo
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 5 minutes
Opened April 19, 2013
(out of four)
Oblivion is a victim of oversaturation. Too often we've seen a vision of a world where
civilization has crumbled to ruins. Too often we've seen the same treasured landmarks tipped
over and buried in dust. The same sterile, high-tech spacecrafts surveying all the damage from on
high, with the same turbo boosters and the same laser missiles. We've seen the same enigmatic
leader of the same underground resistance.
And in the middle of it all, we've seen the same savior-in-waiting, the heroic loner (and not a
loner by choice, of course - he's had solitude and heroism hoisted upon him, but he's a romantic
at heart!); and more often than not that heroic loner looks vaguely like Tom Cruise.
In fact, sometimes he looks exactly like Tom Cruise - which is lucky for Earth, because even
the specter of global annihilation can't compete with the fierce determination permanently
welded on Tom Cruise's face.
Indeed that's the visage of humanity and salvation we get at the center of Oblivion, Joseph
Kosinski's second directorial feature, and it's one of many things about it that feels stalely
familiar. Like any other film in such a recognizable subgenre, this one inherits the DNA of all
the postapocalyptic science-fiction dramas that came before it; and to its credit, it's consciously
aware of its predecessors. Some would say too conscious, too reverential or too derivative,
though I think that's missing the point a bit. Kosinski is clearly lifting things left and right, from
both classic and contemporary sci-fi; but the lifting or homage itself is not really the problem.
Everyone does that, whether they admit it or not. The problem is that it never finds much of
anything to do with those influences; it never carves out an identity of its own. It comes across as
just another one of those last-man-on-earth movies - nice-looking, but shallowly written and
I recently had a conversation with a friend about the meaning of "homage" in cinema and the
tradition of shared ideas, references and influences (both obvious and discreet) throughout the
arts in general. My argument was that a reference point itself - whether it's a blatant theft, a
subtle shout-out, a pointed dig or anything in between - isn't what ultimately matters; what
matters is what the artist is doing with that reference. When Quentin Tarantino makes a movie,
he doesn't simply cobble together a series of references; he uses specific influences as a
jumping-off point, turning recognizable ideas, tropes, genres and formulas into a concoction
uniquely his own.
It's that "uniquely his own" part that Kosinski, for all his talent,
seems to be lacking so far. The movies he's pulling from are fair game; but his end product is a
rather ordinary exercise in formula, brought to life only by some dazzling pieces of composition
and production design. (There's a great setup in the ruins of the Empire State Building, the
arching bars of its observation deck looking like the leftover, half-buried ribcage of a long-decomposed animal carcass.) Kosinski certainly knows what visual ideas he wants to get out of
the formula, but he doesn't (yet) know how to invigorate the material. In the annals of post-global-catastrophe movies, this one simply doesn't have much (if anything) to say.
In both of his two features, this and TRON: Legacy before it, Kosinski seems to have other things
in mind aside from (or in place of) the story he's telling. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as
both movies could use just about anything to distract from their awful screenplays. One of the
things that struck me most about TRON was the clearly present influence of Eyes Wide Shut, of
all films (not to mention A Clockwork Orange and all other things Kubrick), and in Oblivion
there is an abundance of similarly anachronistic sexual imagery and cinematic nods, all of which
are a lot more interesting than the movie itself.
It's no surprise, given the aforementioned Kubrickian sensibility of the earlier film, that
Kosinski's first attempt at an outer-space saga is loaded with 2001 iconography. And it's not
hard to see that Morgan Freeman's character is a Morpheus surrogate, right down to the badass
shades. There's no shortage of other influences, many of which (one in particular) would be
considered spoilers even to mention, so I'll resist.
The template for Kosinski's canvas is simple enough, and we know most of it by heart anyway.
Earth has been destroyed, forcing humans off-planet - in this case on Titan, one of Saturn's
moons. Presumably on a rotational basis, two people remain - Jack (Cruise), a field technician
tasked with keeping the mining stations (which are being used to harvest the planet's resources
for use on Titan) in working order, as well as preserving and repairing the various maintenance
drones that litter the planet; and his comm officer and lover, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough).
Things generally go smoothly, but every now and then he gets into a firefight with the
Scavengers (or "Scavs"), the mysterious entity supposedly responsible for Earth's great
cataclysm in the first place.
Jack and Victoria - whose memories were wiped as a matter of
protocol before beginning their mission - have just two weeks left before their obligation is
complete and they can go and join the other survivors on Titan. (And you know what "only two
weeks left" means . . . trouble! Yes, those last two weeks will bring all kinds of surprises and
danger.) Despite his memory wipe, Jack is haunted by fragmented memories of another woman
(Olga Kurylenko) from back before the war. And lo and behold, that woman appears, setting in
motion a series of events that force Jack to confront his purpose on this planet.
As specific as the plot details are, in truth they hardly matter because most of the ideas are so
poorly explored. Oblivion begins confidently and seems like it's building toward something, but
the suspense and momentum created in the first act devolve into a series of half-hearted reveals
and melodramatic sentiments. Freeman, for example, is completely wasted; he only has about
three substantial scenes in the entire film, all of them largely ineffectual.
Still, I remain cautiously optimistic about Kosinski's future as a director, if only because I think
his impulses are coming from an interesting and cultivated place. Several months ago, another
friend of mine and I each put together a makeshift top-10 list of who we thought would make the
best fit to take over Star Wars. I slid Kosinski onto my list as a surprise entry at No. 10. (For the
record, my No. 1 choice was Edgar Wright.) I stand by that, not only because of his visual
command but also because I think he'd come at the material from a unique perspective. Oblivion
confirms that, but it also demonstrates, once again, his consistently sloppy (or just disinterested)
storytelling. I'm looking forward to the day he puts it all together.