The score for Oblivion, written by French electronic band M83, pulses and swells beautifully throughout Joseph Kosinski's film, crescendoing to thundering Hans Zimmer heights (with perhaps a little too much of his Inception bwaammmp sound) and softening into Michael Giacchino-esque plaintive piano plinking. It's a terrific score, propulsive and moody, and Kosinski showed good taste in hiring the band — just as he did when he commissioned Daft Punk to score his Tron: Legacy. He also smartly reteamed with his Tron cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who recently won an Oscar for working miracles in Life of Pi. Oblivion is sleek and gorgeous, smooth and matte-finish, full of watery grays and cool blues. And the film's digital effects — giving us a broken moon and the windswept barren expanse of an Earth gone to seed — are employed with a subtle and particular hand. What I'm saying is that the movie looks and sounds great. So why is it such a disappointment?
I'm inclined to blame a script written by committee. The first draft was done by Kosinski and The Departed screenwriter William Monahan. Then TV writer Karl Gajdusek took a pass, with Little Miss Sunshine writer Michael Arndt doing a final rewrite. What they ended up with is a mishmash, a muddy mixture of intriguing sci-fi mystery and goopy, undercooked romantic drama. There's also a heavy and ineptly handled strain of existentialism running throughout, one that poses some interesting questions only to half-answer them in mawkish fashion. I won't get into any specifics about that lest you be spoiled and miss out on what is a fun, if not terribly deep, trip down the rabbit hole. But I will say that Oblivion does prove to have some rather big ambitions, ones it too-quickly puts aside in favor of trailer-ready action sequences that swiftly become repetitive and unexciting. Had this been treated more like a grand sci-fi detective story instead of an action picture, we might have had something searching and special on our hands. But as is, Oblivion is a big springtime popcorn flick adorned only with glimmers of something more, the specter of a richer movie dancing around its edges like an aurora.
Tom Cruise plays Jack Harper, one of the few people left on Earth in 2077, following a disastrous war with aliens that left the humans victorious but their planet a wasteland of radiation and ruin. There are also some of the remaining alien invaders, called Scavs (for scavengers), roaming around, making the planet a pretty inhospitable place to be. But Jack has to descend from his house/station — located high in the clouds, propped up by a stilt, essentially — every day anyway, piloting his way around this abandoned world on various repair missions. It's his job to maintain the whirring spherical drones who protect giant, hovering machines that are sucking up the planet's remaining ocean water. See, the rest of the humans are either comfortably residing on one of Saturn's moons or awaiting the journey in the Tet, a vast pyramid-shaped ship orbiting the Earth. The water will be converted into energy, crucial for human survival once they get to Titan. From the Tet, a Texas-twanging superior named Sally (Melissa Leo) gives Jack and his partner/lover Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) their orders, and we're told early on that there are only two weeks left of their lonely mission.
Of course something gums up the works and soon Jack is face-to-face with a woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko), who has just crash-landed on Earth in an old-looking spaceship and, coming in and out of consciousness, whispers Jack's name. Weirder still, Jack has been dreaming of her, specifically of her atop the Empire State Building, standing by one of the tourist telescopes and looking at Jack expectantly. What the heck is going on here? What lies in between that first discovery and the eventual elucidation is a series of zoom-zoom chase sequences and battle scenes involving Cruise and some of those angry drones. Unfortunately there's not really much excitement in watching people do battle with these well-rendered but inevitably soulless robots, especially when each instance feels pretty much the same as the last. The mystery, which is what we really care about, gets short shrift amid all the action, so by the time we get to the film's grand emotional/philosophical climax, it feels unearned. The thematic momentum is halted too often for any of the movie's ideas to gain any real traction, and so we're left being told to feel something big and rather profound, but instead shrugging our shoulders and wondering what all the fuss is about.
Our hero almost sells it, though. Cruise, looking as fit and fine as ever, radiates an intensity that can be off-putting when he's appearing as himself in interviews, but that is awfully captivating when he's safely ensconced in a character like this one -- a searcher, a lover, a blunt and efficient savior. It's too bad that the script saddles him with some ungainly moments of treacle, like when he stands in the wreckage of a football stadium and gives a misty-eyed play-by-play of Earth's last Super Bowl. It's a hokey scene that feels unnecessary — the weight of what's lost is already evident in all the physical ruin — and is really not helped by the small but undeniably annoying fact that he's wearing a Yankees cap while narrating. Why not put him in Yankee stadium and have him recapping a baseball game then? Why the hat/game disconnect, Oblivion?? Still, Cruise keeps us close throughout, almost winning us to the larger movie's cause with his dark-eyed gravity.
Riseborough, one of the more intriguing actresses to arrive on the scene in recent years, does what she can with a thinly written and ultimately mistreated role, while Kurylenko is given pretty much nothing in the way of character. Her arrival is the movie's chief inciting event, and yet it's one of the plot elements that's never satisfyingly explained. Some Hollywood action movies are so dismissive of women that they don't even properly justify their existence! It's frustrating that Victoria and Julia are so underdeveloped, as there's an alluring hint of potential menace or mystery to both Riseborough and Kurylenko that could have added some interesting texture to the film had it been properly tapped into.
Oblivion isn't quite as inert or ineffectual as Tron, so it would seem that Kosinski is at least progressing as a filmmaker, but he still has a ways to go before his storytelling skills catch up with his impeccable aesthetics. The thematic ambition of Oblivion is respectable, but it also sets the movie up for a bigger fall when it eventually stumbles. Like last year's similarly hued Prometheus, this is a science fiction action movie that yearns to be a big and probing drama. But simply wanting it isn't enough, I'm afraid. Oblivion will not disappear into that titular abyss I don't think, it's likely to have its champions, but to me it's yet another dismaying example of something that is only almost something grand. Hurried and imprecise, and hamstrung by its own baser commercial impulses, Oblivion nobly reaches for the stars, but sadly finds itself back down on Earth by the end, gasping for air, and grasping for meaning.