It is March 2077, fifty year after the Earth was attacked, and though the invaders have been defeated, the cost was terrible, the Moon split in two, the population wiped out, the surface of the planet practically unable to support life, with formerly great cities buried under silt. With the survivors gathered in a vast orbiting space station before they prepare to leave for Titan, the last operatives tend the fusion reactors that gather and convert seawater into energy for the trip before the planet is abandoned altogether.
Leaving aside the obvious points that even a ruined Earth would be more easily reclaimed than any colony could be set up on Titan, that a more obvious source of energy for an advanced culture would be solar rather than seawater and the conceit that communication with the orbiting station is lost as soon as it drops beneath the horizon, it is recognised that any science fiction film requires the “buy in,” the initial conditions that the viewer accepts against which the story will be told, the suspension of disbelief that will be rewarded by the entertainment given in recompense, and it is the duty of the director to ensure that that bargain is fulfilled.
In Tron: Legacy Joseph Kosinski proved he could create an immersive and comprehensive world, there a digital realm of limitless possibility, and here he fashions a ruined world of deserts and storms and desolation. In Tron he was hampered by a mediocre script that seemed more interested in visual than emotional stimulation, resulting in an output as lifeless as the computers which generated the images, but it had been hoped that working from his own screenplay, adapted from his own unpublished graphic novel, that the chance to tell a story he had crafted himself would spur him higher, yet for all its undisputable technical achievement, Oblivion excels only in unremmitting mediocrity, a two hour epic of majestic rugged landscapes and sweeping high technology where the colour palette rarely varies from grey and beige and the characters are woefully behind the audience in unravelling the paper thin mystery of what really happened in the war.
The first flaw is the painfully templated structure; rather than creating an organic film where exposition comes from the characters, as drone repairman Jack Harper and his supervisor Victoria Olsen barely interact, the film is clumsily prefaced with an introductory information dump, which not only sets up the war against the Scavengers, but informs apropos of nothing that all Earth operatives have a mandatory mind wipe before beginning assignment, with no explanation given why that would be so. That cinematic sin of audience underestimation is bookended in the final act by an equally intrusive “what really happened” flashback that should have been woven into the story rather than dropped in with the subtlety of plot point brick.
Tom Cruise fulfils his heroic obligations as Jack, a man who has black and white dreams of a world that ceased to exist years before he was born, as though only 1940’s art prints had survived the apocalypse, while Andrea Riseborough is saddled with a role as painfully artificial as the mechanical drones Jack repairs, serving only to react with mechanically Pavolvian conditioning to Jack’s enquiries, though she fares better than Melissa Leo’s plastic mission controller on the orbiting Tet, a red flag character so badly conceived it is obvious from her first communication that she is not who she appears to be. Into this comes Olga Kurylenko’s Julia, a survivor from a crashed ship, in hibernation for several decades, yet with a face known to Jack; rather than investing in scenes of genuine engagement between the characters, Kosinksi shorthands their latent attraction via the favourite means of the teen drama, the carefully selected retro pop soundtrack.
The drones themselves, designed to protect the aquatic fusion generators from the nightly attacks by the remaining Scavs, have personalities marginally more sociable than Robocop’s ED-209, and like Jack’s ornithopter, were apparently designed by Apple, and the overall creation of the world is astonishing, every frame flawlessly convincing as long as it is never questioned why recognisable landmarks survived the deposition of silt while more mediocre dwellings, which far outnumbered the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty, have vanished in only five decades, and or how a range of mountains has suddenly sprung up around New York City.
Narratively, the story runs parallel to Duncan Jones’ infinitely superior Moon, but with added explosions and aerial chases, and the final scenes are taken wholesale from Independence Day, with all the lack of believability that entails, but it is oddly American centric, Jack’s character made supposedly warmer by his fondness for baseball and lingering wordless scenes where he reminisces over the New York tourist tat he has accumulated in his humble secret log cabin in a pastoral valley which has oddly remained oblivious to the outside disaster, but there are also thematic links with The Matrix, especially when Cruise’s “Neo” is shown the truth by Morgan Freeman’s “Morpheus,” though fortunately the swimming pool pop video scene avoids full on drum and bass orgy of that franchise. Freeman, despite the indications of the trailer, is barely present in the film, as is and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, amounting to little more than an extended cameo, though in a curious inclusion for a Tom Cruise film, a full length two-shot with Coster-Waldau shows their relative heights, the sole surprising moment in the whole film.