Do two movies offer enough evidence to make judgments about Joseph Kosinski as a director? Do they allow us to say that he makes handsome, well-designed movies that lack any sort of emotion, humanity, or even smarts? Because like Tron Legacy, Oblivion is a beautiful, tedious, stupid movie that is an actual chore to endure.
I want to be kinder to Oblivion because it’s an original scifi movie, by which I mean it’s not directly based on toys, comics, a TV show and is not an entry in an existing franchise. It’s not original in a larger sense - the film’s story is a mish-mash of other scifi movies - but appropriation has a long history in cinema, and it isn’t like any of the concepts it lifts from other films straight up belong to those movies. On paper it’s an original film.
And on paper it might have looked interesting. Tom Cruise plays a guy whose job is to maintain drones in a post-apocalyptic world. Aliens have invaded, and we beat them back, but the cost was high, leaving most of Earth destroyed and uninhabitable. The remains of humanity have fallen back to Saturn’s moon Titan, leaving behind just Cruise and his partner, the wonderful Andrea Riseborough, to maintain the giant water extractors that are helping power the off-world colony. Cruise takes off in his bubbleship every day to repair drones and to watch out for the remnants of the alien invaders, known as Scavs, who take potshots at him all the time. But it soon becomes clear that the status quo isn’t what Cruise thinks it is, and that everything he knows is a lie.
Along the way Oblivion picks up, wholesale, elements from The Matrix, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Wall-E, Thundarr the Barbarian, Moon, Star Wars, Lifeforce, 2001 and many, many others. There’s not an original moment in the movie, which wouldn’t be so bad if the movie had taken all of these influences and, in some way, synthesized them into something else. Something smart. Instead Oblivion is absolutely dumb, a movie that introduces major scifi elements in the last half that have not only no bearing on the plot, they have no bearing on the themes and meaning of the movie. It’s baffling, and the entire thought process behind the creation of this movie seems to be 'Hey, I like that element of Moon, let's include it in our movie too. Why? I don't know, it's just cool!'
Which wouldn’t be so bad if Oblivion were a shoot-em-up. I’m not advocating that action movies need to be stupid, but I think if your movie is stupid it needs to be crammed with action. Instead Kosinski has made a film that is crammed with Big Thoughts, all of which are dunderheaded and many of which don’t really pay off. This is a slow, tedious death march of a motion picture, a movie that is almost endlessly serious about itself. Oblivion does not want to have any fun. At all. The few action pieces that are in the film are competently played, but mostly they’re just lifts from other things - how many times do I need to see a riff on the Star Wars Death Star trench run anyway?
A movie about the continued survival of humanity should, one would think, have decent human characters at its center. But Oblivion doesn’t. Tom Cruise, always trying his best, tries his best to bring to life this loyal technician who senses something ain’t right, but there’s not much for Cruise to play with in the role. He briefly gets into a love triangle when Olga Kurylenko, playing an astronaut who has been in stasis for years on space ship
the Icarus the Odyssey, crashes into his life, but Kosinski (who cowrote the film with Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt) has no facility for interpersonal relations. Kurylenko, who is beautiful, is just as dead and cold as the movie itself, offering no friction with Cruise. The relationship has less realistic emotion than a perfume commercial. Riseborough, who is the best thing in the movie, is not allowed much latitude at all, playing a role that, if it were cut from the movie entirely, would not be missed on a narrative level at all.
Eventually Morgan Freeman shows up as Morpheus - sunglasses and all - to tell Tom Cruise the truth about the world and to blow his mind. But the truth isn’t that mind-blowing, and makes very little practical sense. On top of that, the film’s structure and pacing is so lethargic that by the time we finally come face to face with what awaits Tom Cruise in the ‘radiation zone’ (his destiny, as
Dr. Zaius Morgan Freeman might say) we just don’t care.
The most interesting thing about Oblivion is that the movie is so expensive they licensed a Led Zeppelin song. I wish they had gone truly extravagant and had a Beatles track in there, but Led Zep makes for a fairly good analogy for the movie: music that’s bombastic and stupid and basically steals what others have already done. But unlike Oblivion, Led Zeppelin did it well.
A final question to those of you who have seen the movie: why is it called Oblivion? I shouldn’t be surprised that a film that totally lacks thematic coherence has a title that makes no sense, and yet here I am. Maybe the nonsensical aspect of the title is the most surprising and interesting thing about this film. It’s certainly the only thing worthy of discussion.