(Joseph Kosinski, 2013)
At times, Oblivion feels as if it has been made entirely from bits of other movies. Here's some Wall-E, over here. There's a bit of The Matrix, over there. A little Independence Day (itself made up of other movies) over there too, beside a bit of Planet of the Apes, some Omega Man, a little Moon and numerous others too. They come to mind either because of an idea, a dramatic moment or an image, often something that feels familiar, though you can't quite recall where you've seen it before. And though it sounds like a bad thing, being derivative doesn't automatically have to be. It depends on just how well a filmmaker uses the ideas that influence them.
And Kosinski definitely has some talent. Just like his last film, Tron: Legacy, Oblivion is utterly breathtaking for long stretches. When his camera is sweeping across the ruined surface of a future earth devastated by war with an alien invader and M83's lush electronic score is loud enough to shake the cinema, it feels like a brilliant piece of sensual, visceral cinema.
Unfortunately, he is on far less sure ground with narrative. Not that Oblivion is bad. It works throughout, establishing its world with confidence and even boldness in a brief opening narration and montage. In this world, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise, as solidly movie star as ever) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough, doing well with a difficult role) are a "mop up crew", living together on a station in the clouds. Humanity has fled their ruined homeworld for Titan, Saturn's Largest moon, but Jack and Victoria are nearing the end of a long duty back on Earth, overseeing the huge machines generating energy from the oceans. Some of the alien invaders ("Skavs") remain on the surface, raiding at night, and Jack maintains the combat drones that keep them in check. But he has been having troubling dreams that resemble memories, and is unusually curious about the world before the war and the activities of the skavs. And then a ship falls from the sky, and its only survivor is human. More intriguing still, she (Olga Kurelyenko) is literally the woman from Jack's dreams.
Kosinski does seem to possess a fine sense of what genre ideas will work in a big spectacle, and his action scenes are integrated into the narrative with intelligence and economy. But Oblivion is still a bit too familiar, and never quite remarkable enough in its own right to surpass its many influences.
The good things about it are all the elements that make it so different from many current sci-fi blockbusters; for instance, it has an appealing strain of poetry running through it. Even if it is a little too awkward and leaden for that poetry to be truly comfortable, the attempt is interesting, and gives Oblivion a dimension denied many such movies.
It is also, despite the epic setting and storyline, quite an intimate piece, with few characters and intense emotions the focus of the story. The central relationships are unusual and compelling - Riseborough's performance is key to this - and they make the story work even when the material is at its most predictable and action-heavy. Truly great science fiction always revolves around an idea or two, and here Oblivion comes up short. It flirts with notions beyond the superficial matters of the narrative, but never develops anything beyond that flirtation, which is a bit of a shame.
But what most will take away from Oblivion is that cool, clear daylight photography of vast stretches of wilderness and M83's brilliant score.