I call on “Moon” as my primary example because it is easily the most successful of recent films. Simple, focused and deafening in its blatant absence of soundtrack cues and verbal explanations, the movie possesses a spirit that is relentless in setting the right tone for the subject matter. The last of the “Alien” pictures was not nearly as successful, and only glossed over the concept long enough to propel the narrative forward without having to explain much of it. What makes this discussion relevant here? Because it is the most important – and interesting – message in the new “Oblivion,” a post-apocalyptic science fiction thriller starring Tom Cruise as a technician whose memory of a collapsed world is wiped clean for the sake of… who knows? There are many other questions that follow it, too – can memories, if they are even our own, be truly erased without leaving behind an echo? Are we all missing important details in our detached state of societal unrest? And in the absence of individualism, are we really projecting the truth onto what we see, or are the smoke and mirrors overwhelming our consciousness?
Most movies would crash under the weight of such stimulating thoughts, but “Oblivion” seems perfectly comfortable with the material. The downside is that it does not arrive at any persuasive argument because it is too focused on absorbing the ideas of greater films, without the inclination to display them in a manner that is of worthy inheritance. The attempts are noble and enthusiastic, and sometimes even stylistic. But this is a far cry from the contemplative looks into the human mind that were exhibited in “2001” or “Minority Report.” In other words, it’s the standard issue of our modern movie awareness, a film that makes good on its promise of effective action and visuals but not really much else.
In the year 2077, Earth – or rather, its remains – exist in a state of contest between a race of aliens known as the “Scavengers” and a small sect of mankind. Years prior, the aliens invaded with devastating results, and humanity’s last-ditch attempt at preserving their survival resulted in devastating nuclear fallout. What this has done, alas, is basically made the planet uninhabitable for most organisms; man now calls Saturn’s moon Titan their “home,” and a small faction remains behind to assist in harvesting Earth’s residual resources before they leave the shell of their home world behind. The movie’s audacity to use a decimated moon in the sky’s backdrop provides one of many distinct images, and it serves as a constant reminder of the grave events that happened prior to this present series of circumstances, which sees characters engaging in behavior that isn’t so much organic to their situation as it is labored based on the systematic condition in place to protect them from further harm.
The aliens endure as a rebel presence on the surface of Earth, while two isolated human beings – Jack Harper (Cruise) and his partner, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) – live in a sterile complex of walls and glass high above the atmosphere, and act as watchers over man-made machinery designed to extract resources (like water) from the surface for humankind’s new home. Their mission required them to have all memories of their past erased, and under the leadership of an authoritative space vessel known as the “Tet,” Victoria moves fingers over touch-screen maps searching for sentry drones that need repair, and Jack is dispatched into “safe” zones in order to repair them. The purpose of the drones is to keep rebel “Scavs” in check, who continue to put up a resistance and are trying to destroy the machines. But the Scavs aren’t nearly as primitive in their instincts as the first act would suggest that they are, and when Jack is nearly ambushed by a group of them while performing maintenance on one such machine in an abandoned library, it sets events into motion that are much greater than either of the human characters can imagine.
There is much more to this story than I intend to reveal, which is more to the benefit of the movie’s intact merit than to the audience’s desire to know the plot’s hidden agendas. Much of the material is staged well; directed by Joseph Kosinski (who also wrote the graphic novel this is based on), the picture is sleek and well-photographed, and creates fully realized spaces for the sake of these perplexed but almost innocuous personalities. The performances are also noteworthy; Tom Cruise projects mannerisms on Jack that are rooted in plausibility, especially when he reminisces about Earthly pleasures out of the corner of his blurred mind (first in a sports arena, and then later at a secluded cabin by a lake), and Andrea Riseborough, so brilliant two years earlier in “W.E.”, takes a straightforward characterization up a few notches by allowing an inner pathos to quietly crack the professional veneer expected of her. Many of her scenes involve her at a desk communicating with a directive named Sally (Melissa Leo) aboard their mother ship, and when Sally slyly asks whether she and Jack are still an “effective team,” her answers are revealed more fully in facial expressions than words.
I doubt, however, that the writers are in full possession of their own identities here. Nearly every plot point in this movie is lifted from something of greater origin, and this creates a puzzling experience for those of us with some level of knowledge in this genre, especially in the last half when the plot makes its intentions obvious. For instance, there is a scene late in the film in which we are encouraged to doubt the authenticity of the Sally character; this echoes the presence of HAL in “2001,” but does so in an obvious, uninspired manner. Other examples: the plot’s implication of Jack as a “chosen” of sorts is likely inspired by the narrative backbone of “The Matrix,” and when a crucial detail in the second act unleashes a subplot involving a resistance of lowly human rebels, the story jumps right into “Mad Max” territory with almost no preconceived causality.
Are we really seeing a movie called “Oblivion” at all? Or is it merely a collection of concepts pulled from the likes of “Blade Runner,” “Planet of the Apes,” “Total Recall” and even the director’s own “Tron: Legacy?” To even ask those questions is unfortunate. Today’s films are a progression of ideas extracted from the past simply by circumstance, but few are as transparent as this; it is conceited and almost shameless in the way it exhibits influence with full disregard to fresh perspective. In the case of many crucial plot points – such as one that involves Jack going into the mother ship once he is armed with a bit of information meant to alter the course of the plot – they exist only as devices to frame the premise in a grander context. At the risk of sounding repetitive in my comparison, however, movies like “Moon” are clearer and more resonating not because of their scale, but because of their focus and their understated faith in the ideas. If that is indeed the desire of “Oblivion,” it misses the mark tremendously. The irony of the writers is that their alien life forms are referred to “scavengers”; in hindsight, their own narrative foraging suggests the label belongs on them instead.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Sci-Fi/Action (US); 2013; Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, brief strong language, and some sensuality/nudity; Running Time: 124 Minutes
Tom Cruise: Jack
Morgan Freeman: Beech
Andrea Riseborough: Victoria
Olga Krylenko: Julia
Melissa Leo: Sally
Produced by Jesse Berger, Peter Chernin, Emily Cheung, Dylan Clark, Bruce Franklin, Steve Gaub, Duncan Henderson, Joseph Kosinski, Mike Larocca, Barry Levin, R.J. Mino, Dave Morrison, Justin Springer and Ryan Kavanaugh; Directed by Joseph Kosinski; Written by Karl Dajdusek and Michael Arndt; based on the graphic novel by Joseph Kosinksi