Review: ‘Oblivion’ covers familiar ground but with a real emotional charge

Joseph Kosinski’s first film, “TRON Legacy,” is a triumph of design that left me completely cold as a movie. It is also one of those films that I found more irritating with each revisit. I saw it once for review and so I could do the interviews about the movie. I saw it once as part of Butt-Numb-A-Thon. I saw it once with my kids when it came out on Blu-ray since they were out of the country when it was released in theaters. So three times, and each time, I found it more hollow as a movie even as I was amazed at the world it created.

On a movie like that, though, you’ve got a lot of corporate interests being serviced and protected, and you’ve got a lot of people voicing opinions, and no matter if the screenwriters you throw at it are good or bad, there are choices that will be part of the mix that are maddening. It’s not really fair to blame the director for everything that’s wrong with a movie when it’s a big franchise monstrosity. In Kosinski’s case, I liked enough of what he did on “TRON Legacy” to walk into “Oblivion” hoping for some big improvements. After all, this is based on an original idea by him, it’s not a franchise film, and he had guys like Michael Arndt and William Monahan working on the script, so maybe this would be something more personal.

Oddly, the script is still the weakest part of the film, but it exhibits very different weaknesses than “TRON: Legacy,” and far more forgivable ones. “TRON Legacy” is one of those films where the more you start pulling at threads, the less anything about it makes narrative sense or internal logic sense. It is almost totally devoid of real drama, and character is very perfunctory, very surface-level at best. This time, what works best is the emotional side of things. “Oblivion” is a Frankenstein monster as a script, stitched together from films as varied as “WALL-E,” “Beneath The Planet Of The Apes,” “The Matrix,” and “Moon,” and like the monster, it somehow actually comes to life. A big part of that is thanks to the performances by Tom Cruise, Andrea Riseborough, and Olga Kurylenko. They give the movie a soulful edge that I think ultimately makes this feel like more than mere pastiche.

Set in the far future, “Oblivion” tells the story of what happens after a massive alien attack on our planet has forced mankind to leave. We’ve relocated to one of the moons of Saturn, and we’ve left behind massive machines that are siphoning off the resources of the planet so they can be used to help terraform our new home. To help finish up the project, we’ve left behind a few human teams on the planet, and an orbiting station called the Tet. One of the teams in particular, Jack (Cruise) and Victoria (Riseborough), are nearing the end of their term of service, and they have managed to build something like a good life for themselves. Jack is the one who goes to the surface to take care of maintenance and to fend off the last few lingering aliens who try to sabotage their work, while Vic stays onboard their home base, a platform home high above the surface of the planet, watching and monitoring and keeping an eye on things. They check in every day with Sally (Melissa Leo) onboard the Tet, and all seems to be well.

Jack has an itch, though. He’s not sure why, but he is unable to be content with the life they’ve made, and he is troubled by recurrent dreams of a different life, a time before he was even born. As he travels around the ruined Earth, most of the damage done by the destruction of the moon overhead, we see familiar landmarks reduced to rubble. Jack sifts through these places, looking for artifacts from this extinct way of life, and maybe for some sort of clues as to why he has memories of something that he can’t ever have experienced.

Saying more than that is unfair to your eventual experience with it, but this kind of set-up pretty much telegraphs what sort of ride you’re in for. Obviously, Jack and Victoria are going to have to sort out the secrets that lie behind this world they live in, and along the way, we meet a cast of characters including the mysterious Beech (Morgan Freeman), his angry right-hand man Sykes (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and the haunting Julie (Kurylenko), the woman from Jack’s dreams. How they fit into the lives of Jack and Vic and what these revelations mean for the planet is not particularly mind-blowing, but it is played well.

Riseborough and Kurylenko are called upon to create huge emotional connections and in some cases, they make it work even when the script can’t. Riseborough does a great job of evoking someone who has a plan for how life is supposed to work and what the panic is that sets in when that plan is challenged. Kurylenko represents an age that has ended, a world that is gone, and I think she has become a very powerful actress capable of working on a largely visual level. Cruise has plenty to play off of with these two book-ending his own performance, and Kosinski keeps their emotional arcs front and center.

I think the word itself is also very well-designed and evocative. There are these drones that monitor the planet, and they come across as a mix between ED-209 and the silver spheres from the “Phantasm” films. The home that Jack and Vic share is quite beautiful, and there’s a nighttime swimming scene that just shimmers. What really struck me, though, above anything else, is how clearly the language of video gaming has crept into the way Kosinski stages each of the film’s big sequences. It unfolds like a particularly canny video game narrative, complete with a variety of different types of action scenes, and I am impressed by how the film evokes that feeling without overtly trying to “be” a game. The truth is that there are a number of filmmakers working now who love to play the big AAA game titles, and I’m seeing that creep into their work as filmmakers in terms of how they stage things and the rhythms of the narrative.

I hope Kosinski continues to push forward with original projects. There is a fine touch at work in this film, and it feels to me like a major jump for a second film. When he can take a script and a story concept as thin as this and still make it feel like it matters, it certainly seems like he’s got more to offer than we’ve seen so far. “Oblivion” may not be a complete redemption, but it is loaded with promise.

“Oblivion” opens in theaters everywhere on Friday.