"Oblivion" Lacks Heartbeat, Imagination

Earth. 2013. It’s understood that consumers are as jaded as ever. Each of us is becoming harder to impress by the day, and it’s harder still to genuinely surprise us. Some might argue that our popular culture has become a skipping record, warped beyond any hope of repair. Hollywood has become a focal point of said criticism, financing unoriginal, yet often lucrative ideas with a vengeance. The latest big-budget behemoth to come out of Tinseltown, “Oblivion,” does nothing to refute such pessimism. No, it’s not a prequel or a sequel or a reboot, but its core is wholly derivative and its creators seemingly have little concern beyond surface-level sheen.

“Oblivion” is replete with a colossal budget, a pair of superstar actors, an up-and-coming director, and a trendy composer – but to what end? The story hints at a post-apocalyptic future in which earth’s remaining citizens have relocated to one of Saturn’s moons. Tom Cruise’s character, Jack Harper, explains via voiceover that it’s 2077, Earth has been destroyed by nuclear warfare, and has since been mostly abandoned. Sounds like a promising premise for a space epic, right? Nope. We’re stuck on Earth with Jack, a glorified janitor, tasked with fixing drones. He spends much of the film talking to a bobblehead.

Jack’s co-worker and romantic interest, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), is essentially his secretary, supervising Jack’s work from afar. She spends most of her time communicating with Sally (Melissa Leo), a smiling, unblinking figure projected on the console in front of her. Sally’s robotic southern drawl is the most unsettling thing in the picture, and Leo is the film’s only performer who seems to be having fun with her role.

Olga Kurylenko co-stars as Julia, the mystery woman Jack keeps dreaming about, while Morgan Freeman plays the shadowy leader of Earth’s remaining citizens – a “Mad Max”-like band of rebels. Jack’s interest in the history of his surroundings (the pic takes place in the vicinity of an almost unrecognizable New York City) is highly relatable (the screenplay’s only discernible heartbeat), but the hackneyed use of an entombed Statue Of Liberty and other such disaster movie clichés undermines any potential for poignancy.

Writer-director Joseph Kosinski’s “Tron: Legacy” had the advantage of built-in iconography. “Oblivion” possesses no such innate familiarity, making the whole endeavor an uphill battle that’s lost long before the screenplay goes off the rails. The dull first hour eventually gives way to a twist-happy third act that’s as confusing as it is uninteresting. Initially I was thankful that the film had actively decided to stop boring me, but as the pitch of the narrative kept shifting, I found the convolution (and derivation from other films) increasingly annoying.

Is it better to bore an audience or to annoy them? “Oblivion” answers that question enthusiastically – “Why choose one when you can have both!?” Its visuals are often strong, but not strong enough to justify a two-hour jaunt through slack storytelling and uninspired performances. Even the most patient, forgiving sci-fi fans will be hard-pressed to embrace “Oblivion,” despite its impressive list of collaborators. This is the best they could come up with? After this false start, let’s hope summer 2013 has better things in store for us.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: April 19, 2013
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Screenwriter: Joseph Kosinski, Michael Arndt, Karl Gajdusek
Starring: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence, brief strong language, and some sensuality/nudity)