There’s a fine line between paying homage to your influences and looking like you’re having an identity crisis. Oblivion often leans towards the latter, embracing the spirit of so many other science fiction movies that it leaves little room for its own to grow. The result is an overly-familiar film that flits awkwardly between action and introspection, without excelling at either.
Oblivion gets off to an inauspicious start, shoving a bland state-of-the-nation monologue from Tom Cruise down your throat before you can even get your first mouthful of popcorn down. It’s an unremarkable tale of alien invasion and nuclear war (mankind won by creatively nuking the entire world) but is saved by some gorgeous, sweeping landscape shots of a post-apocalyptic Earth and its shattered moon.
These grand visuals are an early indication of the strong art direction that makes Oblivion very easy on the eye, aided by inventive set design that allows for some beautiful cinematography later on. It’s all very slick and sophisticated, underscored by a highly effective soundtrack that adds a touch of grandeur and a hint of menace.
The first forty-five minutes of the film are where Oblivion is at its most effective. Tom Cruise zips around a desolate landscape in his role as Jack Harper, drone technician and the last man on Earth, charged with looking after the power stations that generate energy for the huge satellite harbouring the remainder of the human race who haven’t yet made it to Titan, where the rest of humankind have emigrated (turns out that nuking your own world to kill off some aliens isn’t a particularly good idea).
As Harper flits about, exploring the remnants of human civilisation that remain (including, weirdly, the New York Yankees baseball stadium), his colleague/sort-of-lover Victoria Olsen directs him from their remote outpost and maintains contact with the satellite. The pace is ponderous, but the slightly off-kilter relationship between Harper and Olsen helps to generate a sense of tension as events slowly start to spiral out of control.
Ironically, it’s when the actual story kicks into gear – when Harper finds crash survivor Julia Rusakova, played by Olga Kurylenko – that the film starts to unravel. The main problem is that the plot demands an emotional chemistry between Cruise and Kurylenko that neither of them can deliver.
Cruise reprises the comfortable blandness that he displays in so many of his films, while Kurylenko simply isn’t given enough to work with. This is a problem that affects the rest of the cast as well; Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau are disappointingly given little opportunity to bring any real vigour to their roles. This lack of empathy and emotion undermines a story that is already flimsy and shunted in various directions by twists that are generally pretty obvious.
The plot careens from contemplative love story to full-on action movie and back again, as if the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. The action sequences themselves are competent but uninspiring, with one particular sequence throwing a nod (make that several nods) towards Star Wars. You can practically hear Alec Guinness whispering ‘Use the Force, Luke!’ as Cruise attempts to outwit a trio of hostile drones.
Oblivion perhaps wears its influences a little too much on its sleeve – there are obvious shades of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Prometheus, Star Trek and The Matrix. The result is an often intrusive sense of familiarity that pervades much of the film and prevents you from becoming fully invested in the vision that it’s trying to sell.
Ultimately, Oblivion is mostly style and little substance. It’s slick and attractive and reasonably entertaining, but lacks an emotional punch and takes itself too seriously. A little more humour and warmth might have gone a long way, but instead it’s rather cold and clinical. Which is a shame, as the stage was set for something potentially special.