It makes a certain kind of sense that Oblivion is based on a graphic novel that doesn’t actually exist. Director Joseph Kosinski originally plotted the story with comic book author Arvid Nelson, only for the concept to be snatched up around the time Kosinski’s first film, Tron: Legacy, was prepping for release. Kosinksi then wrote a screenplay with William Monahan, and that script was subsequently rewritten by Karl Gajdusek (“Dead Like Me,” Trespass) and then again by Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3). The book itself never came out and likely never will, and the film that resulted from all that planning and shuffling often feels big and conceptual, as much about the picture as the narrative. It’s like looking at a pitch book assembled from stories and places culled from the history of sci-fi movies. It’s a little insubstantial, yet it’s also pretty entertaining. Kosinski, who got his start in ads, is still a skilled visual artist who knows how to choreograph some beautiful chaos, and the film’s got a nice blockbustery rhythm that never gets dull. It’s also vastly better than Tron: Legacy. Part of that’s because the film isn’t a reboot or a spinoff of some other franchise (and because Tron: Legacy was just really bad), but it’s also because Kosinski seems to care more about this story. It’s his, after all, or it started out that way. If it wears its influences a little too proudly, it does so in good faith. It floats along on the strength of its ideas, even if you’ve heard them before.
The ideas that film intends to be the most radical are actually its most commonplace thanks to the recent resurgence of post-apocalyptic stories. When Kosinski started outlining the story in 2005, he was probably at the leading edge of the wave, but now it feels like a requirement for genre movies to be set in the burned-out husk of an Earth gone to ruin. (This year will also see the release of After Earth and Elysium, which share similar settings.) As such, the film’s sun-blasted 2077 is oddly familiar, which can’t have been what Kosinski intended. Conversely, what was probably the least spectacular part of the early concept turns out to be the most interesting: the movie’s all about a drone operator and repairman who periodically engage in remote warfare with an alien race. Jack (Tom Cruise) handles repairs on the ground and necessary physical combat while his partner, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), monitors the action from their home base and tasks support drones as needed. They’re among the last people left on Earth after everyone else has vacated in the aftermath of a nuclear war that defeated an invading species but left the planet barren and dying. Jack and Victoria are in charge of the drone squadron that monitors for more invaders and protects the giant machines that are funneling the oceans dry and turning the water into some kind of generic hydrogen fusion MacGuffin. It says something weird and almost undefinable about modern culture and entertainment that futuristic wastelands are predictable and boring but remote-controlled killer robots are eerie and relevant.
Jack and Victoria function as an autonomous unit, guided only by regular contact with the Tet, a giant space station in low Earth orbit that’s home to mission control and the planet’s last survivors, who are preparing to ship out to Titan, the Saturn moon where new colonies are being established. Kosinski imbues these early scenes with believable sadness and wonder, and the visuals are often stunning. The slick layout of Jack and Victoria’s base and quarters bounces nicely off the harshness of the rocky landscape around them, and Jack’s daily excursions in his personal recon ship are never boring. Jack and Victoria have both had their memory wiped to prevent them from divulging sensitive information in the event of enemy capture, so the beginning of the film finds them comfortably chugging along even though they’re due to head home to the station in two weeks. You know something big has to be coming — and something is — but Kosinski doesn’t rush it, and in fact spends a nice amount of time establishing the daily routine of what might as well be the last man and woman in the universe. It’s nice to find a film that’s committed enough to its fictional world to lay the foundation for what’s to come. Oblivion isn’t groundbreaking or anything, but it does feel like some thought went into it. If that sounds like faint praise, I guess it is. It’s easy to stand out from the genre pack when you aren’t based around a pre-existing franchise or toy line.
A big part of the film’s success is Cruise. He turns 51 this year — it’s been three decades since Risky Business — but his energy and charisma are unflagging. He is, as always, utterly committed to the role, and he’s as good as you’d imagine at projecting a kind of panicked desperation into Jack. Cruise is always at his best when he’s playing someone backed against the ropes, and that serves him well here. A weaker actor might not have been able to anchor the film this well, but Cruise is almost ideally suited to the quasi-blockbuster concept.
Jack’s life is about to get a lot more difficult of course, as he winds up battling the remaining invader forces and learning things that, predictably, make him reevaluate his own purpose and his place in humanity’s plan. The film’s story and action beats come along at a nice clip, and Kosinski manages to make the most of quite a few of them, like a chase sequence involving Cruise’s ship, a trio of enemies, and a series of narrow canyons. Kosinski also puts his own spin on the sound by using an electronic band for the score, with French group M83 providing more pop-influenced hooks than you’d usually get in a movie like this one. Their sound isn’t quite as compelling as what Daft Punk brought to Tron: Legacy, but then, that was great music paired with an awful movie, while this time both picture and soundtrack are closer to the middle.
Oblivion is heavily influenced by standard genre ideas like destiny, control, and one man’s battle for the fate of etc., and some of those influences go past broad themes and into specific movies or stories. I don’t want to mention any of them, though. Part of it’s the reluctance I always feel about anything that might spoil a movie for someone or reveal too much of the plot of something they haven’t seen. But mainly it’s because I’m not totally sold that such influences and echoes are always a bad thing. Oblivion doesn’t retell anyone else’s story, though it does have a good deal in common with some other sci-fi movies. Rather, it’s that the film is working within a certain subset of sci-fi and only has so many directions to go. What makes the film work as well as it does is Kosinski’s investment in the material. I wasn’t surprised with anything I saw here, but I did care about what I saw. I was invested in the story and interested in what would happen, and when the ending arrived, I thought, “I’ll buy that.” More importantly, the story never forgets where its headed, and Kosinski ties everything up nicely in the end. It’s may be a pastiche, but it’s a good one.