When science fiction wants to present thoughtful subtext, it can’t go broad. The freedom to construct a world has to come down to precise themes. The world can be derivative (or “inspired by” if you want to be charitable), and the themes can be universal, but they have to be cohesive. In casting a wide net for influences, Joseph Kosinski‘s Oblivion mashes-up the ideas from better movies, and doesn’t put them towards abstraction or ambiguity, but towards ambivalence. The film is more concerned with its gorgeous visuals and rousing score while the emotions become lost in a shuffle of reveals and fragmented ideas.
Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is a service technician on a post-apocalyptic Earth. An alien race has destroyed the planet by blowing up the moon, and while humanity ultimately won the war, the Pyrrhic victory has left Jack and his partner/girlfriend Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) as isolated survivors commissioned to maintain the drones in order to protect the fusion reactors that are carrying energy to a space station known as “The Tet”. With only two weeks left to go on their assignment, a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) comes into their lives, and Jack discovers a series of revelations about the true nature of his mission.
Following Tron: Legacy, Kosinski has once again created a memorable world filled with fun technology, pumped up by an electronic-infused music (this time from M83), and hardly anything when it comes to characters and a strong storyline. Without story and characters, you have concept art, visual-effect demos, and a soundtrack. Taken on their own, those supporting elements are terrific, but they’re intended to serve a plot and world that ultimately feels cold and distant, and not simply because the setting is a wasteland.
The screenplay constructs an intriguing mystery, and has patience with its plot points, but those revelations have no impact because we’re never invested in Jack’s story. Part of the problem comes from Cruise’s lack of chemistry with his co-stars. The actor doesn’t feel like he’s bringing anything fresh to the role, and Kurylenko’s character doesn’t do anything independently of Jack. Thankfully, Riseborough brings a spark of life to the picture by playing someone who can’t handle any disruption to her mission or her romantic relationship. She clings to her ignorance like a security blanket, and feels hurt and confused when someone tries to tug it away from her.
If this kind of behavior were part of a consistent theme of questioning authority, and over-reliance on organized systems in order to maintain a comfortable lifestyle, Riseborough’s performance would have an impact beyond giving the movie a pulse. Instead, the film’s most accurate representation is when Jack goes into a sinkhole that was formerly the New York Public Library. It’s a pit filled with knowledge, but strewn all over the place. The scene is probably meant to convey the first steps of Jack’s awakening, but it feel more like the film’s overall construction: a bunch of scattered ideas in a desolate space.
After watching the film with a friend, he argued that the movie was about humans becoming subservient to technology and losing our humanity and individualism in the process. That may be the case, although there’s an irony in celebrating humanity when the emotions are constantly dwarfed by the design and mystery. Furthermore, because the movie so broad, it’s open to multiple, equally unfulfilling interpretations. Jack and Victoria live in a gorgeous tower high above the ruined Earth, and their mission is to make sure that the drones can keep the aliens (i.e. “the other”) away. So is this a societal critique? A casual mention of a “memory wipe” at the outset of the film paves the way for the persistence of a soul, but this theme is too light to be taken seriously, especially since it’s handled in such a corny manner. And for good measure, there’s also some existentialism that relies on a crucial plot reveal even though the reveal makes no sense.
Kosinski is beginning to establish himself as a director who manufactures rather than conjures. He builds technically intriguing worlds, but they’re vapid and thematically ill-formed. He uses a HAL-9000-inspired red-eye on the drones, but doesn’t understand that HAL 9000 works in 2001: A Space Odyssey as part of a complete subtext, and it’s a part that can’t easily be ripped out and plugged into another science fiction movie. He knows how to edit a scene for drama, but never derives any emotion from it (granted, he gets no help from his lead actor). The action scenes are perfunctory but never exhilarate. Oblivion is function before form, and structure without substance.