Ambitious and challenging science fiction films are hard to find outside the work of auteurs such as Stanley Kubrick.
Intelligent science fiction has been the cornerstone of films like the 1972 classicSolaris, Blade Runner and the recent Moon, starring Sam Rockwell. Even the odd family film like WALL-E has been able to pull something new out of the box.
Science fiction in the main is generally a hard genre for a director to make a mark. So much follows familiar tropes and asks little of an audience, except to sit back and look at the glorious special effects.
So a film like Oblivion comes along with high expectations. Initially after viewing the trailer last year there was a glimmer of hope. Based on a graphic novel treatment and directed by Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) who wrote the screenplay, the film’s sleek production design and an intriguing set-up hinted at a tantalising project.
The premise has drone repairman Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his partner Victoria (Andrea Wiseborough) the sole guardians of technology left on earth to support humans that have long since fled the planet after an alien invasion. Harper inspects and maintains drones that patrol the surface of the spent planet for “scavs”, leftover groups of aliens still on earth that regularly sabotage the hardware.
With two weeks before Victoria and Jack are to finish up and go to Titan — the space station containing the last humans — Jack inspects downed spaceship wreckage and discovers a woman alive. Julia (Olga Kurylenko) causes Jack to question everything he has come to know about Earth and question his involvement.
Early on, as Victoria checks in every day with Titan — and a broken signal of a smiling, broadly accented woman chimes back and ends with the obligatory “Are you an effective team?” — it is clear that not everything is as it seems. And, soon enough, details of the history of the 60 years that have passed since the invasion are in question and exactly who is working for whom quickly becomes apparent.
Once the film plays its hand, it becomes mired in the many tropes and clichés that pepper almost every science fiction film that has been made over the last 50 years.
The final act feels like the least original part of the story, which is a shame because one leaves the cinema with a shrug. The least said about the film’s final frames the better.
From the lone repairman setup of WALL-E to the memory and cloning storylines of Moon, there are so many obvious narratives from other films that it’s hard to think of more clichés that could have been jammed in. Even some costume design recalls the Mad Max films, adding to the sense of déjà vu.
Perhaps this is not surprising considering Joseph Kosinski’s last film was the undercooked Tron: Legacy. Like Legacy, the film and score of Oblivion are breathtaking but, alas, this is not enough when the story seems to lack any originality.
If there are notions of persistence of memory, what constitutes humanity and the nature of the soul to be gleaned from the narrative, it is only in the most obvious and prosaic way. In the same way that large space objects, cloning and mysterious aliens figure in classic science fiction, it seems there really are no new ideas.
Performances are uniformly good. Tom Cruise plays the classic, literal carbon copy hero that has become his stock in trade and the female leads add some weight to the proceedings, particularly the wide-eyed Wiseborough.
Shot in some stunning locations that give the film a unique look and feel, the film’s small cast and vast landscapes are all that seem truly epic.
If people are seeking out intelligent, thoughtful and interesting science fiction, they won’t find it with Oblivion.