Please don’t judge me but I quite like Tom Cruise. Not the Tom Cruise who promotes and follows an absurd and mindwarping cult or the Tom Cruise who goes bouncing around chat show furniture like a demented pinball you understand, but the screen Tom Cruise, the cheeky, glint in his eye and brusquely heroic chap with the occasional good one liner and unreserved ability to run with the concentrated drive of a constipated cheetah. I actually find the whole Scientology aspect fascinating, by all accounts despite his regal moniker Thomas Cruise Mapother IV grew up in severe poverty, physically and emotionally abused by his father, then due to a couple of lucky breaks and smattering of talent in his early twenties you find yourself one of the most famous, multimillionaire, desired and adored figures on the planet – that’s gotta turn your world view upside down and set you seeking a path to discern what’s it’s all about, and maybe finding answers and succor in all the wrong places. Beyond the franchise antics of his Mission Impossible franchise or the occasional tentpole tedium – Knight & Day was pretty terrible – I’d also argue that he’s actually turned in a handful of great performances beyond the usual Hollywood blockbuster framework, I think he speared an Oscar nomination for Born On The Fourth Of July and was searingly brilliant as Frank T.J Mackey in Magnolia, my affection perhaps not completely surprising given that his callsheet is essentially is a mirror image to many of my all time favourite directors – Michael Mann, Scorsese, Kubrick, P.T. Anderson and yes, even two for Spielberg. After those dual Science Fiction entries Tom is ‘cruising’ back into the constellation of speculative Tinseltown superproductions, strafing the first andromeda of 2013’s blockbuster season, commanded by the director of the recent Tron reboot Joseph Kosinski for a journey to Oblivion, a rather brave title which could invite all sort of humorous japes if the film isn’t up to scratch – and it isn’t.
Through a pre titles voiceover montage the scene is set – it is the future, and following the ravishing arrival of an alien species known as the Scavengers the moon was destroyed in a annihilating war, the resulting earthquakes and tsunamis rendering much of the planet uninhabitable. To compound this ecological misery the widespread deployment of nuclear weapons to eliminate the alien scourge has rendered much of the planet as irradiated wasteland, with most of the species emigrating to Saturn’s moon Titan to begin civilisation anew. A few stragglers are left however, as agents are required to monitor and patrol the seaboards where vast mechanical contraptions divine energy from the tides to power the pan terrestrial spacecraft, battling a guerilla war with the remnants of the extraterrestrial threat through the patrol of lethal firearm bristling battle drones which dispassionately prosecute an immolating insurrection. With two weeks left of his mission Jack Harper (Cruise with the most blatant ‘movie character’ name of recent memory) is a mechanic in Zone 49, partnered with his romantic companion Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) who also directs and monitors his repair and research activities from their modernist sky apartment, she acting as intermediary from the orbital mission control complex known as the Tet. Although their long assignment is almost at an end there is a submerged mystery to be solved, as Jack is encumbered with half seen glimpses and memory fragments of a 20th century New York long before he was born, where the monochrome vision of an exotic looking brunette (Olga Kurylenko) hints that all may not be as it seems…..
The influences are clear, take a dash of Planet Of The Apes, stir in a sprig of Mad Max, and warm with the scrolling deceptions of The Matrix and you’ve just served up Oblivion, a title which doesn’t really have anything to do with the film unless I’m missing something and my memory is faulty. You’d think that such a fertile ecosystem would result in a model of intelligent big-budget boisterous brilliance, but somewhere around the middle of the mission this film was dragged into a black hole and only partially regained control in his closing extravehicular maneuvers. Like Konsinski’s previous cartridge the film looks terrific, the visual adroitness of those shimmering edges and surfaces of this future fable are a wonder to behold, and the heavy deployment of CGI is state of the art quality which almost convinces the eye, but as usual the plot mechanics slowly drag the piece down to the ground when it should be soaring for the stars. Tom Cruise is very much in Cruise mode, not really generating much in the way of pandemic heroism, he doesn’t even get any great lines to spill as the expected set-pieces fail to deliver the requisite thrills and spatial spills. With fragmented shards of Zoe Bell, Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Game Of Thrones Coster-Waldau my sensors detected problems in the editing booth, where half moulded hints at their relationships and importance to the overall mission now residing in a parallel dimension, alas around the midpoint the film becomes very cluttered and slightly confused, with Houston very much having a problem.
Oblivion does have its moments, a cluster of scenes which hint at the inherent possibilities in the source material, based on an unpublished graphic novel it at least it has some genesis in originality, if not quite the herald of a new fleet of first generation Sci-Fi shenanigans that we genre geeks so desperately crave. An early sexy scene between Jack and Victoria evokes memories of Michael Mann with its ethereal electronica soundtrack and pungently photographed silvered romanticism, and the Apple Mac inspired production design yields a temperate and cool atmosphere of gilded curves and techno fetishistic design, two qualities which neatly slot into the central mystery once the apologue’s real puppet masters are excavated. The major defect is that Kroninski doesn’t have the skill to build an emotional arc between Jack and his companions, both physical and collegial, and the triumphs of visual design cannot substitute the emotional void at the heart of the film which is very much the caverns that the film mines for poignant charge as it shifts into its final orbit.
But as Tyrell said all of this is academic and if like me you have a fetish for ruined civilisation, post-holocaust films then you will find much to savor, I will never tire of the iconography of world-famous monuments and citadels deteriorated to rust and ruin, the spectacle of disaster embraced by an unmolested nature venturing into our decaying cities and metropoli, the catnip of catastrophe if you will. I also (and don’t worry no spoilers) quite liked the ending, Kosinski (who shares a writing credit) having the sheer gall to throw in a couple of clear visual references to the mothership of the SF genre 2001: A Space Odyssey, his mariners sailing on the notion that love is the core dimension of our humanity which cannot be smothered by the technological or genealogical, powered by the twin satellites of instinct and memory. If the programmers spent a little more resources on debugging some of the act transitions and streamlining some of the narrative subroutines, or maybe aggregating the algorithms of the action set pieces this could have been great, as it is it’s a pleasant enough jaunt to a future world which doesn’t quite achieve full velocity, and won’t be hanging around and infecting the memory banks;