Joseph Kosinski’s original idea for his sci-fi’er “Oblivion” was a 12-page story. Instead of becoming a movie — this was in his pre-“TRON: Legacy” days, you understand — the idea turned instead into a trial-balloon graphic novel that has only now become a BIG DEAL Tom Cruise movie.
Yet when you encounter this mystifying film that proudly defies understanding, you do wonder: Whatever happened to the 12-page story idea? I bet that made sense.
“Oblivion” does not.
Well, to be fair, “Oblivion” does make sense here and there, especially in those ah-hah moments that harken back to other science-fiction, say Philip K. Dick by way of “The Twilight Zone” and original “Planet of the Apes.”
Maybe one needs a second viewing, which Universal won’t mind in the least. I’m not pushing for that, mind you, but I suspect if one does see “Oblivion” again, and ignores all the showy effects and narrative debris — along with some admittedly nifty futuristic designs and beautiful bodies — the story may track better.
For there is a really simple story crying to get out of all this sic-fi clutter.
You find yourself in another one of those terrible futures for planet Earth, essentially destroyed from a war that has rendered it uninhabitable. Cruise plays a “repairman” living in a space station above the rotting planet.
The moon was utterly destroyed by space invaders years before, resulting in earthquakes that ruined every city and toppled all the nations. Not to mention creating toxic radiation zones.
The repairman has a cozy job though. He dwells in a glass sphere with his “partner,” the requisite space-station lovely (an enigmatic Andrea Riseborough), who tracks his every move down on Earth, sends in killer drones when he’s in the least bit of bother and offers her delectable body to him upon his return.
Of course, in science fiction, any cozy deal like this is highly suspicious.
The problem is Kosinsky and his writers, Karl Gajdusek and Michael deBruyn, have trouble locating a triggering mechanism to start the ball rolling toward the “discovery.” The filmmaker are so busy showing off the art design and digital 4K resolution (available in Imax as well), no one is minding the story.
So things drag on and on and, frankly, I got terribly bored until somewhere, way too long into the film, a stunning female stranger (Olga Kurylenko) crash-lands on Earth. Cruise’s repairman takes one look and he’s a goner.
At this point, the stage has been adequately prepared for not only an identity crisis — who is he? this repairman asks himself constantly — but a Dick-like memory exploration. Wiped clean for security reasons, Cruise’s brain still conjures up images of the old Earth and a girl who looks like — yes, Olga Kurylenko!
Things eventually slot into place, especially when Cruise discovers that among the alien tribe wandering Earth is a mystic leader played by Morgan Freeman. Oh, if it’s Morgan Freeman that changes everything, you say to yourself.
It is among the precepts of modern cinema that when Freeman enters any movie, he becomes a source of much (if not all) wisdom, sanctity and veneration. So, clearly, those aliens can’t be all bad.
Now I have in front of me an admonition from the Universal publicity department not in any review to reveal “plot points toward the film’s climax,” which generously assumes I understood those plot points.
The trouble becomes that unless you do reveal plot turns, nothing sounds very interesting about “Oblivion” — a title made for critics’ jokes so I will ignore the opportunity on the grounds that anything that easy isn’t worth bothering with.
If I follow the publicists’ direction, then all I can tell you is that Cruise runs around space and Earth looking soulful, Kurylenko and Riseborough look hot and Freeman looks noble.
Your mind though tends to wander — and wonder — during all the slow bits, which is much of the movie. For instance, Riseborough conscientiously monitors Cruise’s adventures on Earth via computer and a monitor.
But what devise is actually relaying those visual reports to her? You see no security cameras anywhere nor logically should there be any. Gosh, I don’t know. How does she see what’s happening to her partner?
I would like to add — for viewers to read after seeing the film — that the film’s coda, meaning the final scene after the climax, is so desperate for a happy ending that it violates the very thing that makes the climax seem, at the time, worthwhile.
Opens: April 19, 2013 (Universal Pictures)
Production companies: Universal in association with Relativity Media presents a Chernin Entertainment/Monolith Pictures/Radical Studios production
Cast: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Screenwriters: Karl Gajdusek, Michael deBruyn
Based on the graphic novel by: Joseph Kosinski
Producers: Joseph Kosinski, Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Barry Levine, Duncan Hendeson
Executive producers: Dave Morrison, Jesse Berger, Justin Springer
Director of photography: Claudio Miranda
Production designer: Darren Gilford
Music: M83, Anthony Gonzalez, Joseph Trapanese
Costume designer: Marlene Stewart
Editor: Richard Francis-Bruce
PG-13 rating, 124 minutes