Be it in games (the Fallout series, Metro 2033 and its impending sequel), books (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), comics (Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man), or movies (Book Of Eli, I Am Legend), the setting of a post-apocalyptic Earth has long been a vibrant and inspiring sci-fi trope.
But then, it’s what you do with this setting that determines whether your game, book, comic, or movie is vibrant and inspiring as well.
Directed by Joseph Kosinski—who previously helmed Tron: Legacy as well as notable commercials for Halo 3 (“Starry Night”) and Gears Of War (“Mad World”)—and based on his unpublished graphical novel, Oblivion is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie set sixty years after invading aliens all but wiped out humanity by destroying the moon and letting nature do the rest. Tom Cruise stars as Jack Harper, a soldier and mechanic who repairs automatic drones that were deployed on Earth to wipe out any and all remaining aliens. But when the literal girl of his dreams returns, Cruise’s character realizes that there’s more going on than what he’s been told by mission control.
In talking about his movie, Kosinski has said that he was inspired by the sci-fi movies of the ’70s, and it shows in both the film’s aesthetic and how the story is told. Visually, the movie is very striking and beautiful, especially how the 2001-ish white, clean, and clinical look of Cruise’s equipment and home provides a nice contrast to the post-apocalyptic setting. It’s like if Earth in Mass Effect looked like it does in the Fallout games.
The problem is that not all of the contrasting elements here work as well. In fact, the movie suffers from a series of conflicts that it just can’t resolve. For instance, it uses the songs “Ramble On” by Led Zeppelin and Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” with subtlety and to great effect, but much of the original score is distractingly heavy handed. Similarly, there are times when the film’s plot is smart and takes a hard sci-fi approach, and others when it gets dumb or obvious; one of the twists is so telegraphed that you half expect it to actually be a ruse.
The same can also be said for the people who star in this film. While Cruise has the boyish charm that has made him a movie star in every sense of the word, he and costar Olga Kurlenko have none of the onscreen chemistry that their roles require. He does, however, have it with his other leading lady, Andrea Riseborough, who plays his supervisor and girlfriend Victoria. And both Melissa Leo and Morgan Freeman bring the kind of gravitas needed for their respective roles of authority. But then there’s Nokolaj Coster-Waldau, a.k.a. Jaime Lannister from Game Of Thrones, whose charisma is wasted as a background character.
As a result of these conflicts, Oblivion is good—even great at times—but not nearly as great as it could or should have been. And this goes double for the last third of the movie. It doesn’t exactly fall apart as it pulls into the home stretch, but it does become a lot more obvious and a lot less intelligent, which keeps it from living up to the potential it showed in the beginning.
That said, Kosinski is to be applauded for trying to do something smart and different, as well as something truly sci-fi and not just a big dumb action flick with sci-fi sprinkled on top like sprinkles on ice cream. Oblivion is many things, but it’s never dull or unintentersting, even when it being predictable. If you like serious sci-fi, especially when it’s visually stimulating, you should consider seeing this in theaters, especially if you live near an IMAX one.