Man on a Mission: The Post-Apocalyptic Tom Cruise of Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion

Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) saves the day.

There once was a time when science-fiction films were innovative and ahead of their time. Back then, even B-movies could attract audiences because they had something to say, despite their overall trashy appearance. Nowadays, it sometimes feels as if major studios seem to be more interested in shelling out large sums for rather pedestrian works in terms of storytelling that desperately attempt to make up for their deficiencies in that area by means of impressive visual and aural effects. TRON: Legacy by Joseph Kosinski was a prime example for that recent phenomenon in 2010. Three years later, the director returns with his sophomore movie, Oblivion and Tom Cruise on his coattails as the star du jour.

In 2077, Earth has been destroyed by a nuclear war with sentient technology. Although mankind won the war, the whole planet had to be evacuated. Almost all remaining humans fled to Saturn’s moon Titan. Only few people are still on Earth to ‘clean up the mess.’ Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is one of them. He lives with Vika (Andrea Riseborough). She stays in their home and mission control in the clouds to monitor him, while he embarks on travels to the surface of the planet. Everything changes when Jack finally meets Julia (Olga Kurylenko), the literal woman he has frequently seen in his dreams, in the sleep pod of a crashed space capsule and takes her home – and he must realize that not everything is what it seems.

The track record of Thomas Cruise Mapother IV in both his professional and private life has been somewhat shaky in recent years. No, we won’t go into detail about his (failed) marriage with Katie Holmes; the tabloids have already come up with their fair share of coverage of that affair. In the acting department, however, the results of the various projects Tom Cruise has taken on have ranged from pretty inspired performances in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol to so-so efforts in Knight & Day and rather lackluster outings in Valkyrie and Rock Of Ages. That being said, one of the best movies he has made in the new millennium thus far was also a science-fiction endeavor, Minority Report by Steven Spielberg.

Now he has entered that familiar territory again with Oblivion, a blockbuster that seems to be tailor-made for him. He can play the larger-than-life action hero in the Ethan Hunt vein once more, while he also gets the chance to revisit characters like Ray Ferrier from Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds or Chief John Anderton from Minority Report. The debut of Joseph Kosinski, TRON: Legacy, was an awesome movie if you only consider the audiovisuals – the rest, not so much. Therefore, it’s good to see that the director has definitely taken a step forward when it comes to telling a good story. Oblivion, in fact, wasn’t penned by outside writers like his first film, but it’s based on a comic book created by the man at the helm himself.

Joseph Kosinski made the deliberate decision not to shoot the movie in 3D this time around, because he apparently wasn’t too satisfied with the results of TRON: Legacy. It doesn’t hurt his new project too much. Oblivion looks and sounds great; no complaints there. It seems as if the director wanted to outclass himself in that regard. While the score hasn’t been composed by electronic cult outfit Daft Punk as in his last film, the tracks by M83 are almost in the same class. That’s a compliment, since the soundtrack was by all means one of the strong points of TRON: Legacy. Based solely on audiovisual terms, Joseph Kosinski’s new one is an obvious winner. The premise of the story also sounds really promising.

You really want to like it, but too many elements of Oblivion look eerily familiar. You can even make the case that the movie should have been called Déjà Vu instead. Some bits remind you of The Matrix by the Wachowskis, the Terminator movies, and Blade Runner by Ridley Scott; others reek of Independence Day by Roland Emmerich, the original Planet Of The Apes by Franklin D. Schaffner, and Star Trek: First Contact by Jonathan Frakes. There are even moments where you immediately have to think of Star Wars, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Solaris by Soviet wunderkind Andrei Tarkovsky.

Director Joseph Kosinski stirs all of them into a smooth looking and sounding texture that really dazzles you on audiovisual level, but doesn’t do too much else. Maybe that’s the film’s problem. From the opening seconds, it desperately tries to blow you away with awesome pictures and a dynamic soundtrack courtesy of French group M83. Yet Oblivion rarely ever wows you. It hardly has you hanging on the edge of your seat. The movie starts out quite slowly, taking its time to explain the whole post-apocalyptic scenario. The pace only picks up when Jack decides to explore the crashed space capsule and Julia enters the equation.

Tom Cruise’s most prominently featured co-star in Oblivion is Olga Kurylenko. She has come a long way since playing the Bond girl in Marc Forster’s Quantum Of Solace in 2008. While it’s good to see her gracefully move through high-profile movies such as this one, you can’t help but feel that she’s still criminally underused by pretty much all the directors she has worked with so far. Indie projects like The Ring Finger and The Assassin Next Door have proven that she can indeed act. At times, her Julia from Oblivion even looks as if she could end up as a heroine of the same stature as Tom Cruise’s Harper.

Eventually, however, the female NASA astronaut reverts to merely being a damsel in distress who needs a man to save her – which is truly a shame. Making her Jack’s equal would have been a lot more rewarding. Yet director Joseph Kosinski takes the easy way out and goes back to the old Hollywood ways of the leading ladies playing second fiddle to the male headliners.  In essence, it only demonstrates both how much of a star vehicle for Tom Cruise Oblivion is and to which degree it often lacks innovation.

The same goes for Andrea Riseborough and her Vika. She is never on the same level as Jack, her apparently perfect partner, and often comes across as anemic – not just in terms of her outer appearance. Some of that is most likely owed to the script. Vika, however, is just too bland and restrained in general to even evoke any proper emotions from the viewers. True, you’re supposed to feel for Jack and Julia, but that steering of sympathy by the script and the direction is a little too obvious and unnecessarily prevents Oblivion from unfolding its full potential.

As for the other members of the cast, Joseph Kosinski has managed to assemble a fine selection of actors, only not to know how to use them best. Living legend Morgan Freeman, for instance, may be too old to carry a picture all by himself these days, but here, his undeniable talents seem to be almost completely wasted. Like 2011 Oscar winner Melissa Leo as Sally, Quentin Tarantino favorite Zoe Bell playing Kara, and Game Of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in the role of Sykes, Morgan Freeman’s Beech doesn’t really provide any depth, even though the actor nearly receives top billing.

All of these characters are merely plot devices. Their sole raisons d’être are to advance the story and to support the one person in charge, Jack Harper. If this utterly reads like a one-man show to you, well, you’re not too far off then. Tom Cruise has delivered much worse. At least you will be entertained for about two hours. Oblivion is worth watching for its sights and sounds alone, not for its profound insights into the science-fiction genre or the realistic characters. If you’re looking for something more substantial, Joseph Kosinski’s movie might be for you. A modern 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris it isn’t, not even a legitimate successor to Moon by Duncan Jones, another film it sometimes roughly resembles.

With Olympus Has Fallen, Morgan Freeman has just kicked himself from the box-office throne in the United Kingdom. Olga Kurylenko can next been seen in the second season of the Starz series Magic City and To The Wonder by Terrence Malick. Maybe the enigmatic American recluse will finally be able to showcase her talents in a more favorable light. She deserves it. All that is true for her performance as Julia also applies to each other actor and Oblivion in general. It’s solid, even very good at times, but it could have been so much more.

Seen at CineStar Metropolis, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on 19 April, 2013.

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