5 Ways “Oblivion” is Basically a Live-Action “WALL-E” (Review)

starring: Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Melissa Leo, Morgan Freeman, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

screenplay: Joseph Kosinski, Karl Gadjusek, Michael Arndt

directed by: Joseph Kosinski

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, brief strong language, and some sensuality/nudity

Why does it feel like Tommy Girl Cruise is always making sci-fi epics? I was about to open my review with some weary comment about how it’s his latest, yet again, blah blah blah. But then I checked, and this is actually his first one since War of the Worlds in 2005 (the press tour of which minted Crazy Tom Cruise as we’ve understood him ever since), which itself came three years after another Spielberg-helmed sci-fi epic, Minority Report. So yes, while Cruise certainly favored this genre in the early aughts (and is it a coincidence that this is also the time he gradually went utterly batshit Xenu-crazy on the national stage?), that still makes Oblivion, the sophomore effort by director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy), just Cruise’s third big sci-fi epic. My bad, Tommy G! What is it about Tom Cruise that just makes you automatically throw your hands up and exclaim, “Oh, he’s doing THAT again,” no matter what? Probably because for those of us in our 30s and younger, it feels like he has been such a ubiquitous and unchanging fixture on our cultural landscape as far back as our memories allow. Seriously, look at this bitch’s face. It does not change. Ever.

But just because Oblivion is only Cruise’s third sci-fi enterprise in a 30-year-plus career, that doesn’t mean it isn’t derivative. The good news, though, is that it’s derivative of one of the top five greatest animated films of all time: Pixar’s immortal 2008 classic, WALL-E. I’m not saying it’s as good as WALL-E, not by a whole galaxy of Dianetics books. But it lifts enough of that film’s basic plot structure to at least be pleasingly reminiscent of it, in addition to some bewilderingly stunning visuals and a sporadically cool score by electro-synth rockers M83 (who did not have the best experience working on it). How exactly is it like WALL-E? Let me bullet the ways:

  • Oblivion takes place in a dystopian future in which Earth is no longer habitable. Cruise stars as Jack, a man who’s been entrusted with shepherding the planet back to health along with his partner/lover, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). Their only outside interaction is with Sally (Melissa Leo, whose entire performance registers on a tiny flickering black-and-white screen), their mission control, who frequently warns them about following their “directive.” So far, so WALL-E?
  • Where is everyone else? The rest of Earth’s survivors are said to be living on a spaceship, waiting for the planet to become habitable again before they come back and rebuild. That should sound very familiar. There’s even a scene where Jack presents Victoria with a little plant growing out of small container, causing her to freak out. It’s uncanny.
  • In addition to Jack and Victoria, Earth is also populated by a series of drones that fly around scanning shit and analyzing whatever they find. These drones look like a perfect combination of EVE (they even have little white guns that pop out of their sides) and the sinister Autopilot robot from the ship. I guess there are only so many sound effects a robot would conceivably make, but again, they sound almost identical to EVE’s scanning beeps and whirs.
  • Just like WALL-E, Jack has a little hiding hole where he hides all the cool trinkets and artifacts he comes across in his journeys. And like WALL-E, Jack’s favorite way to impress a girl is to bring her here. There’s no Hello Dolly, but there is some sweet Procol Harum vinyl involved.
  • Finally, and most essentially to the plot, it gradually becomes clear that the mission is not what it appears to be, and that those in charge of it may have a far different agenda than what Jack has been led to believe.

Also like WALL-E, a considerable portion of Oblivion goes by with a bare minimum of onscreen characters. For the entire first hour of the film, the only people onscreen are Cruise, Riseborough, Leo (if you count her little monitor appearance), and Olga Kurylenko, who shows up toward the end of the first hour as Julia, the only survivor of a crash landing from space, whose sudden appearance gradually changes everything Jack thinks he knows about his mission and identity. Oblivion is fairly engaging up until this point, seducing us with its majestic visuals and intriguing sense of mystery about what’s become of Earth. But then Morgan Freeman has to show up around the 70-minute mark with all kinds of plot twists, which you’d think would spice things up, but only succeed in severely muddling them.

The script, co-written by Kosinski, loses its thread for a good half-hour or so following Freeman’s revelations, and we are no longer clear what kind of movie we’re watching or even what it’s about. I am admittedly slow on the uptake when attempting to figure out sci-fi movies, so I literally had no idea what I was supposed to think had happened until the final five minutes. But even my much smarter and more sci-fi/fantasy-minded boyfriend admitted to being totally in the dark until the finale, and not because it was too complex or complicated or abstract – it just drops the ball. It is vague and vacant, confusing itself unnecessarily. It also has some serious pacing issues; this is definitely a film of which I spent at least half resting my face on my hand (the closest thing I have to a scientific measure of my own engagement).

At the very least, the film’s visuals are given quite a boost by the immensity of the IMAX experience (how I saw it); this is one of the best uses of IMAX I have yet seen, really making the most of that enormous screen by dwarfing its characters against massive post-apocalyptic backdrops. The film also has a standout performance from Riseborough, who gave what should have been a star-making performance in Madonna’s widely-mocked W.E.; she brings surprising shading and sophistication to a role with very little to distinguish it on the page. Kurylenko displays a bit of the feral quality accessed so much better by Terrence Malick in To the Wonder, although she finds herself in the usual Cruise leading lady position of being filmed at awkward angles to make Tommy Girl look taller than her (IRL she’s got two inches on him). Oblivion may be reminiscent of WALL-E, but it could be more accurately described as what WALL-E would have become with lots of studio interference and test audience fuckery to rob it of all its groundbreaking characteristics: a banal, commonplace sci-fi flick with nothing to make it stand out.

Oblivion opens nationwide today.

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