Oblivion marks the unofficial beginning of the 2013 Summer Spectacular season. Iron Man 3 is a couple of weeks away and then Star Trek somewhat beyond that. I have mixed feelings about blockbusters; on one hand they do tend to be the only times when Hollywood invests money and effort into science fiction, but the type of SF on display is almost always a 1) sequel, 2) played for laughs, 3) poorly conceived, or 4) all three. So, first off I want to make it clear that simply having an original, fairly coherent science fiction movie, is in itself a welcome development. If you like movies that attempt, however feebly, try to stake out some new speculative ground, you should show a little support to this film.
A little support.
This is not, when all is said and done, a very good film. It has its charms, which I will quickly summarize shortly, but it has more than its fair share of defects. The largest issue is the question of basic storytelling. I enjoyed the first half of the movie more than I thought likely simply because it moved with a definite purpose and economy. We get the outlines of the world quickly enough, become invested in Tom Cruise's character ('the world's best astronaut,' Jack Harper) and the strangely clinical relationship/partnership he has with Victoria. Harper's job is to service drones protecting the infrastructure of humanity's resettlement, a job made more difficult by the remnants of the alien horde, the Scavengers, who constantly harass and sabotage. But something is off, vaguely menacing about the technology and set-up of the film. We're told that humans had successfully fought off an alien invasion decades before but then why does humanity have to depart for Titan? How can humanity have barely survived and yet have advanced its technology to such an impressive degree?
The film makes the mistake of wanting to answer every single question it poses, at the expense of momentum and even good sense. This would have filled 90 minutes in a stellar fashion, and even shed a few of its bare-bones cast with little detriment. Instead we follow Harper from revelation to the next, trapped in the same convoluted rat maze. By the time we get to the ending, I was still left with an appreciation of some of the concepts of the film, but no lingering desire to see the film again.
On the plus side, this movie largely shows how to handle 'twists.' First off, we don't learn of the earth-shattering mystery in the last five minutes but relatively early on, early enough that we have time to process the consequence of the discovery, and see some of its more disturbing implications.
Also in its favor is the beauty of the film. While nothing in the film seems all that innovative (the sterile malice of Harper's flight pod and the drones owes a lot to the Portal games), it is rendered with care and style. I also enjoyed the scoured wastelands of New York and Washington D.C., the monuments half buried in dust and sand, cave entrances opening into ruined sky scrapers. I'm not exactly sure what kind of disaster buries the Empire State Building all the way up to the antenna without simply collapsing it, but it works on the elemental dreamscape level.
Also, Tom Cruise turns in another classic Tom Cruise performance. There is really only one mode for Cruise in these types of films, the tortured 'best whatever' protagonist who has his confidence shaken with an unexpected discovery, only to find himself in time for the last reel. It's the same role he's been playing since Top Gun and if you can simply enjoy this nutcase for the work he does, then he does add a certain forward momentum to a film simply by virtue of playing well a very familiar character. But that's a more subjective judgement.