Reviewed by: David Graham

Tron Legacy helmer Joseph Kosinski offers up another visually arresting but fundamentally underwhelming sci-fi opus, this time adapted from his own unpublished graphic novel. With A-lister Tom Cruise top-lining and an astronomical effects budget, it’s disappointing that Oblivion is so lifeless and derivative, flirting with all sorts of potentially interesting ideas but exacerbating its plagiarism by failing to commit to one idea until it’s too late to care. It’s just about worth catching on the big screen for the sheer technical bravado on display – a couple of whizzy later set-pieces are almost worth the price of admission alone – but in the end Oblivion is a mixed bag of borrowed tricks and stale twists.

Jack Harper is the sole janitor for an ash-submerged Earth, entrusted with protecting the sea-sucking energy towers that are powering mankind’s emigration from an orbiting space station to one of Saturn’s moons. With his eye-in-the-sky wife watching his back from their space-age home above the clouds, Harper’s routine revolves around maintaining the many airborne drones acting as sentinels against the remaining ‘Scavengers’ whose invasion brought mankind to its knees. With the loving couple’s years-long shift due to end in a matter of weeks, their lives are thrown into turmoil by the arrival of a mysterious female who may know the truth behind Harper’s nagging feeling that things are not what they seem.

A blatant blend of Wall-E, Prometheus and obscure Philip K Dick adap Screamers, the slow-burning two-hander first half gives way to a revelation-heavy final hour, where every new sub-Shyamalan surprise only confirms how much Oblivion is ripped off from superior sci-fi that knows its game better. Both sides of the story are laboured and flawed; Cruise’s one-man show on the planet surface is toe-curlingly cringe-worthy when he’s not blowing things up and dangling off ledges like a 16-bit videogame hero, while his heavenly home is a logic-defying dream-pad where poor Andrea Riseborough is reduced to doing the cooking and going skinny-dipping in the glass-bottomed pool (must be big bills keeping that thing heated up there at night).

Intrigue gives way to the insipid when skeletal clothes-horse Olga Kurylenko crash-lands into the picture, her true identity about as predictable as her poor performance. Kurylenko just doesn’t have the acting chops or cinematic appeal to transcend her limited role, despite looking fairly fetching in a spacesuit; she alternates between sidekick, plot pawn and damsel in distress without ever really becoming a character in her own right, and the brief glimpses we’re given of her pre-disaster past only amp up the underlying feeling we’ve seen this all before, and better.

Morgan Freeman’s appearance is another signpost that Oblivion isn’t going to deliver on its promise: he’s less of a character, more of a Powerpoint presentation spelling things out for a disbelieving Harper. As he dovetails the action into rage-against-the-machine melodramatics that at least throw up a couple of bracing set-pieces, the eventual actuality of what our heroes are facing feels like a cop-out, with too vague a foe to make for a satisfying show-down, while an emotive epilogue rings almost disturbingly hollow. Over the course of the draining two-hour-plus run-time, it’s not just plot-holes bogging the story down, it’s the mis-judged attempts to inject some humanity into proceedings.

M83’s bombastic score presents another problem, feeling like it’s climaxing right from the start, giving the whole shebang an overly earnest and at times cheesy air, like one of Jared Leto’s epicly redundant 30 Seconds To Mars videos. On the visual front, the CGI-assisted Icelandic locations and sleek design keep the action watchable, the director’s sure eye for a smooth shot luring you into his two-toned world, its aesthetic strangely reminiscent of classic Dreamcast shmup Ikaruga.

Bizarrely, Cruise’s much-publicised faith in Scientology is kinda played down here, with the climactic mission against an omnipotent foe almost coming off as antithetical to his beliefs. Similarly, there’s less of the enviro-political posturing that’s hampered much recent sci-fi (and cinema in general), with no suggestion we’re in any way to blame for Earth’s downfall, and even some subtle commendations for viable energy sources in the form of the pivotal water farms.

Ultimately Oblivion strives too hard but achieves too little, with too many stolen story elements and not enough excitement to sustain the bloated run-time. Kolinski has proven once again that he is masterful when it comes to creating tangible, immersive worlds, but he has failed to locate a human pulse beneath the pretty pictures he so expertly paints. Cruise gives his all but comes off as mawkish and smarmy in equal measure, his inevitable evolution into a crusader robbed of impetus by the many unnecessary twists, while his chemistry with the DOA Kurylenko is non-existent. Sci-fi fanatics will find plenty to admire but just as much to annoy, leaving the terminally humourless Oblivion as this year’s first blockbuster casualty.

Reviewed on: 19 Apr 2013
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Oblivion packshot
One of the few humans left after alien atacks on Earth begins to question his misson.
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Director: Joseph Kosinski

Writer: Joseph Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek

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

Year: 2013

Runtime: 126 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


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