|Tom Cruise tends the ruins of planet Teegeeack in Oblivion.|
««1/2 Oblivion. Written by Joseph Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek & Michael Arndt, based on the graphic novel by Joseph Kosinski & Arvid Nelson. Directed by Joseph Kosinski.
This is Tom Cruise’s world; you just happen to live on it. That fundamental truth is nowhere more literal than in Joseph Kosinski’s apocalypse salad, Oblivion. For a celebrity of Cruise’s self-styled magnitude, what could be a more appropriate co-star than an entire planet, conveniently emptied of all other faces?
As you may already know, the script (based on a graphic novel by director Joseph Kosinksi) is set in the late 21st century, after Earth has been devastated by an interplanetary war between humans and invading “Scavengers”. The remaining radioactive dust-heap is watched over by a fleet of autonomous drones, which in turn are serviced by “Tech 49”, otherwise known as Jack (Cruise). He’s supported by Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) a porcelain-smooth redhead who serves as Jack’s mission controller and, as need arises, his bedmate.
Jack and Victoria’s posting is lonely, but almost over; in two weeks, they head to humanity’s new home on Titan, the moon of Saturn. She’s stoked to leave. He’s got doubts, however—he has troubling “memories” of life on pre-war Earth, which he supposedly wasn’t alive to see. And then there are the ruins of that era, the wrecked bridges and skyscrapers and stadiums of a lost, golden age. Jack’s got a bad case of what the Germans called ruinenempfindsamkeit—that semi-romantic, semi-perverse attraction to ruined places that often afflicts people who don’t actually have to live in disaster zones.
Now we don’t necessarily expect technical rigor in Hollywood confections like Oblivion. It doesn’t take Neil deGrasse Tyson, however, to observe that even this radioactive husk of an Earth---which still can boast liquid water and breathable air—is more habitable than cold, poisonous, distant Titan. Kosinski would have us believe that Jack and Victoria oversee a network of huge fusion reactors for turning Earth’s oceans into energy. But of course, water is everywhere in the solar system (e.g. comets, asteroids, moons like Europa and Callisto), so bothering with the conquest of Earth just for the water doesn’t make much sense.
The film itself isn’t taking its flimsy premise very seriously. Jack soon discovers that the planet isn’t as empty as he assumed: God, appearing in his usual guise of Morgan Freeman, is also there, leading the resistance to the final exodus. The script by Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt ransacks various not-so-old sources, like Independence Day and I Am Legend. But the surface visuals, not the logic, are the appeal here: the drones, for instance, look more like sleek, high-end Swedish washers than plausible killing machines. Riseborough’s character, who has the ultimate stay-at-home job as Jack’s air-traffic controller, still bothers to dress up in tight dress and heels when sweatpants and a pony-tail would do.
This writer will admit he also has a serious case of ruinenempfindsamkeit. Nice as New York and Washington DC look now, they won’t be truly poignant until their grandeur is moldering and toppled. Special effects technology has come a long way since we saw the Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes, or that vine-choked Lincoln Memorial in Logan’s Run. Oblivion works best as a kind of calendar spread of imaginary devastation, the modern descendant of the fake ruins that graced the estates of nobility in the 18th and 19th centuries.
There are doctoral theses to be written about the connection of the current zeitgeist, dogged by climate change and doomsday pandemics, and movies like this, which speak of the future in the past tense, and memories as the only measures of our humanity. With more poetic treatment and a less self-satisfied star, Oblivion could have been more than just watchable. The script for Blade Runner, after all, also made no sense. But real heart goes a long way.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro