Persistence of Memory
All right, as you probably know, I try to avoid proper spoilers hereabouts – if I can, anyway. Every now and then, however, a film comes along which it is very difficult to talk about in any detail without risking giving the game away about its story. This is particularly the case with movies which help themselves to story ideas and concepts from other films willy-nilly, presumably in the belief that no-one will notice the steal – or nobody who matters, anyway. Joe Kosinski's Oblivion is one such movie.
Oblivion (the meaning of the title remains somewhat obscure in the context of the film) is not a sequel or a remake of a big-name property, nor is it a superhero or TV show adaptation. This may explain why it has slipped out ahead of the pack of big summer genre movies (summer movie season now starts in late April, apparently, which is frankly absurd), even though it stars a performer of the magnitude of Tom Cruise.
Cruise has shown an interest in science-fictional undertakings on and off for over a decade now (insert Scientology joke here if you wish) and this is his latest excursion into the genre. He plays Jack Harper, a repairman and one of the very last people on Earth. A catastrophic war with invading aliens has left virtually the entire planet a desolate ruin, and the task of Cruise and his partner Andrea Riseborough is to maintain the security drones protecting a network of power rigs generating energy for a colony of survivors on Titan.
The rigs are threatened by hostile, lurking creatures nicknamed Scavs, with whom Cruise has various run-ins when not waxing lyrical about the good old days, being troubled by enigmatic dreams of a pre-war Earth featuring a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko), or hanging about the remains of famous buildings – the Big Book of Sci Fi Cliches axiom that the more iconic a building is, the more disaster-resistant it will prove is fully in force. But then a Scav signal appears to trigger the re-entry of an ancient spacecraft, and despite being warned off by his own mission control, Cruise discovers within the hibernating form of the woman from his dreams – and she appears to recognise him...
If you are partial to SF movies, and have yourself been in stasis for the last four years, then you will probably quite like Oblivion. It looks impressive, the performances of the four leads (Morgan Freeman turns up to give proceedings some gravitas, but the nature of the plot precludes me from saying in what circumstances) are all at least solid, and for a while it seems to be riffing on ideas and images from SF movies of the early 70s with skill and insight.
That said, it's not nearly as subtle or clever as it needs to be – a clodhopping early reference to Cruise having had his memory wiped signposts very early on that the audience is being set up for a major plot twist, and so it proves. The twist in question is effective enough, and, to be fair, it's followed by a few more which are also decent. Oblivion is not short on cleverness – the problem is that it does have a serious shortfall of new ideas, genuine thrills, and soul, and some of the plot does strain credibility just a bit (the conclusion in particular is spectacularly brazen attempt at having one's cake and eating it).
I actually feel a bit guilty about not liking Oblivion more than I do, because despite all of this there are some genuinely great things about this film – the production design is great, the soundtrack is interesting, and Andrea Riseborough blasts everyone else off the screen, as usual. The problem is that I liked this film even more the first time I saw it, when it starred Sam Rockwell and was called Moon.
I don't think I'm overstating things if I describe Oblivion as a gargantuanly-budgeted remake of Moon which has had various action sequences, an alien invasion, and a love story grafted onto it without a great deal of elegance. The premise, atmosphere, and even a couple of specific scenes all seem uncannily familiar. If you haven't seen Moon, then this probably doesn't illuminate you much – but at least I haven't spoiled Duncan Jones' exceedingly fine film for you. If you have, then you now have a very good idea of the direction in which Oblivion ends up going (sorry).
For me the similarities were so numerous and so glaring that they really got in the way of my enjoyment of Kosinski's film (which, for the record, purports to be an adaptation of an unpublished graphic novel – hmmm). Others may well have a different experience, which is fair enough – there are good things going on here. But I still think that if you don't like SF, you're not going to warm to Oblivion simply due to the film's premise, and if you do, its derivativeness and arguable lack of real substance isn't going to endear it to you, either. Judging it on its own terms, this is quite possibly a better film than I'm giving it credit for – but to do so seems to me to require willfully ignoring just what a blatant knock-off it is.