Oblivion may be one of those films that is easier to mock than to dislike. It is certainly easier to criticize than to not enjoy.
That’s only really a problem if you are a critic — or need one to validate your pleasure.
Oblivion has the look and feel of a film that is meant to kick off the summer movie season, and perhaps it looks the better for announcing the end of the Hollywood dead season that comes between January and whenever there is enough distance from the Oscars to start thinking about making money again.
The story is cobbled together from various other science-fiction films. Cruise plays Jack, a technician who is assigned to do maintenance on drones defending large machines converting the earth’s oceans to hydro-power. Most of the earth is a wasteland, and we are told that this has been caused by a war with aliens who destroyed the earth’s moon but were eventually repelled by an all-out nuclear assault that left the world uninhabitable.
It is not exactly a spoiler to say “we are told,” because the first hint that things are not as they seem is in an opening scene in which Jack reveals that he has had his memory “wiped,” a typical science-fiction device that allows for reveals and surprises with plenty of foreshadowing and hints to keep the audience on its toes in what might otherwise be straightforward exposition.
In two ways the film’s derivative qualities and themes actually work to its advantage. They reinforce the film’s movie-ness; a portion of the audience, myself included, will just be so happy to be back in the theater that the ways in which the film reminds you of other movies situates it within a tradition, evoking as much the fun of summer movies as the movies themselves. Also, they place Cruise in an element where he shines, as an avatar rather than a character, making his malleableness a plus. Cruise has a knack of finding the center of a scene, and delivering lines with the maximum clarity to deliver what the scene is about. Certainly this makes this movie, like other Cruise vehicles, feel like an extended version of its trailer rather than of its inspiration, but by never straying too far from obvious emotions directly tied to easily and immediately comprehensible scene-situations, Oblivion sucks you into experiencing it scene by scene rather than as a narrative whole.
The strength of Oblivion lies in its art design, and it is at its weakest in its set pieces, because action requires motion, which is (barring a great director) inherently less picturesque. The film needed a trim, and the action pieces and pre-reveal scenes could easily be shortened without sacrificing mood and look. That said, it was fun to look at, the more so because-thank you, thank you, thank you–it doesn’t insist on being shown in 3D. It give us three different looks: space-station, wasteland, and cabin/nature oasis. The juxtaposition of the latter with the first two for the purpose of creating a nostalgia for nature felt very Solaris derivative. I’m not sure if that was intentional, but even if it was, why not steal from the best?