In the first of many post-apocalyptic pictures painted across our summer radar, Tom Cruise stars as diligent drone mechanic Jack, who along with colleague and part-time lover Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) salvages the remains of an Earth savaged beyond repair following an alien invasion. Each day, Jack bids farewell to Victoria in their comfortable rectangular sky apartment and lowers himself to the Earth’s surface to attain what’s left of the planet’s resources. The invasion itself occurred 60 years ago, and what’s now left of the planet is barren, flattened and unpopulated, or so Jack assumes.
And so on and so forth. As we’re granted Oblivion’s backstory in full over the first five minutes, we thusly accept the authoritative narration at face value, momentarily discard its implications and accord full attention to the protagonist. Cruise’s Jack is ambiguously drawn, a thin character subservient to plot machinations, in waiting for the inciting incident to spur him into autonomous action. He shares the near-vacant landscape with mechanical drones and intangible memories of what existed in the distant past. The silence ceases upon Jack’s eventual encounter with freedom fighter Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman) and his band of reclusive cohorts, the mysterious dream-plaguing Julia (Olga Kurylenko) and other, unexpected – at least to Jack – game-changers.
Although not without its twists, the predictability of Oblivion – second feature from Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski – is largely down to how imitative it all appears. Questions of sentient awareness have long coursed through the sci-fi genre by way of Blade Runner, A.I. and countless other, lesser knockoffs; Jack’s status as lonesome cleaner on a barren earth has him share similarities with Wall-E; and a climactic showdown in space calls to mind the iconic approach to the Death Star associated with the Star Wars franchise. But the most unusual, explicit point of reference is the superlative videogame Portal, whose dubiously congenial machines are replicated here both in speech, appearance and menace.
Still, each and every sci-fi film in production is faced with the challenge of presenting a wholly original world devoid of obvious genre signifiers, and you can’t fault the newer instalments for paying homage, intentionally or otherwise, to previous iterations of faraway worlds. It’s a tricky path to tread, and you’re damned if you do. Oblivion is at least distinguishable through a comparatively less cluttered palette than its genre company: the CGI is somewhat minimal until the third act, the environments are sparse and desolate, and a humanist gravitas grounds the narrative before its technological concerns send it beyond the stars. What’s also more striking than the derivations is the half-point awakening of Cruise’s protagonist, a thematic turn that resituates his co-starring robots – aptly named ‘drones’ – into a political context.
Oblivion is first out of the gate in a summer 2013 onslaught of inexplicably fashionable ‘ravaged Earth’ features – including Elysium, Another Earth and Star Trek: Into Darkness. Kosinski may have set himself apart from the pack with a refreshingly slight take on the concept, but for all its small qualities Oblivion never truly rises above the level of ‘watchable’. Blomkamp, M Night. Shyamalan and JJ Abrams will thusly prove stiff competition in the coming months, by virtue of name recognition and brand loyalty. Can we still say the same of Cruise?