Blockbuster movies, like the stars who populate them, really have only one obligation: first, last and foremost, to look good. Increasingly, a lavish look is all that the big screen is selling, how it has chosen to distinguish itself from those smaller and smarter screens. Sure, if the spectacle happens to come with the semblance of a script, the pretty head with the hint of a brain, so much the better. That’s nice, just no longer necessary.
Now let’s apply these lofty standards to this early extravaganza of the season. Oblivion has got a pretty good look, a sterile beauty yet beauty nonetheless. IQ-wise, it’s even got that semblance and that hint, no more but we can’t be greedy. And it’s got Tom Cruise, hardly the star or the hunk he once was, yet still constellation-worthy. What it hasn’t got is much action, and virtually none of the numbingly loud brand beloved by the genre; however, to these ears at least, that absence plays like a blessed presence. So the final tally isn’t hard to tote: Oblivion is an okay blockbuster, a multimillion-dollar exercise in competence.
The antiseptic beauty is courtesy of director Joseph Kosinksi, who proved his CGI chops in Tron: Legacy and extends that proof here. A pre-credit spot of exposition sets the futuristic scene. 2077, and the Earth, glimpsed from above, is a ravaged rock of grey devastation. At some point in the past, scavenger aliens destroyed our moon, a loss that unleashed a barrage of tsunamis and earthquakes. In the ensuing battle, humans vanquished the aliens, although the victory proved Pyrrhic. Or, as Jack Harper (Cruise) puts it: “We won the war but lost the planet.” That left the victors to retreat to the suburbs of the solar system – Titan on the outskirts of Jupiter – where they currently reside.
Stationed above the Earth’s ruin in a lovely stainless-steel pod (Frank Lloyd Wright meets NASA), Jack is a maintenance guy, a one-man “mop-up crew” – think Wall-E but without the wit. His job is to play flying visits to the desolate surface, on the hunt for any remnant aliens which he’s quick to dispatch, often aided by a fleet of unmanned drones – giant metal balls with guns. Back up in his home away from home, Jack has a missus in Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who speaks in a proper English accent and dresses very well. And undresses even better when she goes skinny-dipping in the stainless-steel pod’s stainless-steel pool, an event that Kosinksi treats like the Rapture with corresponding Dolbyesque fanfare. Then again, Riseborough does look good.
The two, as they’re fond of telling their smiling dispatcher on Titan, are “an effective team.” Nevertheless, unlike his by-the-rules missus, Jack has a bit of a rebel streak. He’s fond of wearing an old Yankees cap, of retrieving books of Roman poetry from abandoned libraries, of venturing off the grid to visit a cottage hideaway in an earthly valley still green, and, most disconcertingly, of entertaining black-and-white flashbacks to a long-ago assignation on the observation deck of the Empire State Building – yes, An Affair to Almost Remember.
Jack’s memory is stoked, and the film’s good looks further amped, when an aging spacecraft crash-lands and Olga Kurylenko awakens from a 60-year slumber. Her name is Julia but more important to Jack is her news: “I’m your wife.” Trust me, up in the pod, the missus ain’t pleased.
At this stage, I’m under strict orders from the studio in question not to “reveal key plot points.” A good thing too, since the key plot points grow downright unfathomable, although, in the script’s defence, the climax does bring a certain clarity. Yet I can safely divulge that, especially by spectacle standards, the cast is quite sparse – look hard and you might see Morgan Freeman doing his usual noble Morgan Freeman thing. Equally scarce are the villains – the best we get are a bunch of those metal-ball drones flitting about in high dudgeon. Zombies they aren’t.
But, again, these very absences have an oddly refreshing allure. In the sterility of Oblivion, in the paucity of its characters and the vacuum of its spaced-out story, there’s a kind of serenity. This is a quiet blockbuster, devoid of sound and fury but, for that precise reason, signifying something. What exactly? A functioning mediocrity, perhaps, blessed with good looks and unassuming with good reason.