Review: 'Oblivion' engages the mind, not the heart

Posted at 04/15/13 6:06 PM

Tom Cruise plays the last man on Earth in the new sci-fi flick "Oblivion."

MANILA, Philippines -- Here’s the thing about "Oblivion," the new sci-fi movie by "Tron: Legacy" director Joseph Kosinski: I like it well enough that I don’t consider the two hours spent watching the movie as a waste.

It’s got an interesting sci-fi concept that feels derivative, which is fine if the execution had not been overtly long and antiseptic.

And all throughout the movie, the entire audience just sat in their chairs without making a sound, as if they were in a trance or worse, had fallen asleep. Take that as you will.

(Okay, the theater wasn’t completely silent during the entire two hours. At one point, a cellular phone started ringing and probably did not stop for a full minute even after people kept staring at the girl who owned. She then mentioned aloud: “I don’t know how to turn it off.” And the audience, instead of telling the girl to shut her phone, just sat there – too lethargic and uninvolved to muster the energy to issue the reprimand.)

Back to the movie: there’s got to be worse sci-fi movies than "Oblivion." (The remake of "The Day The Earth Stood Still" springs to mind.)

"Oblivion" is actually an idea movie except the idea seems like a rehash of ideas from other, much better sci-fi flicks.

Synopsis: It’s 60 years after the end of civilization and the only thing left on planet Earth is a trash compactor robot named Wall…wait, wrong movie.

Synopsis: Sixty years after aliens invaded Earth, the moon is a wreck, all the humans live on Jupiter’s largest moon, Hydro Rigs suck up the Earth’s resources and the only people left on planet Earth are Tom Cruise and English actress Andrea Louise Riseborough who both live on an elevated military outpost in the stratosphere.

Cruise plays Commander Jack Harper, a technician that handles maintenance for EVA-type drones that scour the Earth’s surface for “scavs” or alleged remnants of the alien invaders. Riseborough plays Victoria, Harper’s bed buddy, chef and mission control – she gives Jack orders on where the drowned drones have fallen, while coordinating with “Sally” (Melissa Leo), who is tasked with giving order to the drones.

"Oblivion" takes its time to get to the point of the story, allowing us spend a lot of time on the remains of a ruined Earth. Kosinski’s love for his vistas shows through here: there’s a real feeling of emptiness as we see glimpses of marooned ships in the desert, the remains of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Statue of Liberty.

Harper may be the last man on Earth but he’s having a ball: he’s got an Elvis bobble-head and a nice little cabin in the woods where he hides off during missions away from the prying eyes of Victoria and Sally.

But despite a mandatory mindwipe before the mission, Harper is haunted by the memory of a woman on top of the Empire State Building. And soon Harper’s tidy life gets upended when a ship crash-lands and he finds humans inside. One of the humans is the woman in his dreams.

To say more about this movie would be going into spoiler territory so for those who still want to see it: STOP right here.

"Oblivion" actually has two twists in the story on the alien invasion and Harper’s own identity. It asks questions about identity and memory, except that some of the answers feel like a logical wormhole. There are action scenes that feel unnecessary, and an ending that feels like a Hail Mary move from a "Star Trek" ripoff.

The movie’s biggest sin actually isn’t in the ideas department: it’s in the way it’s executed. "Oblivion" engages the mind but not the heart. There just isn’t enough desperation in Harper’s character to justify the movie poster’s mantra that “Earth is a memory worth dying for.”

There’s not enough passion between Harper and his wife to root for their relationship; not enough hopelessness to feel for Morgan Freeman and the scavs.

Like his previous movie, director Kosinski’s storytelling choices are still locked in the grid. He’s got the visual style covered but for now, "Oblivion" is a pretty movie served cold.