“The last man on Earth, tasked with extracting resources from his dying planet, begins to question what he knows about his life and the history of mankind.”
Directed By: Joseph Kosinski Rated: PG-13, 124 min
Jack and Victoria live in a house above a fallen Eden, a world with a history written in ink and then whited out and now lived on pages of landscape blank and yet scarred from the pressure of time’s pen. On the vast dusty plains where they live, miles wide migrations of cloud shadow take place, unnoticed and unrecorded. Once famous bridges lay toppled, their brick ribs mossing over and streams trickle down hundred story canyons of broken windows, old sky scrapers already buried to their lightning rods in dirt. Oceans dry up in the day like puddles and the wreckage of the moon stretches in a white belt across the night sky. But there is a new world and they have a new moon anyways, floating like a ziggurat on the horizon. It crosses the meridian of the day sky, a day moon, as translucent and milky as a cube of ice. It means a voice and a protection and a comforting eye.
Jack has dominion over all that stretches from horizon to horizon. He roams it like a lonely boy, fixing robots, living in stories, chasing the vision of a dream girl that touches the ground as fleetingly and invitingly as a hummingbird showing its wings. Victoria is a voice in his ear. She guides and protects him, disciplines his wandering attention. When things cannot be managed safely any longer, she implores the help of the world above her. Sometimes, when desire fills them, or secrets, they make love in the air, in a pool infused by the stars.
Oblivion has a beginning remarkable because of its beauty and simplicity. The movie works best on this principle of simplicity and so Jack tells us a simple story of what happened to Earth. Invaders called Scavengers came looking for resources and nearly wiped out humanity. After the war, the remnants of Earth have established a colony on a moon of Jupiter. Jack and Victoria, the mirror images of Adam and Eve at the end of days, have a simple mission. They will maintain the probes that guard the great engines that transmute the ocean into fusion power for the colony. Jack finds and fixes probes, always shadowed by the remaining Scavs, while a whole world of water roars up in geysers to feed invisible suns. Once the water is gone, they can go home to the colony on Jupiter. Only a week remains.
The world of Oblivion, stark and empty and shining with steel light that is both blank and ancient is a joy to explore in the first third of the film. It sets up its world elegantly and stands out as the strongest element of Kosinski’s creation. Jack and Victoria, played by Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough, have a relationship as strange and full of wandering emptinesses as the landscape they watch over. They do a remarkable job on screen playing a team that operates as smoothly as a steel piston, but that, strangely, you would doubt could stay together if they weren’t the only people left on Earth.
Made optimistic by the first third of the movie, as Jack went searching through empty plains and cavernous buildings, I got ready for a movie I thought I would never forget. My problems as a viewer, however, commence with Jack’s. Before the factories can finish draining the ocean, a probe goes missing. When Jack goes searching for it, the Scavs make an attempt to try to capture him. Not long after, a pod drops from space, pulled down by the Scavs and the woman Jack has been dreaming of turns out to be real. She’s named Julia. Jack, who only knows how fragile his dreams are, seems to fear that if he looked at Julia hard, she would shatter. But she’s a real woman. She can survive a hard stare and much more.
I had no problem with the fact that Joseph Kosinski, the director, has already shot one twist in the foot by allowing Morgan Freeman into his trailers and thereby unmasking the Scavs. I thought maybe he was politely informing us that he had greater twists in store. I did not find any of those twists on my way to the exit of the theater, however.
The middle section of the movie, in which most of the plays – Julia, the Scavs, the Colonists – are unmasked feels a little flat because we already know, from the trailer, that the Scavs aren’t really Scavs. Drawn on by the promise of even greater revelations, I watched events escalate into a huge battle that I thought didn’t merit its screen time. It takes place in a location among people we barely know and I kept wishing we could go back outside and watch Jack ride his hover bike. Maybe he’d take us to a different story.
The last third of the movie felt cobbled together and sloppy. I can’t name the twists, but what began as a desert, rich with otherworldly silence was followed by a war that feels all too mundane and reminiscent of the The Matrix and finally a third act with a tone that didn’t fit either the first or the second.
I wouldn’t have minded the movie Oblivion became in the end, which reminded me of Independence Day, if I had known what I was in for. The beginning unfolds so elegantly, that the middle and the end caught me flat footed for an hour. It seemed to me like the director woke up one morning from a magnificent dream, and half way through his film, decided such a quiet, fragile creation wouldn’t live long in a box office. He decided that flowers don’t survive in his world and that it would be better off with a loud ending. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the end. The last line had me howling.
The Good: An opening act that feels like the beginning of a very elegant science fiction.
The Bad: Twists as visible as a naked man walking a plain.
The Ugly: Sally. . . You’ll see.