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Movie Review: Oblivion digs a black hole for itself

In Oblivion, Tom Cruise plays a former Marine commander and current drone mechanic, Jack Harper. Jack is part of a two-member “mop-up crew” of humans who have been given the task of salvaging what’s left of Earth, 60 years after a lethal alien invasion.

The rest of humankind has moved to Titan, Saturn’s moon, and Harper and Victoria(Andrea Riseborough), Harper’s colleague (with benefits), are based on a fancy space station somewhere above Earth. They’re sweeping the planet one last time before they too shift to Titan.

Tom Cruise in the film. Image courtesy: Facebook page.

Tom Cruise in the film. Image courtesy: Facebook page.

All’s going well – the bad guys are already dead, humanity is in the happily-ever-after phase on Titan, and Jack and Victoria are having sex in a pool in the middle of space. Which means it’s time for kahani mein twist and for Jack Harper to step up and save the day by squashing the evil aliens.

Given Cruise hasn't encountered aliens too many times in his reel life, you may think Jack Harper in Oblivion is a far cry from his past roles. For example, in Jack Reacher (2012), Cruise played a former military officer, who saves the day by squashing an evil Russian gang. In Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011), Cruise played a former spy who saves the day by squashing evil Russians. In Knight and Day (2010), Cruise plays a former Army seargent, who saves the day by squashing evil guys in general. Oh wait.

So yes, at age 50 and in film number 39, Cruise, yet again, plays the role of the wronged hero who must step up in dire times because obviously, humanity ain’t saving itself, is it?  And yes, it does sound a lot like what Cruise, a dedicated Scientologist, reportedly believes he does in real life on Earth.

But the fun in most of Cruise’s movies is that he is pitted against a formidable foe. Oblivion, in contrast, leaves an unremarkable aftertaste because it lacks a spectacular villain. The villain in Oblivion is faceless, nameless and just not frightening enough to be Cruise’s nemesis in a multi-million dollar movie. Once you realize that, it’s all a waste of popcorn.

Oblivion had the potential to be a sci-fi classic. The visuals, although reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012), are stunning. The cinematography (by Oscar-winner Claudio Miranda, who also shot Life of Pi) is breathtaking. The cast includes Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo, Andrea Riseborough and Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj ‘Kingslayer’ Coster-Waldau and is quite impressive if you ignore Olga Kurylenko. Right up till the “plot twist”, the first half of Oblivion is intriguing and technically, the film is far superior than what’s generally churned out even in the sci-fi genre.

In spite of so many favourable factors, Oblivion ultimately fails because the story is so clichéd. Every plot twist in the movie is a repeat of what’s been seen before in sci-fi films – about 30 times. The first half manages to sustain interest levels because of the pacing, but it’s all downhill once it is ‘revealed’ that not all is what it seems to be. Olga Kurylenko’s angle is contrived; the brief battle sequences are uninteresting; the Morgan Freeman-led rebels are badly sketched and even Coster-Waldau looks inept.

There’s also the problem of Oblivion not knowing what genre it wants to claim as its own. Does it want to be a smart film that will make audiences reflect once it’s over, like Prometheus?

Does it want to be a popcorn action movie that will give you instant gratification, like Independence Day (1996) or I Am Legend (2007)? Does it want to be a bit of both, like District 9? Ultimately, it’s none of the above. Oblivion is so derivative that in an attempt to pay homage to the great sci-fi films of our times, writer-director Joseph Kosinski, who also directed Tron: Legacy (2010), manages to lose the movie’s soul.

What you get is a movie that shows sparks of potential every now and then, but ends up digging a huge hole for itself. Go watch the movie if you are a Tom Cruise fan. Everyone else, rent Duncan Jones’s Moon (2009) and see one of the more brilliant movies made on a similar subject.