At what point does a film that steals lots of other movie’s concepts for it’s own reach a point where all those ideas end up forming an original movie? Yup, it’s a weird question I’ll grant you, but not one without merit – after all Quentin Tarantino has made an entire career of harvesting shots, visuals, concepts and even chunks of other movie’s scores together to make pop culture patchworks that stand on their own thanks to the auteur’s singular style.
However, Tarantino is one thing and flashy, Tom Cruise science fiction movies are quite another and in 2013, Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski unleashed Oblivion into cinemas only for me to sit there and wonder exactly how many other films were getting referenced in this story of love, drones and a dystopian earth that lassos around a dozen familiar concepts into it’s whole and tries to palm it off as something shiny and new.
Guess what? It’s yet another dystopian future for earth (can’t we just catch a damn break, already?) in the year 2077 and a protracted war with invading aliens left the moon looking like a shattered marble and earth as inhabital the surface of Mars. The remnants of mankind are hanging ten on “The Tet”, an orbiting mothership that is preparing to take our species to a new life on Titan and all that’s left to do is await for massive harvesters to process earth’s seawater into fusion energy that’ll power our road trip through the stars. Protecting the harvesters are drones and maintaining the drones are the last two humans stationed on this barren dustball, Jack Harper and Victoria Olsen, who are an “effective team” when making sure that the drones stay in one piece when mopping up the remaining pockets of alien invaders dubbed “Scavengers”.
However, despite having a bunch of sexy, polished, white toys to accomplish his job (cool rifle, rad motorbike, bitchin’ ship) and a personal relationship with literally the last woman on earth, Jack is wracked with discontent and while his memories have been removed in order to be better at his assigned task, he’s having memories of a previous life with another woman in an un-trashed America and has built himself a secret bachelor pad like some kind of shrine/mid-life crisis to a world gone by.
However, Jack’s obsession about these strange memories kick into overdrive when he comes across a spaceship crash site where one of the survivors is none other than (gasp) the woman from his dreams and this in turn unravels everything both he and Victoria think they know about what is actually going on. The drones, the Scavengers, The Tet, Jack and Victoria themselves? All is not what what it seems and Jack will have to make choices that will directly effect every single remaining members of the human race.
So let’s tackle my earlier claims of Oblivion being shockingly derivative head on and I’ve got to be honest, when I first saw this in theatres, I had such a severe attack of deja-vu, I was convinced my entire existence had lapped itself. In just that one sitting I was strongly reminded of – and prepare yourself for a cartoonish tsunami of film titles – Total Recall, Dune, The Matrix, Wall-E, The Terminator, Moon, Battlefield LA, Independence Day, 2001: A Space Odyssey and 12 Monkeys (or La Jetèe, if we’re being super accurate), which are all movies I liberally checked off even if I wasn’t being picky. It’s quite a formidable onslaught of references that may likely be the result of the story coming from an unpublished graphic novel from the director himself and back in 2013 I found spotting all these references from far better movies more distracting than a nudist playing snooker.
However, years later and long after my ire has faded somewhat, a viewing of Oblivion reveals a film that’s a slick, satisfying slice of sci-fi regardless of the fact that it doesn’t have an original idea in it’s sleek, well designed body.
Firstly, if your script turns out to be as unoriginal as a baker who only owns a single cookie cutter, then it helps if you have actors involved who makes the material feel more substantial than it actually is. Step forward Tom Cruise, an actor who’s forays into science fiction usually fits his absurdly intense body like a glove and who carries the film through it’s shakier moments like he’s Kevin Costner and the script is Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard; his talent of drip feeding an audience through numerous outlandish plot twists that’s been honed to a fine point by fronting thirty years worth of Mission: Impossible movies is well used here considering that not one of Oblivion’s twists are that surprising. However, our little Tommy guides us through Jack’s confusion well as every single lie he’s been told drops away like a wet bath towel as his very humanity is called into question and he’s got more than capable support thanks to professional human chameleon Andrea Riseborough and the silken voiced god of exposition himself, Morgan Freeman; two actors you want backing you up when your audience is constantly trying to work out among themselves where a particular plot point has been nicked from.
The other thing that keeps Oblivion from disappearing into… well, you know, is it’s design ethic which is a strong as you’d expect from the guy that gave us the luxurious visuals of the reduxed light cycles and neon onesies of Tron: Legacy. The dusty landscape contrasts nicely with the smooth, iPod look of the tech and the (utterly unsuprising) revelation as to the actual identity of the Scavengers gives a further steampunk-esque tang to a movie who’s visual style is far more sophisticated than it’s repurposed plot.
Time’s been oddly kind to this movie which had precisely zero cultural impact on release, but anyone choosing to watch it now with no idea what’s it about may actually glean some suprises out of it’s familiar story now we’ve got some distance from it’s influences and we’re nearly a decade away from spoilerish trailers.
It won’t change you’re life and it’ll never be on any top ten lists (both best and worst) but this particular example of future shock is watchable enough despite a lack of genuine suprises.