With Tron Legacy, director Joseph Kosinski demonstrated that he is an expert visual stylist who can polish a dull story into something eye-catching and inventive. His new movie, Oblivion, gets by on much of the same abilities, although it has a significantly more interesting story. Still, the main appeal here is Kosinski’s flair for dazzling production design, costumes and visual effects and his skill with well-chosen music (Oblivion’s score by M83 is nearly as hypnotic as Daft Punk’s was for Legacy). Oblivion looks so striking and moves so smoothly that it effectively distracts you from the glaring holes in the plot.
Kosinski is also aided this time by a strong leading man in Tom Cruise, who brings authority and anguish to the role of Jack Harper, one of the last people on Earth following a devastating future interstellar war. As humanity migrates from the uninhabitable Earth to a nearby space station and then to Saturn’s moon Titan, Jack and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are left to clean up the last vestiges of the alien invasion.
Or at least that’s how things seem at first. Jack is haunted by apparent pre-war memories of a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko), and the disturbingly chipper communications from the pair’s supervisor (Melissa Leo) also indicate that something probably isn’t right. Eventually the truth is revealed, and while it’s emotionally resonant, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But Cruise plays Jack’s reactions so convincingly that you can’t help but go along with them, and Kosinski crafts an immersive world that borrows from the long history of science-fiction cinema (including Solaris, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes, to name a few) without coming off as a direct rip-off of anything in particular.
The movie’s languid, melancholy scenes between Cruise and one of his two leading ladies are more effective than the loud action set pieces that are required elements for a blockbuster like this, but Kosinski works wonders with both, even making Morgan Freeman’s rather laughable mystical-sage character semi-convincing. The movie as a whole may only be semi-convincing, but it holds a compelling power just the same.