Summer 2013 at the movies will not be kind to planet Earth. Hollywood will serve up four high-profile movies — all featuring brand-name leading men — that envision bleak destinies for this third rock from the sun that we call home, or at least our place on it.
Perhaps it’s the anxieties of these uncertain times projected onto the screen. Or maybe it’s just that post-apocalyptic scenarios sell more popcorn.
Either way, first up is Oblivion, a serviceably entertaining sci-fi thriller set on a post-human Earth, in a not-so-distant future, decades after a war with alien invaders known as the Scavengers or “Scavs.”
Opening narration recounts how, in a last-stand effort, mankind resorted to nukes against the would-be world conquerors; it is a pyrrhic victory: “We won the war, but lost the planet.”
Providing the voice-over history lesson is Tom Cruise’s Jack Harper, a Maytag repairman of sorts with a ray gun, tasked with troubleshooting high-tech, aerial predator drones that patrol and protect hydro installations essential to harvesting water for a mass migration to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. The structures are targeted by marauding packs of remaining Scavs still lingering in the shadows.
As a self-proclaimed member of the “mop-up crew,” Jack is among a handful of humans left behind; the vast majority has bailed to safer havens aboard the “Tet,” an orbiting spaceship serving as a way station in anticipation of the planned exodus.
When not fixing malfunctioning killer droids or collecting remnants from the past for his secret hideaway, Jack, who goes by the official designation Tech 49, shares duties — and a bed — with his by-the-book Brit partner and lover Victoria “Vika” Olsen (Andrea Riseborough).
Sequestered with Jack in a floating base high above the irradiated surface, Vika serves as his eyes in the sky, staying behind in their eyrie to monitor computer screens, while Jack makes his rounds below. She also maintains communication with their supervisor, Sally, running things remotely from the Tet.
Though handy with a laser pistol, Jack also has a sensitive side and is haunted by a gnawing nostalgia for an Earth he never knew, spending his downtime pondering questions meant to be profound, but sounding comically pretentious: “Is it possible to miss a place you’ve never been? To mourn a time you’ve never lived?”
Vika’s frustrating lack of curiosity is a source of friction. “The questions I ask, she doesn’t,” Jack laments. “The things I wonder about, she won’t.”
Despite a “mandatory memory wipe” for all Techs, he’s also plagued by “memories” of a woman who looks a lot like the cryogenically preserved astronaut (Olga Kurylenko) he rescues during one of his missions and who may hold the key to Jack’s past and mankind’s future.
Blending Ridley Scott-like high concept production design, Star Wars-style special-effects action and the mind-bending plot twists of a Philip K. Dick novel, Oblivion is based on an unpublished graphic novel of the same title by the film’s director, Joseph Kosinski, who also directed Tron: Legacy (2010).
And while it draws inspiration from a slew of latter-day sci-fi movies, its retro visual vibe most closely echoes an older vintage of genre classics from the 1960s and ’70s. The film’s sleek décor and form-fitting couture seems reminiscent of Logan’s Run (1976), and the post-apocalyptic landscape recall’s Planet of the Apes (1968) and Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) — with an obvious nod to the former’s iconic image of a partially buried Statue of Liberty.
For his part, Cruise is on cruise control, making the most of a mediocre script, doing what he does best: being Tom Cruise — and I mean that as a compliment. Take him or leave him, Cruise has built a career playing himself, whether posing as an ace Navy pilot in Top Gun, a secret agent in Mission Impossible or, in this case, a futuristic fix-it man. He is that rare celebrity who can maximize screen presence with effortless charisma, infusing the subtlest gesture with movie-star magnetism and making weak material watchable.
It seems like bad things happen to Earth whenever Cruise puts on a Yankees baseball cap. The last time he donned the interlocking “NY,” he was also battling hostile extraterrestrials in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. But in that film, he was a father fighting to be reunited with his children. Here, his character is more of a cipher, and the emotional stakes aren’t nearly as compelling.
Dressed in black and wearing sunglasses seemingly swiped from Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus in The Matrix, Morgan Freeman attempts to bring some gravitas as Malcolm Beech, an enigmatic figure who leads a resistance movement.
But as with Jack, Malcolm’s “Mad Max” inspired band of merry men generate little rooting interest beyond a knee-jerk empathy for the home-planet team.
Absent any mention of faith or religion, the film raises some existential questions about memory, identity and personhood. And while its problematic final analysis of the uniqueness of the individual soul leaves much to be desired from a Catholic perspective, Oblivion does suggest that what makes us most human is our capacity to know and to love, specifically of the self-sacrificial variety.
Though conjecturing that — “If we have souls, they are made of the love we share” — the film’s climax runs counter to the understanding of each person as unrepeatable and non-interchangeable, a singular spiritual creation, a mystery defined by more than memory and self-awareness.
In one scene, Jack retreats to a makeshift cabin in the woods, where he has salvaged artifacts from Earth’s past, books, LPs, aviator glasses (perhaps a clever wink to Top Gun).
Among the time-capsule souvenirs is a copy of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. To paraphrase that novel’s hero, Sydney Carton, there are far, far better ways to spend two hours, but then again, there are far worse. Neither a must-see, nor doomed to genre oblivion, this middling effort is, at times, both cerebral and bombastic, but then again, memory wipe not required.
David DiCerto, former film reviewer for the Office for Film & Broadcasting
of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is co-host of Reel Faith
on NET NY with Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus.
Content Advisory: The film contains sci-fi action violence, non-marital sexual content with shadowy rear nudity, as well as scattered language and profanity. Mature viewing.