Although derivative, “Oblivion” follows some of my science fiction movie rules. No. 2: Cast Morgan Freeman, since he makes any movie look better. His supporting role here is all-too-brief, but the actor’s gravitas and buttercream voice, bump the film up half a star. No. 3: Cast young actors who resemble proven stars. “Oblivion” slips in Olga Kurylenko, a Catherine Zeta-Jones look alike if you squint.
No. 4: Use a familiar element in a changed-up mode. Imagine a mean, badass version of cutie-pie R2D2, and you get flying drones that squeak and buzz before zapping you to mist.
No. 5: Striking visuals. During the first 40 minutes of “Oblivion” director Joseph Kosinski delivers a cantilevered glass house that is gasp-worthy. He shows us a ghostly post-apocalyptic Earth, and awesome extraterrestrial machines. It’s all very pretty.
Equally pretty as the scenery are Jack Harper and Victoria Olsen (Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough), presumably the only people left on Earth. The couple comprise a maintenance crew carrying out a five-year mission to oversee the drones that protect our war-torn planet from scavengers, or “scavs.” Each morning Jack takes off in his whirlybird copter thingy to do rounds, while Victoria, decked out in one of many dazzling, formfitting dresses and sky high heels, reports to her high-tech workstation — located a few feet from the front door.
Inquisitive and mildly rebellious, Jack is Victoria’s opposite. She’s a by-the-numbers gal determined to receive high marks from Sally (Melissa Leo), their commander in the “Tet,” a low-Earth orbiting space station. Each night Jack dreams of a beautiful woman (Olga Kurylenko) whom he can’t place. He wonders if this is because Jack and Victoria’s memories were erased, prior to their five-year mission, to prevent their knowledge from falling into enemy hands. These conceits might make sense if Jack and Victoria were under enemy attack, but they sleep unguarded in their highly exposed home, possessing enough knowledge that any interrogator would benefit from their capture.
With their mission scheduled to end in a mere 14 days, Victoria looks forward to joining the rest of mankind at our new home on Titan, but Jack is less enthusiastic.
Threads of “Terminator,” “Matrix,” “The Island,” “Imposter,” “Wall-E,” “Moon” and others, are woven throughout the film. In and of itself, these inspirations and imitations wouldn’t matter had the stolen bits gelled into a cohesive whole. They don’t. Watching “Oblivion” is sufficiently pleasant, but it breaks my No. 1 science fiction movie rule by failing to stretch our philosophical tendons and muscles and by barely breaching the walls of our daily humdrum reality.
Nevertheless, the film assures us that clever humans will eventually triumph over any oppressors. I take little comfort from that assertion, but I will take one of those cantilevered homes.