‘Oblivion’: Oblivious

April 17, 2013

Painfully derivative, “Oblivion” is Strike Two against director Joseph Kosinski, who made the vacantly gorgeous “Tron: Legacy.”

Unfortunately reminiscent of many other, better movies, “Oblivion” is a comic-book – excuse me, graphic novel – adaptation that has one thing in its favor: It’s not in 3D.

Otherwise, this Tom Cruise vehicle is large, lavish and flat as a fallen soufflé. There’s action but little excitement, spectacle without thrill. You are able to appreciate the visual effects that create a version of Earth wracked by catastrophic natural phenomena and left in ruin for years – mostly because the story itself requires so little thinking.

Cruise plays Jack Harper, left to monitor and extract resources from the dying planet after a calamitous war with space aliens, which Earth won but which destroyed the planet. So most Earthlings have been transported to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, and new Earth colonies there. Jack and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), his partner, are in the final week of their tour of duty before they get to leave Earth for Titan.

But there is a human resistance force on Earth (led by Morgan Freeman) that is trying to disrupt that extraction: specifically, the depletion of Earth’s oceans, which are being sucked up into massive energy generators, which turn the water into fusion energy. The generators are protected by armed flying drones which look like large silver Pac-Man figures with multiple weapons on either side. The humans keep shooting down the flying drones; it’s Jack’s job to find and repair them, and he eventually discovers that the resistance is stealing the energy packs from the drones for a specific reason.

But let’s not go much further with plot to prevent spoilers. Suffice to say, the films this story evokes include “Total Recall,” “Independence Day,” “WALL*E” and, even more, Duncan Jones’ beautiful, underseen 2009 film, “Moon,” which cost a fraction of what this overstuffed effort did.

Cruise is always fine as a man in a crisis. While he was enjoyable as the unflappable Jack Reacher, as Jack Harper he’s very human, scrambling to survive amid forces he doesn’t quite understand. One of those forces is Julia, played by Olga Kurylenko, a survivor of a crashed shuttle who has a mysterious past linked to Jack.

The film itself has a sense of scale that is seductive and awesome, including a vision of our moon, destroyed but still floating like a pile of rubble above the horizon. Earth itself features vistas with a row of what are obviously massive water turbines – like, skyscraper-massive, floating just above the ocean surface – stretching off to the horizon. Again and again, Kosinski reminds the viewer just how tiny any single person (or group of people) are in the larger scheme of the entire planet.

But the script, which Kosinski cowrote with a committee of writers, hammers the action beats without actually engaging us in the story. The solution to the riddle is both much larger and smaller than you think. Or, finally, than you care about.

Not that “Oblivion” doesn’t want to make your pulse race. It’s just that it so seldom does. You have far too much time in this bloated and underwhelming film to consider that fact.

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