Oblivion is a light sci-fi snack of gently pre-chewed elements from other, meatier futuristic movies. Biding your time as these familiar tokens drift by -- the Blade Runner identity games, the hovering white pods and menacing red HAL eye of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a half-buried urban landmark not unlike the one in Planet of the Apes -- you think: not bad, not bad. Then you go back to biding your time.
Tom Cruise brings his usual what-a-pro presence to this sleekly designed but otherwise unremarkable film. He plays Jack, a post-apocalyptic repairman on an Earth that was reduced to barren wastes and rubble during an alien invasion 70 years earlier. The rest of the human race has relocated to Titan, the main moon of Saturn, leaving a crew of overseers in a floating galactic headquarters to monitor planetary mop-up operations down below. Jack and his partner/sweetie Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) live in the last cool loft in Manhattan (or in the clouds high above it, anyway). Victoria, oddly togged-out in a tasteful cocktail dress, runs the control console while Jack jets off to work each morning, tending a fleet of armored drones that patrol the trashed landscape for pockets of evil, stay-behind aliens called Scavs. Since Jack and Victoria have both been subjected to mandatory memory-wipes, this is the only life they know, and they’re placidly content. (Question: If their memories have been wiped, how do they know their memories have been wiped? And since they do know, why aren’t they suspicious about it?)
Jack has been having persistent dreams about a familiar-looking woman he can’t quite identify. When a time-traveling spacecraft plummets into his domain one day, he jumps into his snazzy neo-helicopter to investigate and finds that the only survivor of the crash is the woman, literally, of his dreams. Her name is Julia (Olga Kurylenko), and, stranger still, she recognizes him, too.
Before long we learn that the fearsome Scavs -- led by Morgan Freeman in a black cape and steampunk goggles, flourishing a post-apocalyptic cigar -- aren’t what they’ve been made out to be. And not long after that, Jack begins to wonder if anyone else is, either.
Director Joseph Kosinski, the architecture grad who concocted this story, has whipped up the sort of sleek CGI environments that are by now obligatory in this kind of picture. (Jack and Victoria’s fabulous pad is so luxe it even has a big swimming pool, perfect for PG-13 skinny dipping.) However, the nifty digital confections here aren’t quite up to the standard of the neon eye bath Kosinski provided in his first film, the 2010 TRON: Legacy. And while the movie’s barren wastes -- simulated in exotic Iceland -- actually are pretty spectacular, at least as seen from on high, they’re nowhere near as impressive down on the ground. Long before the picture passes the two-hour mark, our eyes have grown sated, and the story -- despite all the requisite Cruisian action jolts -- has leaked away most of the narrative verve with which it started out.
Cruise could play this kind of role in cryo-sleep, but his movie-star magnetism and likeability are what carry the film even after it starts to drag. Kurylenko (who also stars in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder) is affecting beyond the call of hotness, and Riseborough is revealed to be an even snappier actress than was apparent in the 2011 Madonna disaster W.E. Also on hand are muscular Game of Thrones guy Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, as a renegade human, and the admirable Melissa Leo, as a floating overseer (trapped on a video screen throughout the film, unfortunately). It’s a strong cast. May they meet again someday in a stronger movie.
If Upstream Color marked the debut of a freshly minted film-school graduate, it might be dismissed as pretentious nonsense. Or maybe not. In any case, Shane Carruth, the 40-year-old Texan who did assemble this strange picture, has never set foot in a film school. A one-time software programmer with an obsessive interest in movies, he taught himself to write, produce, direct, shoot, edit, score, and act in his own projects. Over the years since his only previous film -- the 2004 Primer, a tech-talky sci-fi item, made for $7000 -- Carruth wasted considerable time beating his head against the Hollywood wall before turning his back on the big time in order to maintain total control of his work. (He’s even distributing this new movie himself.) The result is a picture that’s baffling from beginning to end, at least on first viewing; but it’s also woozily beautiful. And since Carruth is clearly no poser, I think we have to accept that this is the movie he really, really wanted to make.
The story ignores standard notions of comprehensibility. A young woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) is abducted by a man who force-feeds her a liquid brewed from live maggots (or maybe some other sort of icky grub). He proceeds to drain her personality by making her hand-copy Thoreau’s Walden in its entirety. When she tells him her net worth is $36,000 -- all in coins, whatever that could mean -- he proceeds to drain her bank account as well. There follows an unexpected bit of pig surgery (pigs loom large in this picture), and then Kris finds herself back in the workaday world, now coinless and, after her extended absence, unemployed.
On a subway she meets a man named Jeff (Carruth), whose own life is also a study in devastation. Then we make the acquaintance of another man, called -- in the credits, at least -- the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig). When he’s not tending a large pen stocked with muddy pigs, this fellow wanders around with a small keyboard recording samples of odd sounds -- rocks dropping in a storm drain, a file scraping metal, who knows why? Kris moves in with Jeff, who lives in a big hotel that appears to be otherwise unoccupied. There’s a bit of knitting, some business with a grommet machine, intermingled memories, many more pigs -- the end.
Doesn’t sound like a fun night out, does it? But Carruth’s iron conviction that he’s actually saying something in this movie is interesting in itself (even though, yeah, what could it be?). His cinematography, intently focused on skin textures (and the occasional insistently significant flower), is elegantly austere; and the editing (a collaboration with David Lowery this time) jumps in and out of time frames with an energy that tugs us along. All of this is bathed in Carruth’s thick, Eno-esque synth washes, which sometimes seem to be navigating a plot of their own.
But the movie’s most appealing feature, apart from Carruth’s smooth, broody performance, is Amy Seimetz. An indie-film veteran who’s also a writer-director herself, Seimetz anchors the movie’s dreamy proceedings with glimmers of real-world feeling -- the more confusing things get, the more of a pleasure she is to watch. In the end, even the equally befuddled pigs are charmed.