Squirming through the Tom Cruise sci-fi vehicle Oblivion, I flashed back to Notting Hill, in which Julia Roberts plays a superstar visiting London to promote some deadly outer-space epic with white-on-white sets and a sleep-inducing hum. Oblivion is like that movie-within-a-movie: Everything in it feels 100 percent inauthentic. That vibe, as it happens, turns out to be intentional. But when the humans arrive, it’s still a narcotic.
The pity is that the film is about the war to liberate the human spirit from alien soul-snuffing exploiters and that Cruise is supposed to be our last best hope. In the long opening voice-over, his character, Jack (not Reacher), explains that “Scavengers” obliterated humankind: They blew up the moon and Nature did the rest. Humans beat the invaders back and then took off en masse to colonize a moon of Saturn, Titan. But a few people stayed behind to harvest the remaining resources and watch out for leftover “Scavs.” Jack is teamed with a Brit named Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who sits in a giant mushroomlike flight tower reading data from “hydro rigs” and lethal drones. He flies around doing repairs and calling in those drones whenever there are signs of saboteurs. He also tells us that his memory has been wiped so that he won’t spill any beans if grabbed by Scavs.
Director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) thinks big — big white impersonal settings on a big barren landscape under a big fractured moon with one big segment broken off and simply hanging, suspended in orbit, with a trail of little pieces floating around. But the sets just sit there. The first half-hour is Jack talking to Victoria on his headset, Jack fixing rigs, and Jack having sex with the eager-beaver Victoria. (Wow, does she want him.) They talk longingly of their imminent departure for Titan. Victoria speaks to an administrator on a screen called Sally (Melissa Leo). These scenes exert a strange fascination: They’re so conscientiously neutral, so droningly dull that they almost pass for Stanley Kubrick–like.
But Jack shares our boredom. He feels dislocated. He has visions of himself atop the Empire State Building with another woman — someone more compelling than his vaguely robotic partner. Someone played by Olga Kurylenko, this year’s comely avatar of spirituality. When Jack finds a crashed spaceship with human passengers (including Olga) in suspended animation and a drone flies in and starts blasting them, he’s flummoxed. Drones are supposed to kill Scavs, not humans! And certainly not Olga!
Eventually, Jack is captured by beings who look like humans (but you never know), led by Morgan Freeman, who puffs happily on a cigar — and you would, too, if you had to do as little for a paycheck this size. He says he was intrigued when Jack found a book with a poem by Macaulay in which three Romans sacrifice themselves to save their city. That’s when things get murky.
I eventually figured out Oblivion, but not while watching it. While watching it, I said, “What? What?” over the din of the explosions. It was Wikipedia’s Oblivion entry that spelled out what was happening in the final flashback. And some but not all of my questions were answered on an IMDb board in which posters argued over whether the problem was our lack of attention spans or atrocious screenwriting. I have honed my attention span on three-hour Romanian pictures and the oeuvre of Tarkovsky and Tarr. My attention span is dandy.
Was Cruise trying to beat out fellow Scientologist John Travolta for the honor of starring in the dumbest sci-fi epic ever? Thank heavens, he lost — nothing will ever be as shatteringly inane as the L. Ron Hubbard–based Battlefield Earth. But joining forces with the director of Tron: Legacy was like checking “d” on the form that said, “I want my space movies more (a) incoherent, (b) plodding, (c) migraine-inducing, or (d) all of the above.” Oblivion spins the same kind of paranoid futuristic fantasy as Battlefield Earth, in which a man must learn the true nature of his identity: that his body is but a temporary vessel, his soul immortal. Only then can he take on an evil empire of plundering anti-individualists from an unnamed planet that sounds like Xenu.
Cruise was on a roll for a while with Magnolia and his two Spielberg pictures — his acting was grounded. But he must be shedding brain cells like wives. After all of these years, he still indicates rather than feels, signaling thought by wrinkling his brow and squinting real hard and looking like a caveman encountering fire for the first time. He looks less like mankind’s savior than like a harbinger of devolution — the last stage before we’re back at lungfish.