There are a couple of red flags that always seem to pop up in movies that are not all they should be — especially as regards storytelling. One is that after mysterious or confusing events take place, the action stops and one character explains everything to another so the audience can make sense of what just happened. A second red flag occurs when critical, story-altering information is delivered through flashback. You thought things were this way? No, they're really that way. These flags wave defiantly in Oblivion, a movie that also features the most innovative and original sci-fi visuals since Blade Runner came along 31 years ago. Oblivion is gorgeous. But you won't be able to recount the story later to friends, even with benefit of spoilers. It's just too muddled and incomplete.
Co-writer and director Joseph Kosinski, whose only other feature is Tron: Legacy, has no one but himself to blame for Oblivion's shortcomings. The screenplay has three additional contributors, but it's based on an unpublished graphic novel Kosinski wrote himself. The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic Earth mostly destroyed by an alien invasion. Co-working couple Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) live alone together on the ravaged planet. They maintain killer drones and protect from alien sabotage the floating machines that turn seawater into energy for the new earthling colony on one of Saturn's moons. Jack has strange dreams of a woman (Olga Kurylenko) he can't quite remember, even when she crash-lands on Earth. Of course, things are not as they seem, which is obvious from the movie's first scene until the lackluster surprises finally arrive.
But the visuals alone may be worth the price of admission. Partially shot in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Oblivion is the first movie to arrive in theaters via a new super-high-resolution 4K digital camera. The results are remarkably detailed, especially when viewed on an IMAX projection system (available at both the Elmwood and Clearview Palace theaters.) But Oblivion's triumphs are not merely technical. Jack pilots the coolest aircraft you've ever seen in a movie. The beautifully austere house in which he and Victoria live, perched impossibly on the edge of a 3,000-ft. ridge, is a triumph of futuristic production design. And instead of using a green screen behind the house and filling in later on computer, Kosinki sent a crew to the highest peak on Maui to shoot panoramic images of the sky, later projecting them on set when the cameras rolled. If only such devoted attention had been paid to the script.
And then there's Cruise, whose presence in any movie has come to signify empty heroics. It's not that his performance is poor — more that you can't really look at him now without thinking of Scientology and bizarre off-screen behavior. Even so, he's not Oblivion's problem. The reviewing press has repeatedly been asked not to reveal the film's secrets. But there's nothing much to tell. And it's no spoiler at all to say that in the end, Cruise has to try and blow up something really big in order to save the world. As if you didn't know. — KEN KORMAN