MINOR TOM Kosinski could’ve used a little help from ground control — or a decent rewrite pro — to get his heavy-handed head trip off the ground.
It’s not every director who can make the future feel old hat, but Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) definitely has the knack. This may well be his defining quality as a filmmaker.
In Oblivion, we spend two hours plus in the year 2077 in a postapocalyptic corner of Earth in the company of computer-generated drones, supersize spacecraft and a mechanic who lives in a Jetson-esque mansion 3000 feet in the air. Not a single minute seems like something we haven’t seen countless times before.
The mechanic, of course, is played by Tom Cruise, an action major who minors in science fiction. He can make a perfectly serviceable sci-fi film. It just needs to be made with Steven Spielberg (Minority Report, War of the Worlds). Just one of Oblivion’s shortcomings is that it was not.
Oh — I just thought of another quality that distinguishes director Kosinski. He has crazy, lottery-winning-level luck. The story behind this movie is a million times more mind-bending than anything in it.
In 1999, Kosinski graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, where he subsequently taught. His specialty? Three-D modeling. Realizing architecture wasn’t what he wanted to do, Kosinski moved to LA in 2005 and began writing a graphic novel titled — you guessed it — Oblivion. While he looked for a publisher (in vain), he put his expertise in digital design to use as a director of cutting-edge TV spots.
Sounds like a sad story, right? Struggling writer can’t sell his work, so he sells out to pay the rent. Not in Kosinski’s case. The next thing he knew, he started winning awards for his commercials. Then — get this — out of nowhere, Disney not only bought the film rights to his unpublished comic book but, in 2007, handed him $170 million to direct a 3-D sequel to the 1982 cult hit Tron. The movie wasn’t released until 2010, so I’m guessing Kosinski spent years wondering whether he was secretly being taped for an episode of “Punk’d.”
Audiences, by contrast, haven’t been so lucky. Particularly in the case of the filmmaker’s latest. Rewritten by (uncredited) William Monahan and then rewritten again by Karl Gajdusek, Oblivion proves less an original dystopian vision than a collection of motifs, twists and images lifted from decades of dystopian fare. If there’s a fresh concept here, I managed to miss it.
Cruise plays the last man on Earth. At least that’s what his Jack Harper has been programmed to believe by a generic, Big Brother-type world order. A war between humans and space invaders has left the planet uninhabitable, and the remainder of the race has decamped to a space station in preparation for a move to one of Saturn’s moons. Jack lives with a state-assigned girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) and maintains a fleet of machines guarding what’s left of the world from further attack.
Except nothing is as it seems, and virtually everything that happens already happened far more intriguingly in far better films. You know a picture’s derivative when a list of titles in the same genre technically constitutes a string of spoilers — Blade Runner, Independence Day, The Matrix, Moon, Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, WALL-E, 2001. It’s not so much that these films provide the picture’s DNA as that Kosinski uses them as his personal cinematic ATM.
I won’t go into the story further. It has few enough surprises. I don’t want to ruin the only ones it does offer — namely, which parts of which previous movies Kosinski will borrow and when. Prepare for some serious déjà vu.
The critical consensus seems to be that Oblivion has a pretentious, overly ponderous plot and snappy visuals courtesy of cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who just won an Oscar for his work on Life of Pi. I think that’s pretty much on the money. Though, with $160 million to blow on CGI, it’s surprising that Oblivion proves less a feast than a snack for the eyes.