There's no getting around the fact that Joseph Kosinksi's Oblivion is, for the lack of a more polite term, pretty messy. Much has already been made of the film's various plot holes, the way it seems to have stolen every scene from other science fiction movies and its frequently clunky storytelling (which definitely starts testing the nerves in the second hour). But there's one thing that allows Oblivion to rise above its myriad flaws: it's filled with more nutty, bizarre reversals and concepts that any major sci-fi movie in recent memory.
Unapologetic spoilers from this point on.
Against all odds, Oblivion managed to keep its biggest twists mysteries throughout all of the marketing, which is a bit of a miracle in this day and age. Everyone knows going in that Tom Cruise's postapocalyptic drone-maintenance man was going to encounter human resistance on a world he's been told is completely dead, but the reveal that he is a brainwashed drone working for the alien invaders (who won the war) is a nice way of pulling the rug out from underneath the audience. However, the film goes full-time crazy when it reveals that Cruise's character is a clone of a famous astronaut and that there are countless versions of him around the world, defending alien drones that keep the remaining humans at bay. But it doesn't go full kitchen sink until Morgan Freeman's Beech informs him that the alien menace used clones of him to create an entire army, forcing Earth's citizens to fight a devastating war against an army made up of one man.
Each of these revelations raise questions. If the aliens have millions of Tom Cruise clones on standby (and can create more on a whim), why don't they unleash them all to help flush out the remaining humans? Why don't they double/triple/quadruple the number of Cruise drone-maintenance guys to help with the drone workload since the drones seem to be going down so much? If the aliens have the ability to create and house all of these clones, why can't they simply build more drones? In fact, why do they even allow the Cruise clones to think they're individual humans? If they can program them to invade Earth, why can't they program them to ignore being curious and hopeful and kind and willing to listen to the dulcet tones of Morgan Freeman?
There's no denying that Oblivion is like swiss cheese… but swiss cheese can be delicious. For all of its holes, there's something so incredibly satisfying about Oblivion's appropriation of every science fiction trope it can possibly grab. Somehow, this is a postapocalyptic alien invasion conspiracy clone story -- each individual element of the film may be something we've seen before and the overall puzzle may not line up flawlessly, but you've got to admire the audacity of Kosinksi and his writers, who are treating the entire science fiction genre as a playground and just going nuts. Above everything else, Oblivion's biggest sin is probably that it's not more playful. A slightly lighter, more adventurous tone may have meshed better with Kosinksi's mix-tape approach than the solemn, often ponderous tone of the finished film.
For much of its first half, Oblivion's clunky storytelling can be attributed to the fact that it's hiding all of its secrets. Cruise's opening narration is an embarrassing info dump that could've (and should've) been replaced by a few scenes of proper world building. Key characters and moments (like what's up exactly with Olga Kurylenko's character) aren't explained until much later in the film, but aren't actually treated as mysteries, making things that should be intriguing feel like glossed-over and underexplained plot points. When everything is eventually explained and all of the pieces fall together (the flashback to Cruise's fateful shuttle flight during Oblivion's big Independence Day riff is a pretty terrific scene), you finally realize that you didn't miss something and the movie isn't dumb, it was just biding its time.
And that's a double-edged sword. What I appreciated most about Oblivion is its slow and steady unveiling of the big picture, unleashing tiny pieces of information so you, like Cruise, don't feel completely overwhelmed by the hopeless and bizarre nature of his situation until it's too late. However, this was not something I liked about the film until the credits had rolled because I spent most of the film thinking of them as plot holes and rushed, rough-around-the-edges storytelling. Although Kosinksi's got a better command of his story here then he did with TRON: Legacy (and once again, he's made a gorgeous film), he never manages to sell the actual mystery until after the fact. And that's a problem.
Oblivion deserves points for not having a number in its title, being a reboot, being a remake or being based on a video game. It's its own thing, an original (to a point) stand-alone science fiction movie that has a definitive ending, not an invitation for a sequel. It's a bit of a mess, but it's an old-fashioned mess -- it feels like a story that Kosinksi wanted to tell, not a franchise he wanted to start. You can feel passion under the surface of Oblivion and that passion allows it to power through the bumps. We'll hopefully get better original science fiction in 2013, but this is a nice start.