Think of the most attractive person you've ever known. If that person was even halfway nice, or at least calculated enough to know that a little charm goes a long way, then s/he probably got a lot of passes when their less attractive qualities reared their less attractive heads. You could call it the Don Draper Dunk: good looks plus a smooth glide through tough situations wins every time. Oblivion, the new one from Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy), has the looks and the smooth thing down cold. Winning is another matter.
As much of the plot as you need to know: the world ended in 2017 and now it's 2077. Jack (Tom Cruise) and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are the last people on (or, rather, near) Earth, living in a glass cube perched high in the clouds over a planet ruined by aliens and nuclear weapons. Their job is to repair drones (robotic, squelchy-noise-making death-orbs that terminate stray alien "Scavengers" with precision; call them KILL-2D2 if you like -- I did) and report their effectiveness back to home base contact Melissa Leo, a face seen only on a glitch-ridden, pixelated screen, her twang calling to mind Holly Hunter crossed with HAL-9000. But Jack has strange, impossible memories of a life before, one that he couldn't have known, memories that include a mysterious woman. What he learns from that memory and how he deals with it make up the secret plot twists that dominate the film's second half.
I won't be giving up any more plot details, but know that when this film doesn't live up to its own desires for transcendent soulfulness, it feels like a committee was responsible, the direct result of hiring an up-and-coming director whose contract doesn't give him final cut. From an opening packed with overwhelming exposition via Cruise's voice-over to some stumbling, narrative confusion and a seeming battle between an otherworldly quiet and typical crashing Hollywood space-beats to an ending that pulls punches you wish it wouldn't to a strange remote quality expressed by its star as he struggles to fit himself back into a traditionally heroic role, there's a lot of messiness mucking up the works. More than anything it will make you wish Cruise could unwind a bit more. As goofy and weird as he was in Rock of Ages, snaking around like a PG-13 Axl Rose, at least he was fascinating to watch. Here he's impersonating Keir Dullea from 2001: A Space Odyssey. There's even a moment where he more or less demands that pod bay doors be opened. If those bells don't go off in your head then it's because your head lacks bells.
But in spite of all this, Kosinki is no hack. He's made a gorgeous-looking experience, the kind they invented IMAX to accommodate. He's a pastiche artist, cribbing stylishness and building his own beautiful ice sculpture, lifting from Kubrick and The Matrix and Soylent Green-era grim futurism and even his own take on TRON, right down to M83's orchestral, obvious, pretty-pretty score that sounds like thump-less Daft Punk via Hans Zimmer. He also knows what he doesn't want, the kind of stupid heartlessness that infects so much of contemporary event sci-fi, where stuff gets blown up for no reason and heroes are cool customers who can't feel. At one point, Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World pops up on camera. That's the famous American painting of the woman sitting in field, leaning toward a home far away on a hillside, one she might never reach. Used in this movie it's clearly a gesture toward finding love and a home that isn't hovering around in space. Kosinki's aiming for a kind of emotional grandiosity, a new wave robot with a pulse, a spiritual reboot of Giorgio Moroder's shiny 1984 version of Metropolis.
So there's an aesthetic at work here. And I want to see this director keep working it out. In the future, provided Hollywood doesn't grind down his willfulness, he'll make his best film and it'll look impeccable like this one, and it will move like most shock-absorbed space ship ever invented, and it will connect the head and the hands through the heart like he clearly wants. But today isn't quite the future.