It’s apparent now, after two similarly pristine and vacuous productions, that Joseph Kosinski makes films as if he were building IKEA furniture: He follows a simple template, allen-keys the requisite pieces into place, and at the end of the process winds up with something both blandly functional and broadly appealing. It’s worth remembering that TRON: Legacy began as nothing more than a glorified tech demo, a studio-backed sizzle reel intended to promote Kosinski’s aesthetic proclivities as much as the forthcoming project itself. Though eventually expanded to (interminable) feature length, TRON: Legacy remained wafer-thin from conception to execution, fully realized as a distinctive look and feel, but made without regard for story, characters, or feeling. With Kosinski, superficiality seems a veritable guiding principle: TRON: Legacy’s obsession with surfaces—the architecture of the world constructed from clean lines and gleaming neon blues—persists undiminished in his blockbuster follow-up, a film which exchanges the cool digital palette of its predecessor for something nominally earthier, but every bit as lifeless and cold.
But much like TRON: Legacy, Oblivion’s defining quality isn’t precision so much as the illusion thereof. It strains to establish an aura of formal rigor and artisanal meticulousness in every aspect of its design (the belabored exactness of its production design, the real-world feasibility of its future tech, the show-offish distance of its many long shots and long takes), presumably intended to eclipse the fact that, at its foundation, Oblivion is rather crudely assembled, an ad-hoc B movie composed of borrowed plot points and shopworn sci-fi clichés. Rarely has a veneer of consummate craftsmanship so conspicuously endeavored to compensate for the flimsiness of a film’s conception, slathering every frame in so much high-gloss texture that it makes the work of Tarsem Singh seem like that of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Oblivion’s chief purpose—rather than, say, to relate an interesting story, or have us invest ourselves in the plight of believable characters, or articulate an idea about the world in which we live—is to erect a monument to itself: Its multi-million-dollar budget is directed toward shallow self-aggrandizement, forging lavish futurist skyscrapers and Emmerichian old-world wreckage from the expensive digital ether, and just generally illustrating the aftermath of our apocalypse with less imagination than disdain for the intelligence of its audience.
It should be obvious within seconds that Oblivion is pure amateur hour even in the most rudimentary ways: As Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) blurts out a laughably clunky expository monologue in plaintive voiceover, we’re brought up to speed on a war with an invading alien army that, once lone-survivor Julia (Olga Kurylenko) is introduced into the proceedings, is explained again in functional dialogue that instantly renders its ham-fisted opening redundant. This sort of viewer-insulting writing is entirely typical of the film’s continuing deference to simplicity, where every sensationalistic twist is either telegraphed too far in advance or all too cheaply withheld, the sum total of its gasp-stacking turnabouts little more than Moon meets a thinly veiled La Jetée—or, frankly, any other two science-fiction films with novel twists you’d care to name, since Oblivion is indiscriminate about the sources it rips off. But beneath its deceptively immaculately shell, the most Oblivion amounts to is an expensive episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and not even a particularly interesting episode at that. Aliens appear, things are more than they seem, major moral questions are grasped at, but barely engaged with; it’s primetime TV as sci-fi mega-blockbuster.
There’s a great track on M83’s Before the Dawn Heals Us called “Car Chase Terror!” that’s essentially a declaration of the group’s aesthetic sensibility. It begins with crickets and a muffled conversation between a mother and her anxious child, the voice acting mawkish and the tone melodramatic. Then the synths come in, propulsive and strange, the style both nostalgic and retro-futuristic. Much in the same way that David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks adopted and exaggerated the conventions of the daytime soap opera to surprisingly serious ends, “Car Chase Terror!” finds M83 charting a course to emotional connection through schmaltz rather than around it, at once recognizing the absurdity of the aesthetic and earnestly relishing it all the same. M83’s largely unrecognizable score for Oblivion does neither. This might sound inconsequential, but it’s deeply indicative of the film’s misunderstanding of its inherent ridiculousness: Rather than either wholly embrace or reject the silliness of the material, Kosinski opts instead to play it safe in the middle, delving headlong into schmaltz without going far enough to emerge on the other side. The result is every bit as ludicrous as the clichés of the genre dictate, but absent any sense of self-awareness, Oblivion seems only self-serious, a ponderous mess both misguided and unaware.