Do I smell the traces of test screenings? If not, then the makers of this beautiful, often exciting, ultimately empty sci-fi film have little confidence in their storytelling gifts.
Oblivion begins with a lengthy voiceover (delivered to whom?) explaining, in absurd detail, the background to the latest cinematic apocalypse. If they are allowed to swell screen time with tedious exposition, then I am allowed to flesh out this review in the same way.
It goes like this. At some point in the late 21st century, a horde of aliens descended upon the earth and launched an unholy war against its human occupants. Eventually, after launching a series of nuclear strikes, the homo sapiens triumphed, but the planet was left a virtual wasteland. The surviving citizens then retired to a vast, geometrically eccentric structure and began preparing for an exodus to the largest of Saturn’s moons. (Hang on! Titan is more hospitable than a mildly exploded Earth? How does that work?)
In the movie’s present, poor Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), a former marine, is saddled with the task of repairing drones that prowl the planet seeking out rogue aliens. Got that? Now the film can begin.
Joseph Kosinski, director of the unlovely Tron: Legacy, doesn't expose too much new ground here. The looming, often unhelpful influence of Stanley Kubrick shows itself in the gleaming, pristine surfaces and taste for icy non-characterisation. The action sequences that colonise the last half-hour prove how hard it is to escape from the shadow of Star Wars . Tom Cruise remains the same Tom Cruise that Tom Cruise has always been.
Still, it can't be denied that the opening sections are beautifully carried off. Jack lives in a futuristic pastiche of bourgeois domesticity that – one more reference if you'll allow – conjures up memories of the cartoon show The Jetsons . As Victoria, Jack's professional and romantic partner, poor Andrea Riseborough is asked to dress as if she's constantly on her way to the Oscars ceremony. Bad news, women: in the future, punishing high-heels will, it seems, be part of everyday work-wear again.
As futurology it stinks. But as anaesthetised fantasy it works very nicely: the walls are all iPod white; the swimming pool sparkles beautifully; the view from the outside is ripped from a vintage science-fiction paperback cover. This life is so monotonously perfect you know it must be some sort of sham.
Sure enough, one day Jack happens upon a downed spaceship, plucks a woman (spirited Olga Kurylenko) from the wreckage and brings her home to Happy Towers. The façade begins to slip. At first, the interactions between Victoria and her new guest – hostility is much on display – point us towards a misogynistic reading of female relations. But, as further disturbing truths are revealed, it becomes clear that there are ancient reasons for the friction.
Play close attention to the trailer and you will get some surprisingly explicit pointers towards the eventual twist. Not altogether mind-numbing, the reversal eventually propels us, as you knew it would, towards a great many shots of hurtling spacecraft.
To be fair, Kosinki, working from his own unpublished graphic novel, uses the revelations to make sense of various nagging conundrums from the early part of the picture. It even manages to justify the perennial blandness of the apparently unaging Tom Cruise. That requires some class of genius.
Still, nothing can quite excuse the hero's groaningly tedious notion of vernal paradise. Every now and then, Jack touches down by a lakeside shack to relax and thumb through a collection of rock-bore vinyl albums. Surely, dystopia will never get quite so boring that we'll find time to listen to all of Pink Floyd's The Wall . I'm just saying.