Joseph Kosinski is a phenomenal designer. His movies look as sleek and tactile and efficient as Apple products. I don’t even mean that as a backhanded compliment, since his specialty is stylized futuristic landscapes: in the case of Tron: Legacy, surreal electronic ones; in the case of his follow-up Oblivion, haunting post-apocalyptic ones. The worlds he creates in both films do more than just gleam – they’re meticulous, fully-realized, and internally consistent; seemingly unrestrained by what the camera can see.

I’m not just talking about special effects; it’s the details, too. In Oblivion, Tom Cruise plays Jack Harper, a repairman left behind on a deserted Earth after the rest of humanity has evacuated. His task is to keep an eye on the power generators that we’ve left behind, and to maintain the drone force that fights off the remnants of the alien invasion that forced us out. (Humans won the war, we’re told, but ravaged the earth with nukes to do it.) He flies around on a bulbous little glass airplane chasing the troublesome little robots and trying to bend them to his will. The desolate ruins of Earth he surveys look spectacular, but it’s the plane that caught my attention. It’s not just an arbitrary futuristic means of locomotion. It’s been thought-through. Kosinski takes the time to show how Harper steers it – his joystick controls one thing, and his foot pedals another. We see the engines give off an eerie, pulsing light as the thing takes off. The instruments Harper sees in the windshield glass seem designed to look like something a pilot might use, not just like something sci-fi suitable.

Kosinski’s attention to visual detail isn’t purely tech-geeky. He comes up with some genuinely memorable cinematic detail too: a dim backdrop coming alive with mysterious red lights as Jack is suddenly attacked in what had looked like an abandoned cave; a triangular space station that’s introduced in the opening voiceover and then silently lurks above the action. Shot by Claudio Miranda, who just won an Oscar for Life of Pi, the film is bright and expansive, set mostly in bright daylight, avoiding the money-saving murk into which ambitious projects like this often sink. It looks phenomenal.

All of which leads me to the conclusion that next time out, Kosinski needs to hold out for a better script. Early reviews have complained that Oblivion is derivative, and it is, with its central conceit ripped off wholesale from a far superior science-fiction film released earlier this year. But the real problem is just that it’s poorly written, with virtually no narrative momentum: Jack roams the planet, bickering with his minder back at home base (Andrea Riseborough), as the movie occasionally dispenses information about what’s really going on. Riseborough’s character is the only real emotional hook here, and her confusion and stubborn unwillingness to subscribe to the conspiracy theory rapidly unveiling before her eyes is for a while the only thing actually propelling the film forward – and then it inexplicably sidelines her for something far more conventional and dumb. (I haven’t yet seen To the Wonder, but I hope Malick made better use of Olga Kurylenko.) And the big twist lands with a thud, neither making much sense nor being of much interest – the huge “aha!” moment that Kosinski is aiming for just isn’t there.

As an audiovisual experience, Oblivion is peerless so far in 2013. (The soundtrack, by electropop band M83, bears a resemblance to Daft Punk’s work in Tron: Legacy, and I liked it – it’s grandiose, catchy, and memorable.) If Kosinski wants to keep making these elaborate techno-dystopias, I’m down. But he needs to find a better framework for his visual ideas. If J.J. Abrams wanted to hire him to revamp the look of Star Wars, I doubt anyone would object.

Eugene Novikov

Seeking in movies meaning and reflection in real-time. On the look out for biography, thriller & drama best pieces.

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