Once you get past the atmospheric whiz-bang of Oblivion, which is 30 seconds after the movie starts, you search for emotional resonance and find none. Director Joseph Kosinkski (who created an as-yet-unpublished graphic novel that the movie is based on) fancies himself some sort of grand cinematic architect. But what he seems to miss is that movies only go so far when they're more concerned with the aesthetic than the spiritual.
In some cases, this is OK — like Tron: Legacy, Kosinski's last film, which takes place inside a computer world and at least made a furtive gesture toward a richer interior world ("Digital jazz, man!"). But there is nothing of the sort here. Oblivion is all style — everything is off-center and close-up and clean and sleek angular and glass and reflections — and no substance. But even that's giving it too much credit. Kosinski clearly has put a lot of effort into creating a fastidiously beautiful film, except it's vapidly fetishistic. There are so many shots of faces and ships and weapons and robots from oblique angles that you're left wondering if you're watching a movie or a big-budget ad for some weirdo luxury good.
Unfortunately, you spend more time dwelling on the film's aesthetics because the story is so creatively barren. The plot -- Tom Cruise is on a desolate, scorched Earth repairing drones and killing aliens until EVERYTHING TURNS OUT TO BE LIES! — would be worth investing in if it hadn't been told countless times over the past 20 years. Watching Oblivion is like playing cinematic seek-and-find — a game easy to be distracted by because of the lack of anything that resonate in the film. Everything from the direction to the score to the set design is hollow and derivative. And rather than worry about, well, anything we pass the time by asking how many pieces of other sci-fi movies we can spot masquerading as this "new" movie. For what it's worth, I picked out: Wall-E, Moon, ID4, Star Trek IV, Aliens, The Matrix (1-3), Prometheus, Planet of the Apes, Spaceballs (yes, Spaceballs), Solaris, and I Am Legend. And that's just off the top of my head.
Oblivion isn't a bad movie — there's some solid acting here from Cruise and Olga Kurylenko, and, hey, it's not in 3D! — but it is insulting. In 2013, moviegoers have better access to the cinematic past than ever before. To craft a sci-fi picture from a veritable greatest hits package of films from the past two decades and expect no one to notice is the height of arrogance. It would be excusable if the final product added something to the genre. Instead, Now That's What I Call Sci-Fi! — excuse me, Oblivion — is perhaps the emptiest movie Hollywood has released in years, which is saying a lot. But what else could anyone expect from a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy?
Photo: The Bubbleship rests on its launch pad at Skytower in Oblivion, an original and groundbreaking cinematic event from the visionary director of TRON: Legacy and producers of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. (Universal Pictures)