It seems the only genre churning out any originality these days is sci-fi. Avatar, Inception, District 9 are but a few examples of big budget productions that have escaped the trappings of sequel and remake origins. Perhaps it's a fitting trend in a world of Google Glass, Higgs Bosons, and asteroid mining that science and technology take center stage.
Studios have accordingly been lining up a big slate of summer sci-fi tent poles, hoping the futuristic scenery, rich graphics, and immersive worlds will draw audiences back to the big screen — 3D glasses at the ready. But more than just lush visuals, the stories also promise an engaging confrontation of the issues that haunt us today.
Niell Blomkamp's Elysium stars Matt Damon as a renegade fighting against a financially privileged elite, which keeps the rest of the world in abject poverty. There's the literary cult sensation Ender’s Game — which focuses on a military academy that inundates young children with violent games to train them for war. J.J. Abrams returns to the helm for the long awaited Star Trek sequel, while Will Smith has bought his son a great birthday gift with After Earth.
Universal's Oblivion has the earliest release date on April 19t, hoping to kick off the summer craze. Unfortunately, I got to see an early preview and doubt it will satisfy even the most dim-witted of audiences.
The film stars Tom Cruise as an engineer on a dying Earth, repairing drones and fending off the constant threat of "scavengers." The menacing drones have an ominous presence about them, but the film's unsubtle commentary on our own use of robotics in warfare is lackluster and anticlimactic.
Director Joseph Kosinski compounds his visual junk food reputation, following Tron: Legacy with this masturbatory disappointment. In a typical studio move, the weak story is sprinkled with a heavy dosing of famous actors, including Morgan Freeman — but the entire cast offers wooden-faced, expressionless performances. Tom Cruise’s character is particularly uninspired for a protagonist, and the "surprise" twist in the third act is generically predictable.
There's a heavy dose of narration by Tom Cruise throughout the film, occasionally interrupted by cheesy dialog from the rest of the characters. Hints of Total Recall, The Matrix, and Moon are heavily incorporated throughout the "plot" to the point of being offensive. Tom Cruise wears a baseball cap for half the movie, endures memory flashes from atop the Empire State building, and has an Elvis Prestley bobble head in his spacecraft. That's what Oblivion thinks of its audience's cultural interests: sports, landmarks, and celebrity.
In a club, Oblivion would be the gel-haired dullard, flashing cash and champagne to hide his complete lack of character. At least the other aging action stars have the decency to be self-deprecating about clinging to the screen. When Indiana Jones came out, I'm sure the applications for archaeology grad school went through the roof. The movie had great visual action, but it also sought to educate, mystify, and entertain its audience.
Science fiction is the perfect format to engage audiences around futuristic ideas, emerging technologies, and the potential social conflicts we may soon be facing ... which is why Oblivion’s sins are so unforgivable.