Oblivion, Tom Cruise’s new science fiction movie, is based on what we are obliged to call a graphic novel, which is to say a long comic book. I had been eager to blame this origin and resulting adaptation problems for all that is wrong with the movie. Alas, I can’t. It turns out that the comic boo…I mean graphic novel was not a pre-existing entity that the producers struggled to adapt but, rather, a tool. Joseph Kosinski, Oblivion‘s director, conceived the idea for the movie back in 2005, before he directed his first feature, TRON: Legacy.
With his sights on making a movie, he wrote a 12-page story titled Oblivion eight years ago. Set in 2077, decades after an alien invasion had all-but destroyed Earth, the tale centered on a drone repairman, the last of his kind, stationed here after other survivors had vacated Earth. His job was to keep the robots that patrol the planet in working order. But then a female stranger crash lands in front of him and forces him to confront the possibility that all that he thinks he knows is a lie.
The story sounds a lot like Wall-e meets The Matrix – two big hits – but Kosinski couldn’t raise funds to turn his story into a movie. That’s when he and two partners he acquired along the way got the notion of creating a comic boo…graphic novel as a way of promoting their hoped-for movie and to show investors what they had in mind. It also may have helped that, in the interim, Kosinski directed his first film, and it earned $400 million worldwide. (He says he sold 30,000 copies of the Oblivion comic at the 2010 Comic-Con while promoting TRON: Legacy.)
I have read neither the Oblivion graphic novel nor the 12-page original story, but I can tell you that Oblivion the movie is a complicated, solemn and slow-moving mess. It begins with a voiceover in which Jack, the drone repairman played by Tom Cruise, tells us the back story at great length. It’s always a bad sign when movies start with a drawn-out explanation. It shows either that they don’t trust the intelligence of the audience or that they recognize their own failure to successfully dramatize the story. Oblivion has another looong explanation in its second half, this time delivered by Morgan Freeman, who is made up to look like an important character even though he isn’t on screen all that much.
Despite these two long explanations, I still can’t spell out for you what happens in the film. Worse than that: I don’t care. The story is engaging on an intellectual level – not because it’s so deep but because it is so needlessly murky – but while you’re sitting in the theater trying to make sense of it you don’t feel a thing, except maybe mild annoyance at how ineptly it all is being spun out.
Jack is stationed on Earth with a partner, a live-in navigator/manipulator/lover played by Andrea Riseborough. Where Jack is a daredevil pilot who wants to stay on the planet forever and has memories of Earth before the war – memories that he isn’t supposed to have – she is strictly by-the-book, and she can’t wait until their job is over and she can leave.
Olga Kurylenko plays the stranger who crash lands and changes everything. Before laying eyes on her, Jack has seen her in his dreams. This is a mystery that begs to be solved, and we stay alert throughout the 125 minutes that the movie takes to unwind because we want to know the answer. But the emotional resonance we expect to find in it never arrives.
Oblivion isn’t structured like most Hollywood movies. This is what I meant earlier when I said I wanted to blame its faults on its comic book origins. The term “graphic novel” usually is a misnomer. Most of them aren’t originally published as a single work but as a series of comic books. As you read the individual comics, the story can feel like its wandering without clear dramatic purpose. That’s how Oblivion feels – structureless. Some retooling, foreshadowing and tightening would greatly improve it.
The movie feels as if it were adapted from a long, rambling comic. Since it originally was conceived as a movie, there is no excuse for this.