NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
It’s like a Duncan Jones movie on a hundred times the budget and with one tenth of the intelligence.
‘From the director of Tron Legacy’, it says on the posters: his name is Joseph Kosinski, which I confess hadn’t stuck in my mind so I had to look it up. However, I remember Stephen Lisberger, director of Tron (and Animalympics and – um – Slipstream), after all these years. It’s always slightly a good sign when a big new science fiction film isn’t a remake or a reboot or a comic book property (though Kosinski apparently did do a comic version before going to script) … however, this falls into that Sucker Punch sub-category of auteurism where someone with visual skills thinks they can put together a script from any old ideas which aren’t nailed down and claim it as an original. This is full of moments that will remind you of previous sf films across a gamut from WALL-E to 2001: A Space Odyssey, with stop-offs at Moon, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Twelve Monkeys, Lifeforce, various Doctor Who serials (ooh look – flying Mechanoids!) and Star Trek episodes, Independence Day, Silent Running and War of the Worlds. It’s a collage of bits and pieces, smoothly sewn together and with stunning visuals but oddly unmagical and unaffecting – no wonder when its hero, a Tom Cruise type called Jack Harper (Tom Cruise character names always sound like fake IDs), can only be moved by the end of the world because of all the sports he’s missed and ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ on vinyl. It’s a film of aw-shucks, rather than awe … though I suppose it’s too much to ask for Stalker from Hollywood, there should still be room for some ambition in large-scale science fiction.
Sixty years hence, after an alien invasion has supposedly been defeated, Jack (Tom) and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are ‘an effective team’ on a ruined, abandoned Earth, maintaining ocean-draining devices which are supposed to help humanity (not shown) move to Titan – a story so thin that the trailer gives away that it’s all a lie, and that the scuttling leather-armour types we glimpse aren’t alien scavengers but human survivors – Zoe Bell and Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, bossed by plot-explaining, cigar-smoking Morgan Freeman – who know the real story. The spherical robot drones that Jack maintains and which seem to be his pals are actually the tools of the alien machine, which resembles a large animated version of the Vestron Video logo from the 80s (wittily it’s in Earth orbit around the Universal logo at the outset of the film) and speaks with the voice and pixellated face of mission controller Melissa Leo (I love that Melissa Leo is in big films these days, but this follows Flight and Olympus is Fallen in being beneath her). Through a bunch of plot contrivances even a comic wouldn’t get away with, a crashlanding spaceship from before the war turns out to contain a deep-frozen Julia (Olga Kurylenko), who knows an even truer true story than the scavs, and claims to be Jack’s wife, which miffs shut-out Victoria. The explanation involves clones and drones, but requires the invader (let’s call her Sally, since that’s the best Kosinski can come up with) to conceive a ludicrously complicated way of overwhelming the planet and getting rid of pesky humanity while leaving a Tom Cruise-sized hole that means it can all be resolved by adopting tactics that if used against US interests would get you classed as a terrorist suicide bomber.
Cruise grins less than usual, as he puzzles out what’s behind his memories of pre-buried-in-mud New York City as seen from the observation deck of the Empire State Building – where Universal’s ownership of the rights to King Kong means a nice use of a souvenir stuffed gorilla. Kurylenko and Riseborough have one-note roles, which is almost justified by the fact that one of them turns out to be not properly herself and we’re half-supposed to suspect the other one is too – though the fully-human characters are even sketchier, and casting the busy, overexposed Freeman (another Olympus is Fallen refugee) doesn’t help. What the film does have is the ruins of New York, smooth and sleek future-tech (I’m not sure why the drones are tooled-up PacMen, but they’re cool baddies anyway), aerial excitement and a few moments of gosh-wow. Still, you have to wonder what a proper science fiction writer could have done with this canvas …