Whatever their merits, the devotion of their many fans, and the panegyrics of a whole gaggle of critics, those phenomenally successful semi-literary works known as graphic novels (in my day they were pretty much just comic books) often generate a certain pretension. The writers and illustrators introduce learned allusions, copy established literary patterns, interweave complicated plots and narratives, make unsubtle hints about ancient myths, provide some psychological depth and emotional complexity to their characters, and often underline their themes with a good deal of heavy melodrama. See, for example, "The Dark Knight" series, "From Hell," "Watchmen" (one of the best), and of course, that version of "The Sorrows of Young Werther" for the bubblegum crowd, "The Amazing Spider-Man."
The latest cinematic adaptation of a graphic novel, "Oblivion," conforms quite closely to the conventions of its form. It accommodates the expectations of its presumed audience with a brilliant panoply of speed, violence, and special effects; it stars one of the most famous (and still surprisingly youthful) leading men; and it fits solidly into a currently highly popular film genre: science fiction, in this case of the post-apocalyptic variety.
It begins with black-and-white footage of a young couple on what looks like the observation deck of the Empire State Building, accompanied by a voice-over narration from Tom Cruise, who introduces himself as Jack Harper. The footage — apparently a dream —ends abruptly, switching to pastel tones as Jack awakes, mentioning something called memory wipe, in a different setting, a bare, bright space whose stark, antiseptic geometry immediately suggests the future as we all recognize it from a hundred science-fiction flicks.
In a movie full of long explanations, Jack outlines the situation — an alien invasion of beings called Scavengers has devastated the Earth. In a brilliant new approach to such conquests, the Scavengers blew up the moon, creating tsunamis, volcanoes, immense craters, destroying cities, turning the world into an uninhabitable wasteland. As he puts it, though humanity finally defeated the enemy, they won the war but lost the world.
In 2077, Jack and his female companion/co-worker/lover, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), man a station as an "effective team," as they constantly phrase it in their reports to Sally (Melissa Leo), their controller located somewhere in space. Among the few people left on Earth — everyone else has departed for Titan, one of Saturn's moons — they service and maintain devices that police the planet, fighting the remaining Scavengers. Those devices, cleverly called drones, are large flying spheres, heavily armed with automatic weapons, and sporting a sort of malevolent mechanical visage.
Jack takes off every day in a nifty aircraft, part helicopter, part jet plane, repairing the drones that suffer attacks and sometimes fighting off the Scavengers themselves; under Sally's supervision, Victoria guides him by means of an elaborate communications system, a kind of living map. Within that relatively simple situation, the picture rapidly dissolves into generally incomprehensible dialogue and action. Jack discovers a crashed space ship and rescues one of its crew, a young woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko), who informs him that she's his wife — in fact the person in his black-and-white dream — and then Jack encounters a tribe of survivors, led by Beech (Morgan Freeman), who tell an entirely different story of the invasion and the war.
Very little of the several expositions — Julia's, Beech's, or even Jack's — makes a great deal of sense. Jack's own history and identity come into question, leading him (and the audience) to wonder just who the hell he is and what exactly he is doing. He and Beech join together in some battles against the enemies he previously believed were allies, then embark on a kind of apocalyptic journey of their own, inspired by the story of the hero Horatio, defending Rome singlehanded against a whole army.
All the talking in the movie, which interrupts some perfectly acceptable action, muddles rather than clarifies its meaning, whatever that might be. Apparently intended to inspire the Deep Thoughts that so many comic-book artists insert to embellish their entertainments with a semblance of intellectual and emotional content, all the metaphysical and ontological blather simply dissolves into confusion. Instead of "Oblivion," which by the way means exactly nothing in the picture, it should have been called "Obscurity."