Oblivion will divide audiences just as last year’s Cloud Atlas did. Those who expect straightforward plotting and constant action from their movies will walk away disappointed. However, the intended audience for this film will find an ambitious, gorgeous, science fiction yarn boosted by strong performances from Tom Cruise, Andrea Riseborough, and Morgan Freeman. Oblivion may end up being the best science fiction movie of 2013.
Tom Cruise plays Jack Harper, one half of a maintenance team assigned to repair drones on Earth following a devastating attack by an alien species. According to Jack, humanity won the war, but the resulting nuclear fallout from the conflict has forced surviving humans to migrate to a colony on one of Jupiter’s moons. Meanwhile, remnants of the hostile alien species, known as Scavengers, patrol the surface of Earth. We soon learn that Jack and his partner, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) have only two weeks left on Earth before they’re called to evacuate. Jack isn’t too happy about that; he loves Earth, and doesn’t want to leave it behind.
Each day begins with the two waking up in a compound suspended above the clouds. Jack sets out to repair fallen drones and protect giant combines, suspended over the Earth’s oceans, which use salt water to create fusion energy. Meanwhile, Victoria reports to their supervisor (Melissa Leo, sporting a disarming Southern drawl) via a computer terminal. The supervisor, known as Sally, monitors the two, asking Victoria each morning if she and Jack are still “an effective team.” Jack and Victoria are discouraged from getting too close to Earth’s surface, and they’re prohibited from pressing beyond specific clearly-defined boundaries.
As Oblivion kicks off, Jack heads to the surface of Earth to repair two fallen drones. Sporting a Yankees cap and a sleek, futuristic rifle that looks as if it was pulled from the Mass Effect games, Jack repairs one of the machines and sets out to recover the other. During his search, Jack begins to learn that the Scavengers might not be hostile aliens from another planet and that Sally and mission control may not be representatives of humanity.
If you can buy into the premise of director Joseph Kosinski’s film, it’ll weave a spell over you. For starters, the film itself is absolutely gorgeous. The human base suspended above the clouds is sleek, sterile, and reminiscent of the ships in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The abandoned surface of Earth is suitably primordial: the planet is a mass of vegetation, with skyscrapers and highways having succumbed to nature. As the story progresses and the action begins to ramp up, Kosinski clearly captures the mayhem, eschewing the shaky-camera hackwork that’s currently in vogue. Anthony Gonzalez (better known as M83) produces an original score that is both hypnotic and subtle, mysteriously emphasizing the film’s aesthetic strengths. (Although as a standalone listen, is getting a mixed reception.)
Meanwhile Tom Cruise continues to prove why he’s one of the most reliable stars in the history of Hollywood. The role of a stern military operative assigned with protecting what’s left of Earth fits him like a glove. The material could have easily become campy and embarrassing in the hands of the wrong actor, but Cruise gets by on sheer earnestness and intensity. Oblivion works, and that’s thanks in no small part to Cruise.
The sense of earnestness that Tom Cruise brings to his role pervades the entire production. I appreciated that the filmmakers behind this movie attempted to tell an ambitious, intelligent science fiction story. Oblivion isn’t a superhero movie, it isn’t a sequel or a remake, and it’s not a horrible, Roland Emmerich-esque piece of CG masturbation. Oblivion comes close to approximating some of the great science fiction movies of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, before mainstream Hollywood began to disregard adult audiences and pander exclusively to teenagers.
Oblivion was a complete risk. With its heavy plotting, deliberate pace, and immense scope, I’m surprised the film was funded in the first place. I’m still not convinced this picture will find an audience large enough to make its money back and yet as a fan of science fiction, I’m thrilled that Joseph Kosinski and Tom Cruise had the courage to make this movie.