You need to take a few leaps in order for Oblivion to work. Questions pop up that the film blithely refuses to answer, trusting us to either go with it or check out entirely. I can’t say what they are because it would give away some major spoilers, and Oblivion is nothing if not a movie made for the spoiler alert. But if you can get past that – if you can skate through the narrative wonkiness and let the movie take you where it wants to go – you won’t regret the decision.
In fact, I could probably recommend the film on the basis of sheer spectacle alone, so powerful is director Joe Kosinski’s vision of a future Earth devastated by interstellar war. It’s strangely gorgeous, from the rolling plains that have buried New York City to the gigantic fusion reactors converting sea water into energy. Kosinski talked about delivering a visibly bright future, and its stark beauty forms an eerily perfect expression of the post-apocalyptic future.
That helps the scenario find its footing after a chunk of up-front exposition to get the rules straight. The Earth is no longer habitable, thanks to invading aliens who blew up the moon 60 years before our story begins. We fought them off, but lost the planet, and had to relocate to one of Saturn’s moons. The only ones left are the “clean-up crew,” glorified janitors paired off in floating homes, who keep the ocean reactors running and repair the combat drones that hunt the few remaining aliens still scurrying among the landscape.
We see all this through the eyes of Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), one of those janitors who pilots a variety of funky vehicles across the landscape while his partner/lover Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) scans computers back in their home and warns him of any trouble spots. Both of them were memory wiped five years ago, so they can’t remember anything that came before it. That’s convenient, because Jack has a lot of questions that need answering… only a few of which he’s ready to ask.
Kosinski adopts a magpie’s approach to the countless sci-fi classics that have come before him, sampling the best and leaving the rest to rot. As a result, Oblivion wears its influences a little too brazenly on its sleeve. 2001, Planet of the Apes and a few other flicks (which, again, I cannot name lest I give the game away) all take their bow, repackaged here in a shiny new suit, but still flashing the same themes and ideas underneath. You can probably spot the twist early on, and even if you can’t, the simplicity of Kosinski’s revelations rob them of some of their power. Naturally Jack’s bosses don’t want him poking his nose in certain places, and naturally that leads to game-changing revelations involving a downed spacecraft and Morgan Freeman in a snazzy black cape
And yet, Oblivion makes them work both by giving us plenty of set-up beforehand, then refusing to let the big surprises carry it all the way. The revealed secrets shift the focus of the story, but don’t serve as its complete purpose. That deftly removes the mechanistic qualities might have destroyed it (Shyamalan, are you taking notes?), leaving a well-developed if rather derivative sci-fi parable in its wake. Even when the story stumbles, Kosinski’s visual eye makes for a nice distraction, and as pure popcorn, the film proves surprisingly successful. Cruise does well, as usual, and his sparse array of co-stars are happy to step up their game. Like the special effects and the landscape, they sell us on this world despite the occasional misstep.
And Oblivion’s greatest saving grace is its willingness to look past the spectacle: to engage in larger ideas and give us something to talk about after the screening ends. Other movies have done so more effectively, and it can’t resist stealing from them whenever it can. But the final package proves to be quite irresistible, and the longer it runs, the more one can forgive it for riffing on its betters. The film stands on the shoulders of giants, but the view from there is still pretty damn good… and this time at least, the director knows how to make the most of it.