Oblivion is, by some length, the most visually-striking film I’ve ever seen. This shouldn’t come as a surprise as Claudio Miranda, who recently won an Oscar for Life of Pi, is the cinematographer, and Joseph Kosinski, the mind behind 2011’s gorgeous TRON Legacy, is its director. Together, the two craftsmen succeed in creating some of the most mesmerizing and memorable visuals in any movie since Avatar.
Although the story of the film is ultimately not as satisfying as I expected it to be, the movie still works as a largely fulfilling experience on the strength of its soulful nature, the unexpected surprises and Tom Cruise’s reliably strong performance.
Oblivion is set sometime around the year 2077. Via an opening monologue, we are informed that around 60 years ago, Earth was attacked by an alien race known as the Scavs. They destroyed the Moon and invaded the planet, but we fought back with nukes and won the war. Alas, the nuclear fallout rendered the planet an inhospitably wasteland, leaving the surviving population to migrate to Titan, a moon of Saturn. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are the only two remaining people on Earth. Their job is to make sure the massive hydro-energy machines used to transport water to Titan are working properly, and to repair drones that protect the machines from a nasty population of Scavs still hiding out on Earth.
Although Jack’s life is a cushy one – he gets to live in a lavish Jetsons-like, Apple store-inspired condo in the clouds, make love to the beautiful Victoria, fly in a stunning dragonfly-eque spaceship, and ride around the ashy countryside on a sleek dirt bike – he’s still not a happy guy. For one, he’s not looking forward to leave Earth for Titan in two weeks when his five year shift ends. He prefers home, even if it’s a desolate snow and ash covered planet. But more significantly, he keeps having dreams of being with a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) on top of the Empire State Building during an era that pre-dates the war, and his birth. Why does he have these memories, and why does she pop up in his dreams?
Oblivion has received a lot of criticism from fellow reviewers and critics over its derivative nature. While it’s true that a lot of the film’s plot, ideas and even some visual elements have been liberally borrowed from bits and pieces of numerous classic and even contemporary science fiction films, it never feels like a rip-off. Instead, it resembles a mosaic created by someone with a real fondness and understanding of science fiction. This is because Kowinski and his screenwriters (Karl Gajdusek, Michael DeBruyn, Michael Arndt), allow the story to unfold slowly, taking the time to build the world they set the story in and setting up Jack as an everyman character who you can identify with.
A big reason why the later aspect works so well is because of Cruise. For large chunks of the picture, he is the only person on-screen. The film relies a lot on his ability to hold our attention for the bulk of the picture and he succeeds primarily because he portrays Jack, not as Ethan Hunt or one of his tough guy characters but as an everyman. Throughout the movie, Jack is shown carrying out a lot of mundane tasks. He may run around with a gun but there’s also time taken to portray him as being a hard worker dedicated to his craft, being naturally inquisitive, and even nostalgic. When the plot twists come, they never feel disingenuous because you’ve spent time with Jack, and you want to see him discover the mystery and the secrets. It’s not a showy performance but one that enhances the story by working in service of it.
As previously stated, the visuals are the film’s most memorable takeaway but a case must be made for the magnificent synth-infused score by European electronic musician M83 which is reminiscent of the works of Hans Zimmer and Vangelis. Though intrusive at some points, the score largely works in lofting this rather intimate story into something grand.
Beautifully crafted with eye-popping visuals, a thumping score and another fine performance from Tom Cruise, Oblivion is a slow-burning science fiction film that rewards your patience. Though it’s far from the most original piece work you’ll see, as a visual thrill ride and semi-intelligent piece of science-fiction filmmaking, I highly recommend it.