(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on April 18, 2013.)
Science-fiction is a very broad genre these days. My wife once told me that traditional science-fiction can be boiled down to two specific premises: technology gone awry and social commentary. A lot of what passes for “sci-fi” films are really action movies, like Alien vs. Predator or the recent Star Trek reboot. But real science-fiction is a wonderful thing, and films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and the original six Star Trek films really hammer home how important the genre can be. Not every science-fiction film has to do with space or invaders from another galaxy; it’s more effective when it’s kept closer to home, and Oblivion manages to be just that. Eye-popping and gorgeous, Oblivion throws actual science-fiction into the waiting audience’s laps with style and substance to spare.
Oblivion starts off with a conceit that reminds me of a Doctor Who episode where humans try to ward off an alien species with a nuclear apocalypse. In an effort to save Earth’s citizens from an alien takeover, a device called the Osterhagen Key is put into play which controls nuclear warheads under the Earth’s crust; if used, the Earth would be rendered useless and its citizens would die. In Doctor Who, it was never used; however, in Oblivion, this type of measure is exactly what the people in 2017 resorted to in order to defend the Earth, to make it unusable for an invading species (the Scavengers – Scavs for short) that had already destroyed the moon in order to throw the world into chaos. As Tech 49 Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) says, “We won the war… but we lost the planet.” 60-some years later, along with Victoria Olsen (Andrea Riseborough), his communications officer and sweetheart, they are the last two humans on the planet; all survivors of the nuclear fire were transported off-planet to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. They spend their days monitoring the machines collecting the Earth’s water for safe transfer to Titan, in addition to the weaponized drones that protect the machines. The Scavs are a constant irritant and danger, with Harper having to go on hasty, perilous repair missions armed to the teeth. For two people so alone, their life under the shadow of fear is still shown to be at least habitable with food and recreation readily available, and they only have to stick it out for two more weeks before they join the rest of humanity on Titan. Of course, as is wont to happen in movies like this, that’s usually when the rug gets yanked out from underneath everyone’s feet, as Oblivion starts going down rabbit holes and comes up with some astonishing surprises, most resulting from the appearance of the mysterious Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman).
Director Joseph Kosinski (who also co-wrote the script and the story upon which it was based) highlights Harper and Olsen’s isolation with a lot of shallow focus, with objects and people in the immediate foreground being detailed sharply while the backgrounds are unintelligible. His storytelling has improved from his previous film, Tron: Legacy; there are some parallels that can be drawn between the methods used in both films, but Oblivion is more cohesive and gripping, with each new revelation building upon the last to great effect. Cruise is at his usual give-it-everything best; he still knows how to pick ‘em and win, and Oblivion is a definite feather in his cap. Going from skittish outpost man to having to take control of a decidedly-out-of-control situation, his transformation makes the movie work, with almost 100% of the story being told from his point of view. As this is Harper’s story, we are made to feel how he feels with each step he takes, from blasé to confused to empowered. Co-anchoring this movie are bravura performances by Riseborough, Freeman, and Olga Kurylenko as a surviving human astronaut; all serve to help Harper in his journey towards discovering the truth about who he is and what he has to do.
In my life, I’ve watched many movies, with my favorites of them being the ones that left me speechless or extremely satisfied at film’s end. That’s the great thing about movies; you’re always going into the theater or sitting down in front of your home screens with that excited, “Will I enjoy this film?” anticipation when the lights go down or when the FBI logo finally goes away. It’s something I welcome on a regular basis, and being a critic has not dulled that in any way. I experienced this feeling before watching Oblivion, and I came away from the movie with my breath taken and my movie hunger sated. With the overdose of remakes, retreads, reboots, and generally unoriginal product that Hollywood seems to churn out by the dozens, Oblivion is a welcome respite from the norm. That’s not to say that Oblivion is entirely original; on the contrary, there are tons of things in it that will bring to mind other science-fiction movies as well. However, telling you exactly which movies you’ll recall will spoil it for you, so in a break from my usual comparisons, I won’t do it. But let me say this: it never seems like a rip-off or a retread. Somehow or another, Oblivion seemed extremely fresh and wondrous to me, even with its many influences being worn right on its sleeve.