(Note: This review was originally published on April 18th, 2013 at Reel Film News)
Even though it takes place on a demolished Earth some 60 years in the future, “Oblivion” manages to be far more beautiful than bleak. With the grand spectacle of our abandoned planet as a backdrop, there’s never too little to marvel at in between moments of chaos and brain-twisting revelation.
Avoiding the dreary look of its post-apocalyptic predecessors, “Oblivion” is almost as retro in tone as it is advanced in execution. Director/co-writer Joseph Kosinski reunites with “Tron:Legacy” cinematographer Claudio Miranda to bring some very bright, eye-popping visuals to the screen, which they are careful never to crowd even in its rare claustrophobic moments. With that style comes a sense of depth that matches the grand scope of the film’s premise, which might have fallen flat in less capable hands.
Indeed the scenario, on which we’re briefed by Tom Cruise’s Jack Harper at the beginning of the film, demands a worthy explanation, and believe me it’s a doozy. Earth as we know it is in ruins, attacked a half century prior by an alien force that destroyed the moon and caused natural disaster to ravage the planet. Resorting to nukes to win the war, we rendered most of the terrain uninhabitable, relocating the surviving population to Saturn’s moon Titan.
Assigned to overseeing several giant, sky-scraper-sized siphons that collect water to transport to Titan, Jack and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who have only two weeks remaining in their mission before joining the others, reside in a loft suspended some thousands of feet above the desolate landscape.
Jack’s job is to maintain the drones, deadly flying pods that protect the water-extracting machines from remaining aliens which they call Scavs (short for Scavengers), as Victoria keeps an eye on him via hi-tech GPS from the relative safety of their perch (which might resemble a chic Miami apartment if supported above the clouds by a giant crane arm). The team reports to Sally (Melissa Leo), who communicates with them in an eerily thick southern drawl from a massive space station floating above Earth called the Tet. “Are you an effective team?” Sally asks routinely as if prompting a daily affirmation, to which Victoria routinely replies, “We are an effective team”.
Jack and Victoria have an intimate relationship (and really, who wouldn’t in such a situation), but he is haunted by dreams of another woman (Olga Kurylenko), suggesting some sort of a memory fragment. This seems unlikely, considering the mandatory memory wipe the two must undergo every five years. Still, Jack is drawn to everything ‘old’. While investigating a damaged drone, he marvels over the stadium where the last Super Bowl was played in 2017, re-enacting the winning touchdown with an odd, almost desperate enthusiasm. He observes the vast landscape from atop a sunken Empire State Building and sneaks off the grid to spend time by a lake, a veritable oasis where he maintains some semblance of ‘normal life’. He even dons a Yankees hat religiously when he leaves his aircraft, which might best be described as a mechanized dragonfly.
Jack’s routine is disrupted when a mysterious homing beacon causes a space craft to plummet to Earth, and with it, five human beings. It’s at this point and the introduction of Morgan Freeman’s character that the story takes its initial twist, and where it leads is thoroughly mind-blowing. Cruise’s ability to carry a film has never been put to better use, and though this isn’t technically a one man show, it often feels like it.
Reminiscent of films like “Planet of the Apes” and “The Omega Man” (and a few others that I won’t reference in order to avoid spoilers), “Oblivion” draws you into a scenario that initially seems derivative before going in an unfamiliar direction. Though you’ll definitely draw some conceptual comparisons along the way, I say who cares. At least it doesn’t foist plot points on us simply as means of misdirection. When the credits rolled, my surprise hadn’t yet subsided; if nothing else, the film is just a blast to look at.