In Oblivion, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is part of a two-person crew tasked with protecting Earth’s remaining resources following a cataclysmic alien invasion that left the planet uninhabitable. Along with his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), Jack oversees and maintains a deadly armada of defense drones – charged with shielding massive resource harvesters from the hostile “Skav” attacks.
The pair are supported in their efforts by mission commander Sally (Melisso Leo) who lives aboard the Tet – an orbital space station and the base of harvest operations. In two weeks time, the harvesters will have collected enough raw materials from Earth to ensure humanity’s long-term survival – at which point Jack and Victoria are scheduled to join the other survivors on Titan (Saturn’s largest moon). However, when a routine Drone repair raises new information about the Skavs, Jack begins to ask dangerous questions about his mission.
Oblivion was directed by sophomore feature-filmmaker Joseph Kosinski - based on a graphic novel treatment that he co-penned with comic book writer Arvid Nelson (Dark Horse Comics’ Rex Mundi). Given his experience with Tron: Legacy (along with memorable commercials for Halo 3 and Gears of War), Kosinski is no stranger to sprawling CGI worlds and slick futuristic tech – but from the opening scene, Oblivion sets out to tell a more contemplative story – one that can’t simply be glossed over with memorable action beats. It’s an intimidating and tricky balance to find – especially in a project that is so personal. By the time the credits roll, Kosinski was responsible for Oblivion‘s creation, initial story, first screenplay adaptation, and directing.
Fortunately, with the help of screenwriters William Monahan (The Departed), Karl Gajdusek (Dead Like Me), and Michael Arndt (Star Wars Episode 7), Oblivion also tells a captivating story – with interesting twists and entertaining (albeit brief) moments of humor and levity. Science fiction fans will be able to anticipate some of the plot beats ahead of schedule, but even in the cases where savvy moviegoers guess correctly, it rarely detracts from the intended emotional payoff.
In fact, Oblivion prioritizes its central character story over nearly every other element of the production – meaning that some moviegoers who were expecting a high-octane post-apocalyptic war story may be underwhelmed by the limited action set-pieces. The film includes a handful of exciting combat scenes – each with slick visual effects and enjoyable excitement – but relative to the character story and overall world-building, large scale action moments are in short supply. Instead, Oblivion unravels a multifaceted sci-fi mystery story – relying on tense character encounters and reveals to keep audiences engaged (even if plot holes and heavy-handed melodrama sometimes weigh it down).
Considering the relatively small cast, Cruise is responsible for a number of Oblivion‘s best moments – gripping anxiety when fiddling with the finicky but lethal aerial drones, or a charming obsession when he encounters long-abandoned relics of humanity. Jack is a likable and contemplative lead character that fits within the usual Cruise wheelhouse, but even though he shares characteristics with Ethan Hunt (Mission Impossible) and John Anderton (Minority Report), the actor focuses on the right idiosyncrasies to serve Oblivion. Instead of adding another over-the-top action hero to his resume, Cruise is a bit more delicate with Jack – resulting in a more inviting and, at times, stirring performance.
The supporting cast is equally competent with a complicated and rich turn from Andrea Riseborough (Never Let Me Go) as Victoria, Jack’s communications officer and sole-confidant. Whereas Jack is hesitant to leave humanity’s “home” (Earth), Victoria is eager to reunite with the rest of the survivors on Titan – and watching her attempt to placate and manage her increasingly erratic partner provides Riseborough with plenty of material. Similarly, Morgan Freeman, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo, and Olga Kurylenko all offer meaningful additions to the onscreen Oblivion drama – each with their own moments in the spotlight.
Kosinski also owes much of Oblivion‘s success to the effects department – since they brought two of the more interesting “characters” to life: the previously mentioned aerial drones, and the drowned and frozen landscape of post-war New York City. The drones (number 166 in particular) walk a fascinating line between comedy relief and thoughtless killing machines – making them one of the most riveting and nerve-wracking aspects of the plot. Similarly, while New York City is effectively “dead,” destroyed in the war, remnants of its former glory make for some of the more absorbing scenes in the film – and a constant reminder of the destruction wrought by the alien attack.
Surprisingly, Oblivion was not post-converted into 3D but is getting a limited run in IMAX. In this case, the added IMAX cost is hard to justify – especially for moviegoers who expect significant return on a premium ticket experience. That said, for those who don’t mind spending a few extra dollars, the IMAX experience could still be worthwhile. The bigger screen size enhances the scale in Oblivion‘s post-apocalyptic settings and, more importantly, cranks up the sound. Honking and clunking mechanisms in the the drones and other high-tech vehicles help sell the authenticity of Kosinski’s near-future world and a superior sound system is preferable (though, as stated, not essential).
Oblivion is not the most exciting or the smartest science fiction experience to ever hit theaters; action fans may be underwhelmed by a limited amount of gunplay, and viewers looking for an especially deep sci-fi world might find too many familiar tropes. Melodrama and predictable reveals keep the film from being the mind-bending creation that Kosinski may have envisioned, but the director still presents a captivating future with rich visuals and an intriguing protagonist. Oblivion could have easily been a convoluted and indulgent moviegoing experience; instead, the film keeps a restrained focus on Jack’s character journey – which, thankfully, is an “effective team” of drama and post-apocalyptic adventure.
If you’re still on the fence about Oblivion, check out the trailer below:
Oblivion runs 126 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, brief strong language, and some sensuality/nudity. Now playing in regular and IMAX theaters.
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