Silver Screen: Oblivion ***1/2
You needn’t be a Philip K. Dick scholar to know that something’s hinky in Oblivion. In the opening scene, as last man on earth Jack (Tom Cruise) is delivering a lengthy bout of plot exposition via voiceover narrative, he casually mentions that five years ago “for security reasons” he and his partner had their memories erased.
It’s immediately apparent that Jack isn’t who he thinks he is, and his job may not be what he thinks it is, either. What he believes is that he and his assigned wife Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are the last two people on the planet Earth. Decades before, an alien invasion and subsequent war left the planet blasted, irradiated, and largely uninhabitable. The surviving humans were shipped off to a new colony on Titan, one of the moons of Saturn. The fuel source of their fusion energy is Earth’s remaining seawater, which is being sucked up into massive floating machines that require maintenance and protection from the handful of alien stragglers. Victoria runs the command center they share as a home and acts as a liason to their boss (Melissa Leo) living in a space station above, while Jack patrols the planet repairing drone robots that ferret out the remaining aliens.
Jack is hesitant to complete his mission, which means that he will leave Earth, which still feels like his home. So he spends his days hanging around the blasted ruins of the Pentagon and Yankee Stadium, as well as milling around a cabin he’s built for himself in one of the few verdant, bucolic locales still thriving.
When he investigates a crash-landed shuttle and does battle with a drone to save the life of a sexy astronaut (Olga Kurylenko) he recognizes from his dreams, Jack begins to question his purpose. His suspicions are further magnified when he runs across an underground society of humans led by flinty old man Beech (Morgan Freeman).
Oblivion borrows heavily from Philip K. Dick, but also James Cameron, Stanley Kubrick, and Ridley Scott. Very little about Oblivion is particularly original or surprising, but writer/director Joseph Kosinkski (Tron: Legacy), working from the template of his own graphic novel, paces out the revelations and keeps the film entertaining regardless. Mostly it’s successful as a throwaway sci-fi action flick, but the handsome visuals do set it apart somewhat. Here’s where Kosinski cribs from Kubrick, and from Scott, in the latter case specifically from Prometheus: He crafts images striking in their scope but rich in detail; big, beautiful shots of massive spacecraft; vast cities emptied of people and reclaimed by plant life; and the after-effects of catastrophic geological changes. The aliens, in their opening salvo, destroyed the moon, which caused major shifts in the tides that essentially remade the globe. That too provides Oblivion’s most arresting image, one it returns to quite often: the shattered pieces of the moon hanging in the night sky.
There’s not much of an emotional core to the movie, but it’s damn fine to look at, and the action is crisp and effective. Cruise is Cruise, of course-- he so rarely ventures outside the confines of his self-imposed typecasting that at this point all of his films feel like a demo reel for just what Tom Cruise is capable of. (Running! Jumping! Intense faces! No aging!) But he has honed his Tom Cruiseness to prime mechanical efficiency, and it’s nicely displayed here. That particular quality of his could have been put to good, ironic use in service of the plot to add a layer of depth to the film, but alas, no go. In Tom Cruise movies there is no irony, there is only Tom Cruise.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.