This tendency of Oblivion to “borrow” from other films has annoyed quite a few film critics, but it sure didn’t bother filmgoers who shelled out $35 million on its opening weekend. Those of us who liked this film were blown away by the astonishing sets and special effects, the meticulous and wildly clever sound effects, and terrific performances by Tom Cruise and the supporting cast. All of these elements, including the story (which was originally written as a proposal for a graphic novel) were put together by the director-to-watch, American Joseph Kosinksi, who has helmed only one other movie, Tron: Legacy.
It’s 2077, we are told in the opening narration. Earth and invading aliens went to war. The humans won, but the nukes left the planet a radiation-infected wreck. Almost everyone has left Earth to go to Titan, the seventh moon of Saturn. Jack (Tom Cruise) and his partner Victoria (the luminous English-born Andrea Riseborough) live in a marvelously spare penthouse high above the clouds. Jack is a drone technician, who goes out every day to repair the flying robots (think Wall-E) that protect the drilling operations that are saving resources for the humans to take to Titan.
Jack often has disturbing dreams about having lived on Earth before and thinks of it as his home. He marvels at a real flower he finds clinging to life on a barren mountaintop. He scours the heart-breaking urban ruins (exquisite art direction of the wasted land and former architectural wonders) where he picks up artifacts, such as books and LPs which he keeps in a secret cabin in an unpolluted spot on the planet.
The rest of the planet is a grey, bleak wasteland. These scenes of the wide scale nuclear destruction, seen in fast motion as Jack flies over the area in his private spaceship or on his speed-demon motorcycle are nightmarish — ugly and fearful, they are nevertheless magnificent and unlike any end-of-the-world scenario you’ve seen yet. The real stars of Oblivion are the production designer (Darrel Gilford, Tron: Legacy) and the cinematographer (Claudio Miranda, Life of Pi and Tron: Legacy). You can forgive a lot of bad dialogue and story borrowings when the visuals are so breathtaking you think about them for days afterwards.
Being a tradition-based science fiction movie, Oblivion is replete with conspiracies, lies, and betrayals, not to mention the girl of Jack’s dreams, Julia (Ukraine-born Olga Kuryenko), who shows up after her spacecraft crashes. There’s a powerful NASA-like announcer (Melissa Leo with a dreadful southern drawl), who is immediately suspicious. Later in the movie, the leader of the human rebels (Morgan Freeman in a Mad Max redux outfit) makes a dramatic appearance and so does his second in command, a growly guy named Sykes (played by Danish-born Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who is so gorgeous he should have a whole movie all to himself).
There were so many plot twists in Oblivion that I went brain-numb (no problem — the visuals kept me mesmerized). My male companion, the demographic for which the movie was designed, figured out every plot twist before it happened, had no desire to catalog what other movies were referenced, ignored my yawns and decided that the movie was “Awesome! Awesome.”
Tom Cruise’s mythic conundrum in Oblivion is one that has inspired Celtic heroes for millennia. “How can a man die better,” he asks, “than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods?” How indeed.