Oblivion, like many excellent science fiction movies before it, is an identity story. At the start, Tom Cruise’s character Jack Harper is still reeling from a mind wipe he received five years ago; it’s now 2077 and planet Earth is mostly a barren wasteland (isn't that frequently the case?). Yet Jack goes to work every day – the identity he’s forced to accept is that he’s a member of the “mop-up crew” on Earth, monitoring the planet before joining the rest of humanity in space.
Of course, there’s something else hidden from Jack, a truth about himself and the nature of his mission. It’s a premise that many sci-fi films have explored in the past – 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, Moon, and many more may have beat Oblivion to the punch as the definitive far-future identity tales. And yet Oblivion follows in their wake in such a stylish, engaging fashion that you can’t help but be brought along for another ride.
Jack works out of a stunning house in the sky alongside his frosty girlfriend Vica (Andrea Riseborough), who covers communications for Jack as he explores the landscape below. Jack maintains the system of powerful machines that are sucking the Earth of its resources, to be shipped off to the human colony on Titan. High above, Jack and Vica’s bosses orbit in a massive triangular space station called the Tet.
There’s a fantastic sequence in the first act that sets up the ordinary way these characters live in an extraordinary world, and it works well with Cruise’s penchant for blue-collar, Everyman characters. Jack kisses Vica goodbye, walks out to the vehicle on the landing pad, but instead of driving off to work, Jack plunges down through the clouds in his bubble-shaped jet. Jack’s "office" is an almost unrecognizable East Coast: bridges and buildings half buried in sand, surrounded by the giant craters of a nuclear war.
While we get an expected dose of world-building exposition in an opening monologue from Jack, the movie then goes strangely quiet on that front. Long stretches go by where I begged for more details about how the Earth fell, and what the true nature of Jack’s mission is. The script, by director Joseph Kosinski and writers Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt, wisely avoids the other common problem with sci-fi: interminable pieces of exposition crammed into dialogue. But there are points when I wished the script was a bit meatier, so the impact of the final showdown could really register.
But what the sparse script does, however, is allow us to drink in the sweeping visuals Kosinski presents. Again, the film could have fallen into the trap of lingering on obvious references to destroyed landmarks. Oblivion takes a subtler approach, letting the wanton destruction (filtered by a chilly colour palette) host the events of the story, instead of the other way around.
It’s clear that a lot of attention was paid to the production design. The sky house, despite its implausible elevation, feels like a real piece of modern architecture. The gadgets and weaponry, much like that in 2001, are futuristic without being ostentatious. And it was fun to see that the apocalypse brought back a certain knightly feeling to clothing: most of the characters sport some variation of bulletproof armour, complete with capes and helmets.
Oblivion also does something that I love to see in science fiction. It leaves you with a couple of solid philosophical questions – quirky little problems that could only happen in an advanced civilization scratching its way back from an alien invasion. I won’t spoil them for you, other than to say that cloning has some weird implications for the post-apocalyptic dating world.
Certainly, there are plenty of logical gaps and plot holes in the film. I mean, when you really think about it, could aliens really blow up the Moon? It’s important to remember, though, that we watch science fiction for how it uses grand, implausible scenarios to comment on simple human issues, like identity and knowledge. Oblivion isn't the most original film, but it’s definitely an exciting and well-made one. It gets three and a half stars out of four.
What did you think of Oblivion? Were you drawn in by the film’s efficient use of visuals and storytelling, or did it leave too many questions unanswered? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, check out some of our others here: