Opens Friday (see times below)
It's the year 2077. Pilot and technician Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is one of the last remaining humans on Earth, which has been decimated by nuclear war with the alien invaders known as the Scavs.
Harper and his communications officer Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) live a on floating platform in the sky, complete with high-tech weaponry, satellite uplinks and a heated swimming pool, so that's nice. On the horizon, massive levitating hydrogen processors suck water from the oceans, which is converted into energy for the rest of humanity, holed up on one of Saturn's moons.
Jack's mission is to patrol his designated sector in a dragonfly-shaped spaceship, repairing the automated defensive drones that guard the hydrogen processors against the remaining Scavs on the planet's surface. In the sky, shattered fragments of the moon — blown up by the Scavs — curve over the horizon in an eerie ellipse.
Such is the set-up for the visually dazzling science fiction film Oblivion, starring Tom Cruise and directed by Jospeh Kosinski (Tron: Legacy). Oblivion is the first of the season's sci-fi popcorn movies, and it delivers the merchandise: bold images, big sound and a generous assortment of eye candy action scenes. It's the kind of movie you want to see on the big screen, if you're going to see it at all.
I crunched the numbers and by my estimation Oblivion is around 75 percent inspired sci-fi fun and 25 percent ridiculous Tom Cruise preening. That's a ratio I can live with. For every scene of Cruise on a futuristic motorcycle or shirtless in the shower (there are several), you get three crackling chase sequences or grand dystopian displays.
That image of the splintered moon, for instance, is the kind of thing that works really well in a movie like this. It's apocalypse porn writ large. The image evokes a feeling of queasy wonder that comes from some sub-rational place. As a species, we've been gazing up at the moon for a long time. To see it broken and drifting apart is unsettling.
The cracked moon also serves as an important plot device. We learn that during the Scav invasion, the aliens made their first shock-and-awe assault not by bombardment or armada. Instead, they just blew up our moon. The resulting gravitation effects triggered earthquakes and floods, which softened up resistance rather nicely. I'm actually a little worried about this. If an alien army really does attack us someday, we don't want to give them ideas.
Too bad the rest of the movie's story doesn't maintain this level of inventive thinking. As Oblivion speeds along, several dubious plot twists flip the script to introduce new mysteries. Jack keeps getting flashbacks of pre-invasion Earth that don't add up. The alien Scavs on the planet's surface aren't behaving like menacing monsters. Earth's orbital HQ, a floating monolith called The Tet, begins issuing some puzzling directives.
Oblivion attempts to bring these elements together in its final scenes, but by then the story is terminally confused. The film's gutless coda affirms that the focus group still rules at this echelon of Hollywood movie making.
One interesting thematic thread running through the film is a pulsing anxiety about unmanned military drones. Jack's job is to fix and maintain these lethal beasties, each of which look like mini Death Star, but a profound mutual distrust hangs in the air. By the time Morgan Freeman's character shows up, the allegory is made overt. "Drones are unreliable," he says as a mass of terrorized refugees crowds the frame. "Sometimes things go wrong."
Tom Cruise anchors the movie just fine, I suppose, deploying his standard array of action star maneuvers. The Rakish Grin. The Steely Gaze. I'll say this for Cruise: He's not afraid of the grand and unironic movie star gesture. We need guys like that for movies like this. Director Kosinski indulges in a little playfulness, too. Watch for several Top Gun in-jokes.
Oblivion borrows from many movies that have come before: Star Wars, Alien, Mad Max. Even The English Patient, if I'm not mistaken. But that's unavoidable. It's almost impossible to make a truly original sci-fi movie anymore. Oblivion does all right. It presents some new sights, sounds and ideas, then delivers them with maximum movie technology.