Despite threatening to be yet another Tom Cruise-as-world-saviour vehicle, Oblivion is surprisingly engrossing for the most part. The science-fiction adventure is neatly divided between contemplation and action, with the loveliest bits in Joseph Kosinski’s film adaptation of his graphic novel, being the sections in which little happens.
It’s 2077, and Earth is a grey-toned and sparsely populated, post-apocalyptic wasteland. Jack Harper (Cruise) and his assigned partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are among the few human beings left on Earth. In a movie filled with striking visuals, one of the most beautiful is of the destroyed moon, which has been reduced to a white streak similar to a child’s smudged chalk drawing.
Jack and Victoria manage the Earth’s remaining energy resources while waiting for the day they will move to Titan, a new space colony. A holdout army of humans, called the Scavengers (Scavs for short), keeps trying to take over whatever is left, but Jack single-handedly fends them off with the help of drones that are programmed to attack anything with a weapon.
The movie gains an extra layer of political resonance because of events in the country in which it has been produced. Oblivion has been released worldwide in the same week as a series in The New York Times on the US’ deeply controversial predator drone programme, which has been zapping terrorists and innocents alike in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The cross-looking, plump and circular drones from Oblivion don’t look anything like the sleek predators that are hovering over Pakistan, but they are just as merciless in their operations.
The leisurely first half of the movie is a direct tribute to the poetic-philosophical science-fiction films of the late 1960s and 1970s. There are flashes of Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky and even the more recent Duncan Jones film Moon in Jack’s mechanical routine, which involves gliding over the gutted remains of Earth, rescuing damaged drones, taking time out for a visit to a clandestine pastoral hideout he has built for himself, and returning to his elevated space station for some underwater activity with his partner.
The movie shifts tone, and not always for the better, when Jack meets a woman (Olga Kurylenko) he has been dreaming of for years and, eventually, the Scavs, led by Morgan Freeman. Jack finally has a chance to confront flashes from the past that have survived despite a memory wipeout, which takes him down the proverbial rabbit-hole of confusion and, ultimately, revelation.
Kosinski’s exploration of such heavyweight ideas as the persistence of memories and dreams and the soul-destroying march of the machines isn’t as coherent as it needs to be. The Tron: Legacy director’s handling of the big revelations, many of which are explained by often inaudible dialogue, is clumsy and hurried. But even in its most puzzling moments, Oblivion is never short of atmospherics. Along with production designer Darren Gilford and Life of Pi cinematographer Claudio Miranda, Kosinski successfully conjures up an unsettling tableau of destruction and hope. The movie stupidly demands a second viewing for its what-was-that-again plot twists, but its allure actually lies in the stark and poetic visuals.
Oblivion releases in theatres on Friday.