Oblivion

3.5 stars
Movie Review By 
Oblivion still
Oblivion poster

Oblivion is a wonderful visual achievement and a good pop sci-fi entertainment that pulls off the neat trick of being distinct even though it's assembled from the parts of many previous sci-fi pics. Part of the fun to be had is making a mental list of the movies this pays homage to, from "Planet of the Apes" and "2001: A Space Odyssey" all the way up to "Wall-E". I think that's because it tips its cap to the really good ones, which share as a common value a greater fascination with ideas and implications than stuff getting blown up real good, though some stuff does get blown up real good here.

Our story is set on a dystopian post-apocalyptic Earth (is there any other kind in stories about the future?) in the year 2077.  In an opening narration, Tom Cruise informs us that an invasion by an alien force called the Scavengers (Scavs for short) commenced after they destroyed the moon, causing massive earthquakes and tsunamis. Our species retaliated with nukes, rendering the Earth radioactive and uninhabitable. "We won the war, but lost the planet", he reports.

Beyond that, he can't say because of a mandatory memory wipe that occurred before his current mission--some 5 years prior--by the Tet, the diamond-shaped NASA headquarters that can be seen orbiting the Earth. Though he has no recollection of his life before this mission, his dreams show him New York City, the Empire State Building, a woman.

Humanity has moved to the Saturn moon of Titan, but continues to use the Earth's water for energy. Magnificent power stations mark the coastline with water funneling in whirlpools at their base. In the air, unmanned drones meant to protect the power supply from attacks by Scavs.

That's where Cruise comes in, playing blue collar Jack Harper, one of the Earth's remaining humans who belongs to a "mop-up crew" whose job it is to repair drones and power stations. He lives with his partner/lover Vica way up in the clouds some 3000 feet in the air in a sleek three-level living quarters that looks like if Apple were to make an iphone home. Every morning, Jack takes off in his retro-cool helicoptery aircraft, only in place of a propeller it has wings decorated with bubble-shaped engines, not unlike what you see covering ladies' heads in those hair-dryer seats at beauty salons.

The first act of the film is given heft by Tom Cruise's presence. We've come to know him so well as an action star that he's able to draw us into the story of this man's life using little dialogue and only enough narration to set the scene. After that it just shows, and his day-to-day reconnaissance work is compelling: one set-piece has Cruise descending into an elaborate replica of the main reading room of the New York Public Library where he must fix an offline drone while simultaneously trying to ward off a Scav threat.

Complications arise when Jack defies his superior's orders and checks out the crash site of an apparent NASA aircraft brought down by Scavs. There he discovers cryogenically frozen human passengers, one of which being the recurring woman in his dreams.

That's as far into the plot as I'll go because I found it satisfying to watch it gradually unfold, layer by layer, forcing the Cruise character as well as ourselves to rethink everything that came before.

The production values are first-rate all the way. Claudio Miranda, just off his Oscar win for cinematography for "Life of Pi", creates visuals meant for us to drink in.

The apartment in the sky is an unforgettable new place in the movies. No CGI up there, no green screen: the set was a sound stage fitted with a 500x42-foot screen. Some 21 projectors were used to play footage that Kosinski and crew shot at the top of a Maui volcano. At times the set appears to be sitting blithely on clouds, other times a loneliness is accentuated among clear blue skies and piercing sunlight. All the lighting in those scenes comes directly from the refracted natural light off that screen. Tom Cruise calls it the most beautiful set he's ever worked on, and it sure is gorgeous to behold all that sky wrapped around us.

The gadgets are great fun. From Vica's kitchen table that turns into a large ipad to Jack's bubble-helicopter and his really cool bike, they're a throwback to the shapes of such things in 2001. The drones are menacing: when called into action, they don't just arrive and open fire, they scan their subjects first, causing great tension. And there is excellent use of sound in depicting their informal personalities.

"Oblivion" marks the first music score written by M83, and it's a doozy that reminded me of early 80's efforts from "Blade Runner" to "Dune".

Maybe the story settles for being a pure audience picture rather than building to some grand statement. But since it lives so comfortably in implications and suggestions and is very involving, and because of how it listens to its characters instead of making them mindless action toys, that along with delicious technical specs make this excellent entertainment.

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