Film Review: Oblivion

Survivors battle for control of a post-nuclear Earth in a visually stunning adventure.

The past is the future in Oblivion, a sleek, good-looking sci-fi adventure haunted by the ghosts of better films. Anchored by a restrained and convincing Tom Cruise, the film should make a splash at the box office until more mainstream blockbusters take over.

It's 2077, the surface of the planet has long been destroyed by nuclear bombs, and giant machines are sucking up the remaining fuel and water to send to human colonies on Titan, one of Saturn's moons. Drones protect the machines from scavengers, and protecting the drones are a few teams of human technicians.

Ensconced in a multi-level jetport perched above the clouds, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and Vika (Andrea Riseborough) make up one team. Manning computer terminals, Vika directs Jack via radio to hotspots far below. Chronically short on supplies, Jack resorts to chewing gum at times to fix buggy fuel cells on the small drone orbs.

Tormented by dreams of an earlier, pre-nuclear Earth, Jack searches the blasted landscapes for answers to the war. Periodically cutting off radio contact with Vika, he relaxes in a lakeside cabin, where he plays vinyl records and stockpiles books like Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome. "How can man die better/than facing fearful odds," he muses.

Sadly, those lines appear more than once in the film, which after a mesmerizing opening settles into pretty standard sci-fi fare. A bit of The Matrix here, a lot of Total Recall there, with touches of Planet of the Apes, The Terminator, and even Wall-E scattered about, Oblivion loses a lot of steam as it forges ahead to its predictable outcome.

Along the way we meet Julia (Olga Kurylenko), an astronaut who awakens from six decades of "delta sleep" when her capsule crashes into a drone-protected zone, and Beech (Morgan Freeman, a bit too jovial for his part), first seen lighting a cigar in a mysterious underground bunker. Meanwhile, Sally (a spellbinding Melissa Leo) keeps tabs on the team from afar, offering encouragement and threats on a sort of futuristic Skype screen.

Based on a graphic novel written by director Joseph Kosinski, Oblivion is the best-looking sci-fi film in some time, especially in the IMAX format, which displays the tundra-like landscapes with startling clarity and gives a sumptuous gleam to the polished metal and glass living quarters shared by Jack and Vika. For that matter, Cruise, Kurylenko, and Riseborough look equally ravishing on the large-format screen.

Like most sci-fi stories, the more you examine the plot, the less sense it makes, although Kosinski and screenwriters Karl Gajdusek and Michael deBruyn do come up with truly imaginative details. You may wonder why Jack's nose is wounded in an early fight, but the scar becomes crucial later on. Guns, motorcycles, even Jack's jet-powered helicopter are just plausible enough to keep viewers involved in the story.

Like Kosinski's TRON: Legacy reboot, Oblivion is strikingly underpopulated, with minimal dialogue and long stretches of silence. Tone and atmosphere are key here, and Cruise responds by delivering an understated and winning performance. He's an important reason why Oblivion is so fun to watch, at least until the film goes haywire right before your eyes.