Oblivion Review: A Pleasing Mash-Up of Older Sci-Fi

I’ll forgive a lot for an IMAX film shot in 4K resolution with a ridiculously dramatic M83 score featuring panoramic vistas of Iceland that I can watch without shitty 3D glasses, but the surprise of Oblivion is that there wasn’t that much to forgive (though the score is pretty overbearing at times). Other than Tom Cruise’s creepy hairless torso, and the fact that every woman in the future seems to be a supermodel who wants to fling herself at Tom Cruise’s creepy, hairless, 20-years-older torso, it’s actually an artful mish-mash of older sci-fi that borrows from just enough sources that it doesn’t feel like a ripoff. It succeeds on the strength of cinematography, character design, and careful withholding of information. It leaves you feeling confused until the very end, much like my lovemaking, and when it finally lays its cards on the table, it feels like it actually had something to say. Or at least, something to say other than “thanks for the 15 dollars, sucker!”

Tom Cruise plays Jack Harper, because “Jack” is to action film heroes what “Madison” is to yuppies, but even the genericness of his name is partially explained later by a clever script. Cruise is part of a “mop-up crew,” a two-person team consisting of Cruise and a hot redhead played by Andrea Riseborough, who live a sick sky-flat with a heated pool and modernist platform bed high above a post-apocalyptic Earth, whose job it is to do maintenance work on series of droids that protect giant, seawater-fed reactors that power the new human colony on Titan, a moon of Saturn. The droids protect the reactors from “Scavs,” the remnants of an alien race that lost a war to the humans, though the Earth was rendered mostly uninhabitable in the process. (*deep breath*) OR SO TOM CRUISE AND THIS REDHEAD BROAD HAVE BEEN TOLD.

Riseborough’s job seems to consist mainly of manning the communications systems that Cruise is already connected to and showing him her sweet bewbs whenever he starts asking too many questions. But whatever, I can buy that, I guess. Where Oblivion really soars is in the droid design. To create truly effective sci-fi, the machines or aliens or whatever non-human characters you throw in there have to have a real personality, be characters unto themselves. And from visual design to movement to sound design, Oblivion‘s droids are damn near iconic. Squinty, unthinking, possibly-malevolent little balls of death, making even more overt the fascistic overtones already present in Apple’s sleek master race of consumer products. They are the shit. It hits that sweet-spot of sci-fi that’s creating and extrapolating from the present in equal measure.

There are more than a few plot twists and ambiguities that will leave you thinking “what the hell is going on?” throughout a lot of the middle of the movie that I won’t ruin for you here, but suffice to say, I thought I’d zoned out and missed a crucial point of exposition at a few points. Nope. The script (by director Joseph Kosinski, Karl Gadjusek, and Michael Arndt) just saves most of the explanation until the very end, and it’s your confusion that keeps it compelling. Tom Cruise’s acting… well, it’s Tom Cruise, but it works. He’s much too robot-earnest and intense to do anything comedic, or anything that requires self-reflection or wry personability, but he does driven, shocked, and upstanding perfectly adequately, and that’s mostly all that’s required of him here. Plus there’s an aspect of his character in the film that’s totally believable about Tom Cruise.

When he jumps in his space shower, we see his perfectly hairless torso, which I mention because I find it odd that so many movies choose to depict their protagonists, who are otherwise portrayed as being without vanity, as the kind of guys who would take 20 minutes out of their schedule every few days to Bic their chests clean. Also it should be said that for an otherwise really fit guy, Tom Cruise has surprisingly saggy little man titties. And it’s pretty funny that the only two women in the movie are supermodel attractive, (and are important scientists, conveniently) and totally into Tom Cruise. At one point, Ukranian former Victoria’s Secret model Olga Kurylenko expresses a desire to grow “old and fat” with Tom Cruise, and I laughed out loud. Yeah… you’ll be fat like Tom Cruise is tall, sweetheart.

Like so many action and sci-fi films, there comes a moment late in the film where a character is called on to sacrifice his life for the others. Most of the time, this is done on a whim, by a minor character who’s all like “TAKE ME, GOD! I’M UGLY AND UNIMPORTANT TO THE SCRIPT!” as he willingly goes off to meet his maker with a wink and a thumb’s up to the protagonist and his lady (Prometheus and The Town are two recent films that come to mind in this regard). In Oblivion, the sacrifice happens, but it’s actually treated with the gravity something like that deserves, and it feels like a crucial part of the story and not just an easy solution to a story problem. It’s representative of the movie as a whole. Oblivion borrows from Wall E, The Matrix, 2001, Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner, The Terminator, and others, but it doesn’t feel enough like any one of them to be predictable. It’s not new, but it’s new enough. And as cheesy as it was at times, it actually felt like it had its own personality, and wasn’t just a composite of popular tropes and focus group suggestions.


Also, I made this for some reason. TOM CRUISE CAN’T BREATHE IN SPACE!

Follow Vince on Twitter.

Follow FilmDrunk on Facebook.

Latest movie reviews here.