It's 2077 on Earth, but it's unlike the Earth we know. In 2017 there was an alien invasion that destroyed much of the Moon and ravaged Earth, the human race winning the war but destroying their planet in the process. Now some 60 years later, surviving humans live on Titan, a moon of Saturn, while the Tet hovers in the Earth's atmosphere, harvesting energy from the oceans to help the colony on Titan survive. A man named Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) works with the Tet but down on Earth as an engineer, a fix-it man of sorts who helps the Tet's drone operate and stay functional, receiving help from Vika (Andrea Riseborough), his mission control. Jack and Vika are just weeks away from the end of their tour before they too can fly to Titan, but Jack has begun to question things. He has memories of long ago, long before the war that ravage Earth, but that doesn't make sense. He hadn't even been born yet. Where do these memories come from? On patrol one day, he sees a ship crash in a dangerous zone populated by Scavengers, the remaining aliens. What answers will he find, if any? Will he even survive?
This is a difficult movie to review, but I'll say this early. I loved this movie....a lot. From director Joseph Kosinski, 'Oblivion' was a relative success in theaters but struggled to recover its rather large budget. Critical reviews pointed out a thin story with a very strong visual look and strong performances. I liked the story so I'll disagree there, but on we go. The script went through some rewrites and studios in getting made, finally ending up with the version we see in 2013. It does what I like best about science fiction. It lays something out for you, explains it a bit, and then builds the tension as we look for answers. Why does it stand above the rest? It does all those things, and the payoff works extremely well. The revelation works. It doesn't disappoint like high-reaching science fiction stories sometimes do. Visuals, story, characters, for me it all worked. I can't say enough about this one, but I'll try.
Maybe the coolest thing about Oblivion is that while it is its own film, it also knows where its science fiction roots come from. Its post-apocalypse world has some cool nods to previous sci-fi classics, a nice touch by Kosinski and screenwriters Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt. The alien invasion left much of the planet ravage by nuclear weapons, leaving "Radiation Zones" behind, a modernized updated of the Forbidden Zone from Planet of the Apes. Cruise's Jack searches the world for evidence of a world long since gone, finding books all over, a cool touch that reminded me of Fahrenheit 451. Jack's Zone 49 is stationed somewhere on the east coast, a key part of his zone being a ruined New York City. On these ventures down to the surface, it certainly has the feel of I Am Legend, The Last Man on Earth, Omega Man, all those last surviving man sci-fi flicks. It's these little touches that bring it up a notch in my head, a tip of the cap to those that came before while on its own journey to carve out its own niche.
What Oblivion is able to do is that much more impressive because of the scale. A war-ravaged, dying Earth is huge in scope, but we only get six real speaking parts. Cruises commits himself like he always does, bringing a very real, personal edge to Jack. It's easy to root for him, especially as he begins to look for answers for questions that just don't seem to add up. Riseborough is excellent at his side as Victoria, his mission control from their Zone 49 headquarters, a futuristic high-rise up above the clouds. Melissa Leo plays Sally, more of voice work than anything, the Tet's representative that gives Jack, Vika and Zone 49 their daily updates and missions. Olga Kurylenko plays Julia, a survivor of a wrecked ship Jack comes across who knows more truths than he could have counted on. Without giving too much away, Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau play Beech and Sykes, two men who end up playing key parts in Jack's decision.
I typically try to mention the not so glamorous parts of a movie as part of a paragraph with other stuff mentioned. Here, it's hard to do when talking about the visuals the music. The visual look of the movie is a stunner, a sea of dull, cool blacks, whites, grays and blacks as we see what Earth has become. The CGI blends seamlessly with the real-life action, Iceland serving as much of the backdrop for this post-apocalyptic Earth. The story is interesting in itself so the beautiful backdrop and location shooting works almost like a bonus. As for the soundtrack from M83's Anthony Gonzales, I loved it. It balances out the big, booming epic action scenes with the quiet, personal emotional scenes like the best scores do. The song over the final credits -- listen HERE -- featuring Susanne Sundfor is a great conclusion to it all as well.
I don't want to give away too much here. Things take a big turn nearing the hour-mark in a 124-minute long movie, but in a good way. As I mentioned, the revelations don't feel forced. They're surprising in their revelations, but you never get the sense that Kosinski and the script were giggling to themselves. "Oh, baby, the audience will never know what hit them!!!" It's twists, surprises and revelations that work within the natural flow of the story. It's a beautiful film, and like the best sci-fi, it manages to create its own world from the war-torn Earth to the futuristic home in the clouds, Jack's Bubble Ship to his honed-in motorcycles, it all works. The ending payoff won't disappoint either as a handful of scenes left a lasting impression on me. Can't recommend it enough. Seek this one out.
Oblivion (2013): ****/****