On the surface, Oblivion looks like a predictable Hollywood vehicle for the evergreen Tom Cruise. He gets to fly a futuristic ship, ride a motorcycle, and do his patented Tom Cruise run (head back, chest out, fingers straight) all within the space of a few minutes. But far from the generic sci-fi action blockbuster its trailers might have implied, Oblivion is in fact a refreshingly absorbing and intelligent mystery thriller.
Cruise plays Jack Harper, an airborne repairman in a post-apocalyptic future. Years before Jack’s birth, invading aliens destroyed the Moon, and a nuclear war on Earth decimated the extraterrestrial threat but left our planet a ruined husk. With Earth’s surface all-but uninhabitable, humanity’s remnants have built an ark named the Tet, which it plans to use as a means to set off for a new life on a terra-formed moon orbiting Saturn.
Jack’s one of several survivors who’ve been given the repetitive yet important task of patrolling Earth’s surface and repairing a network of drones, which repel the invaders’ remaining forces – called Scavengers – and allow the humans to make their final preparations before heading off for less radioactive climes. Jack has just a few more days before he too can join the throng, but for one reason or another, he has some misgivings. For one thing, he loves his native planet, and is fascinated by the remnants of its history he finds in the carcasses of old buildings. But also, he has recurring dreams about a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) who beckons to him from an early 21st century Manhattan he never saw first-hand.
Director Joseph Kosinski’s debut movie was the slick, visually distinctive Tron: Legacy, which proved to be technically compelling yet sadly empty in terms of characterisation and plot. At first glance, you might be forgiven for thinking that Oblivion might follow suit, with its post-iPad designer apocalypse and Cruise providing his bankable mix of charm and athleticism. But Kosinski brings far more humanity – not to mention urgency – to his second feature than we’d expected. Oblivion unfolds like a graceful enigma, taking time to introduce Jack – a hero with just enough tics and quirks to make him something more than a stock Cruise hero – his colleague Vicca (Andrea Riseborough), and the woman from Jack’s dreams, before gradually introducing a series of unexpected complications.
It’s a well-constructed story, even if some of the narrative beats have been seen before. Kosinski keeps the twists coming thick and fast, and just when you think you’ve got a handle on where the narrative’s going, it alters trajectory and forges into new territory. And because the plot emphasises characters over action, the set-pieces, when they do arrive, have far more impact: one aerial chase sequence is particularly exhilarating.
Claudio Miranda’s cinematography gives scale and drama to the film’s lonely exteriors – particularly if you can catch a showing in IMAX – while the score, courtesy of Anthony Gonzales and Joseph Trapanese, is a bass-heavy blend of Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy techno and Hans Zimmer’s foreboding orchestral work for Inception. Unusually for an expensive genre movie, Oblivion matches the grand with the intimate, the technical and the human, its small collection of characters never lost in spite of the breadth of its canvas.
Oblivion’s taken a fairly long and circuitous route to the screen, and Kosinski’s shown a certain amount of commitment and self-belief in getting it made. Originally beginning life as a script in 2005, it was turned into an unpublished graphic novel in 2007, before finally finding studio backing courtesy of Universal. Indeed, it’s refreshing to see so much money (a reported $120 million) and talent thrown at a genre movie which isn’t a sequel or a remake; instead, it feels more like something made in the 1970s, with loving nods to Solaris or Silent Running threaded into its thriller template.
With a strong performance from Cruise, a great supporting cast, including Morgan Freeman in a brief yet important role, an effective (if occasionally exposition-heavy) script, and some captivating special effects, Oblivion‘s one of this year’s first major multiplex surprises.
Although its standalone status makes it less of an obvious box-office draw than, say, Star Trek Into Darkness or Iron Man 3, Oblivion‘s a smart, engrossing movie, and deserves to be seen on the largest screen you can find.
Oblivion‘s out in UK cinemas now.
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