The dystopian thriller “Oblivion” is a breathtaking collage of welcome originality and references to a huge common cultural bank of fantasy images and themes. It’s grandiose in scope and scale, attentive to important details like character and tone, and unafraid to tackle mature themes like love and loss, personal identity and redemption. If there’s a better science-fiction blockbuster this year, I’ll count us lucky.
The film stars an intensely focused Tom Cruise as Jack Harper, a futuristic repairman tending to weaponized drones that guard the giant rigs mining Earth’s final reserves of energy. The year is 2077, 60 years after an invasion by alien hordes devastated the planet. The remaining human population has relocated to one of Saturn’s moons. Only violent alien marauders remain on the surface, sabotaging the equipment that is extracting the planet’s last resources. Yet Jack, five years after his mandatory memory wipe, can’t shake the feeling that this eerie brave new world is still his home. Who is that woman (Olga Kurylenko) who reappears so insistently in his dreams?
The film’s look is mesmerizing, combining hypnotically sleek industrial design, workaday grubbiness and immense landscapes so stunningly barren that they elicit tangible unease.
Director Joseph Kosinski (“Tron: Legacy”) and cinematographer Claudio Miranda (who shot “Tron” and won an Oscar for last year’s “Life of Pi”) make the impossible impressively realistic. Jack and his communications officer, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), live in a pristine, glass-walled loft that floats thousands of feet above stunning cloud formations. Their solicitous superior, Susan (Melissa Leo), checks in regularly via video screen to check their status as “an effective team.”
Jack makes his service calls to the surface in a whizzy vehicle that looks like an Apple-designed commuter jet. “Only two more weeks, Jack, and we can finally leave and join the others,” Victoria cautions. “Please, don’t take any chances.” It’s as if someone is catering to his superficial needs in an effort to keep him from growing restless and inquisitive.
While “Tron” was a dramatically inert bite of eye candy and Cruise can emit a soulless vibe, here the star and director create gratifying emotional depth. A haunting loneliness pervades the story. When Jack visits a swath of desert terrain pierced by the spire of the Empire State Building, or rappels through the blasted roof of the New York Public Library, the effect is genuine pathos. Even shots of flowers stubbornly struggling to evolve in this decimated environment pack a punch.
Jack, a former Marine, has a generous supply of action-hero skills (this is a Tom Cruise movie, after all) but he is at heart a high-tech grease monkey. He looks suitably worried, awed and surprised when he encounters the plot’s several bombshells. Cruise is fully engaged in his scenes with Riseborough, whose cool composure erodes as their caretaker assignment grows more perilous. She infuses her jargon-heavy “Copy that” dialogue with a rich subtext of vulnerability and longing. Even Leo, seen only as a smiling broadcast visage, imbues her honeyed tones with a hint of steely command, at once cloying and creepy.
Happily, “Oblivion” is not a remake, sequel, reboot or the foundation for a projected franchise. It tells a self-contained mystery story that, for all its explosive action passages, feels like an epic episode of “The Twilight Zone.” The film is rife with elements from its finest predecessors — Kubrick, Lucas, the Wachowskis and Pixar could be listed as creative consultants — but it has the spirit of a love letter to classic sci-fi, not an opportunistic mash-up.
Just as Lucas reached back to “Flash Gordon” serials for inspiration, Kosinski borrows wisely and well. “Oblivion” will not fade from memory for quite a while.