By Gary Dowell
Director Joseph Kosinski made a tepid debut 2010 years ago with stylish but hollow sequel Tron 2.0. There is just as much style in his latest science fiction spectacle, but at least this time around it’s in the service of a high-falutin story that isn’t afraid to inject a little mystery into a well-worn but sturdy plot.
It also gives Tom Cruise a chance to regain the ground he lost with last winter’s dull, obnoxious action flick Jack Reacher, a movie that made one want to root for the bad guys. In Oblivion, Cruise plays Jack Harper, a technician stationed on a ruined Earth in the year 2077. He’s a very generic hero, brought to life mostly by Cruise’s trademark intensity. A brief prologue informs us that the planet was invaded by aliens called “Scavs” in the early 21st century; humankind won the war, but only after nuking the surface and leaving much of the planet uninhabitable.
Mankind has since migrated to Saturn’s moon Titan. Jack and his partner/lover Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) maintain the armed drones that protect the giant floating machines that are processing the planet’s remaining seawater and are often targeted by surviving scavs. Jack and Victoria are, in turn, overseen by Sally (a disturbingly chipper Melissa Leo) from aboard an orbiting space station.
Jack and Victoria have had their memories scrubbed for security reasons, which make Jack’s recurring dreams of a mysterious yet familiar woman (Olga Kurylenko) all the more unsettling. That, and a chance encounter with rogue humans led by Beech (Morgan Freeman) call the entire set-up into question.
Not much more can be said without crossing into spoiler country. It doesn’t take too long to figure out the gist of the general mystery at the center of Oblivion, but Kosinski and writer Duncan Jones (who made his writing and directing debut with the brilliant cult-fave Moon in 2009) do a good job of rationing out the details that we’re kept on the hook as the story moves towards its climax briskly enough to keep us from thinking about the plot holes too much.
It doesn’t hurt that the visual design is largely breathtaking, full of sweeping vistas split by idyllic grottos and punctuated by half-buried landmarks. The ping-pong balls-with-cannons design of the drones and Jack’s sleek bubble-pod flying craft and assorted gadgets look like next-generation weaponry by way of the Apple Store, and the ultra-ultra-modern home above the clouds that he and Victoria share resembles a summer home that Frank Lloyd Wright might have designed for the Jetsons. Kosinski’s is possibly the most beautiful post-apocalyptic landscape ever put on film — a postcard-worthy armageddon.