(by Dustin Putman
Writer-director Joseph Kosinski has only made two feature films, but it is exceedingly clear that he is a major new force to be reckoned with. A visionary artist who stunned on plenty of levels with 2010's "Tron: Legacy" but was let down by a dramatic backdrop that felt chilly and sterile, Kosinski rights his wrongs with "Oblivion" while retaining his penchant for crafting aesthetic spectacles. This is a ravishing, eye-popping, even groundbreaking science-fiction epic almost boundless in the kind of out-of-this-world imagery viewers will have never seen before. It is celestially gorgeous, in no small part due to Claudio Miranda's (2012's "Life of Pi") invigorating, detail-filled 4K digital photography and a supremely wise decision to forego 3D, which would have only knocked down the vibrancy and clarity of what's on the screen. More than all of that, though, "Oblivion" continually reinvents itself with a carefully crafted story that takes its time, travels to places impossible to anticipate, and isn't afraid to elegantly negotiate a host of thought-provoking themes as varied as life and death, love and identity, and memory and loss. Article continues below
Earth, 2077. Sixty years ago, an alien invasion and ensuing nuclear war destroyed the planet and nearly everyone on it. The human survivors have been shipped to Titan, the largest of Saturn's moons, while drone maintenance worker Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his operation control partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) have stayed put on their homeland, their memories wiped clean as they fulfill their duties of fending off the alien scavengers still lurking about while protecting the hydroelectric generators used to turn the ocean's waters into usable fuel on Titan. Answering orders from Sally (Melissa Leo), a chirpy space station instructor, they are only two weeks away from joining the rest of their kind in space. While Victoria is cautious not to deviate from the straight and narrow, Jack has begun to ponder about all the things he will miss about the earth. He's also been dreaming of a woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko), and though he doesn't think they've ever met, he is undeniably drawn to her. It's a mystery that only deepens once Julia crash-lands on their turf, having been in delta sleep for over half a century with no recollection of what's happened.
Co-written by Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt (2010's "Toy Story 3"), based upon an unpublished 2005 graphic novel created by director Joseph Kosinski and Arvid Nelson, "Oblivion" is a marvel of ideas and innovation. Featuring some of the most photorealistic visual effects work in memory (and, let's face it, maybe history), the picture's post-apocalyptic landscape is both desolate and sublime, broken remnants of landmarks sitting silently amid barren deserts, abandoned rollercoasters poking out above shrouds of fog, a football stadium left over from the 2017 Super Bowl little more than a crater in the ground. Residing above the clouds is Jack's and Victoria's home, a glass-encased sky tower that looks like an ultra-chic Hollywood home complete with swimming pool, swirling staircase, and all the modern conveniences. When Jack heads out for his daily security sweeps, he zooms around in a bubbleship, evading ominous storms and piloting what is destined to become a simulated ride at Universal Studios theme park if the movie becomes the hit it deserves to. All of this plays out to a synth-heavy electronic score from French band M83 that lends all the more grandeur and weight to its glorious sights and sense of discovery. When it comes to choosing off-beat composers to work on his movies, director Kosinski might be onto something; his equally outstanding "Tron: Legacy" score was by Daft Punk.
Say what you will about the real-life Tom Cruise (2012's "Jack Reacher"), but when it comes to headlining major, big-budget studio productions, the 50-year-old star (who still doesn't look a day over 35) still has got charisma, intensity, and gravitas in spades. His work as Jack Harper could be some of his best in years, asked to play out at least half of his scenes all by himself while keeping control and interest in what is happening on the screen. Furthermore, the star-crossed love story between himself and Julia, deepening with each detail the viewer learns about their past, carries with it a bittersweet pathos that reminds of Cruise's relationship with Penelope Cruz in 2001's "Vanilla Sky" (a high compliment, indeed). When Jack and Julia steal away to a woodsy retreat and discuss the plans they once had of growing old together, it's a sequence of quiet, heartbreaking power for all that has happened to them since then and can never quite be the same again. The use of Procol Harum's 1967 rock classic "A Whiter Shade of Pale" completes the package, the vinyl records and key pieces of literature Jack has managed to save, and, later, the incorporation of Andrew Wyeth's 1948 painting, "Christina's World," all combining to present a snapshot of the lingering effect and importance art has on any one life.
When Jack comes face-to-face with Julia, realizing that she's more than just a figment of his subconscious, her appearance throws a curveball Victoria's way. She loves Jack and has assumed that they would always be together, just as they were paired together as the last people on Earth. With those plans now threatened, Victoria, in a sense, now fears losing herself. Having spent her life taking orders over the promise of Titan (i.e., salvation), she's suddenly left unsure of what she can believe. Andrea Riseborough (2013's "Disconnect") is excellent as Victoria, flipping between smiley and sweet and more professionally steely as she dedicates herself to Sally's cause. Portraying the initially enigmatic Julia, Olga Kurylenko warms to the viewer quickly and looks quite happy to be able to speak after doing little more than wandering around in Terrence Malick's recent "To the Wonder." Kurylenko and Cruise are the heart of the film, so it's fortunate that they are so well-cast opposite each other. Finally, it is better to be left in the dark about the particulars of Morgan Freeman's (2013's "Olympus Has Fallen") role, except to say that his is the one underwritten part and not really worthy of his abilities. Until well into the second act, one wouldn't be blamed if they forgot Freeman was in the movie at all.
Running at a just-right 125 minutes, "Oblivion" merges the ruminative and existential—Jack's ultimate encounter with Tet, the space station lording over the earth, leads to the very question of God's existence and His role in the universe—with the kind of action set-pieces that rattle seats and send viewers gripping their armrests. Wondrous and thrilling, with air chases and scavenger run-ins that truly approach "show-stopping" levels (note the preference for complex, lucid, lingering shots during the battle sequences over shaky-cam and choppy, incoherent flash-cutting), the film takes prime advantage of the widescreen frame and earthquaking surround sound (in theaters, IMAX is the only way to see it). Expanding its breadth and scope while trusting an audience's intelligence and not feeling the need to spell out the plot's various twists and turns, "Oblivion" leads toward an astonishing conclusion, complete with the ingenious metamorphosis of Melissa Leo's voice (as space station operator Sally) from that of happy and personable to defensive, inhuman, and downright diabolical. She's not exactly used to people defying her, but it's a long time coming. If the final moments work themselves out a little too easily, it also must be acknowledged that this is where the film has always, organically, been heading. Simultaneously about the end and new beginning of a planet's - and a people's - existence, "Oblivion" impresses again and again on a scale as emotionally intimate as it is physically colossal.