Dir. Joseph Kosinski, 126 mins, rated 12A
Cast: Tom Cruise, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Melissa Leo, Morgan Freeman
It is the year 2077, sixty years after humans fought a cataclysmic war against an invading alien species and won, but at what cost? The use of nuclear weapons may have wiped out the invaders (well, almost), but it left the Earth a barren wasteland. What is left of the human race now lives aboard a giant triangular space station waiting to relocate to one of Saturn’s moons (though how this would be any less barren is anyone’s guess), while down on Earth, huge ‘hydro-rigs’ have been set up to hoover up the seas, converting the planet’s water to fuel for the voyage.
Trouble is, not all of the aliens were destroyed, and those that remain – known as Scavs – have a nasty habit of trying to blow up the hydro-rigs. If humanity is to have a future elsewhere in the Solar System, the rigs must be protected, and this job falls to the unmanned aerial attack drones and their human repair teams.
If this sounds like a rather convoluted backstory, rest assured it’s established fairly effectively early on in the film (with minimal use of voice-over), when we are introduced to one such team: soldier-slash-repairman Jack (Cruise) and his by-the-book partner Victoria (Riseborough). Jack and Victoria live in a luxurious but curiously clinical-looking habitat built on stilts high above the ruined surface. He pilots a bubble ship, providing on-the-spot drone repairs, while she’s a home worker who provides a link to their superiors on the space station, and together they make for an effective team.
Complicating matters slightly is the fact that Jack has been having dreams of pre-war New York City and a strange woman (Kurylenko) that confuse him, since he was born long after the world was destroyed. When Jack goes against orders to investigate a spaceship crash, he discovers hibernation pods filled with what appear to be human survivors, and he begins to question whether he’s right to be following orders at all.
Oblivion is the second feature film from Joseph Kosinski, who made his directorial bones with the visually stunning but otherwise emotionally uninvolving Tron: Legacy. Like Kosinski’s first film, Oblivion is utterly beautiful to look at, with some stunning post-apocalyptic imagery that stays in the mind long after the film has finished. In one scene, Jack recreates the world’s final Super Bowl to the phantom cheers of an imagined crowd in the remnants of the Yankee Stadium, while later he finds himself drawn to the observation desk of the Empire State Building, buried almost up to its radio mast in volcanic sand (in an ironic touch, this might be the first post-apocalyptic movie where aliens have totally destroyed everything except our famous landmarks). In stark contrast to the ruined surface, the production design of the future tech is simply gorgeous, from the gleaming white bubble ship that Jack pilots through the post-apocalyptic skies to the couple’s iPad-chic (and impressively fingerprint-free) habitat.
However, unlike Tron: Legacy, Oblivion has a lot more substance to it, with a thought-provoking, twisty-turny story and characters you actually give a damn about. On the surface, yes, it bears similarities to a number of sci-fi films that have gone before, and it seems as though many of the film’s critics just can’t see past the fact that the drones have a red glowing eye (just like HAL!) or that, at one point, Cruise waters a plant (hey! There was a plant in WALL•E!). But look beyond these fairly superficial connections (what sci-fi film post-1968 hasn’t referenced 2001 in some way?) and there’s some plenty of meaty themes to chew on, such as what it means to be human, and the dangers of blindly following orders. At push you could consider it a $120 million indictment of America’s spiraling obsession with drone warfare and the dehumanisation of enemy combatants.
So don’t listen to the naysayers. Oblivion is a big-budget sci-fi blockbuster with plenty to say if you’re willing to listen. My only regret is that I didn’t see it on a bigger screen. And I’m not ashamed to admit that I did actually shed a tear towards the end of the film – a solitary, incredibly manly tear of the sort that trekked courageously down Bruce’s granite-like cheek at the end of Armageddon – but a tear nonetheless.