Oblivion is derivative of many of the "big idea" sci-fi movies of years gone by, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Blade Runner to Minority Report to WALL-E. An alien invasion, the evacuation of humanity from a dying Earth, a mammoth Monolith-esque object floating in orbit, an amnesiac man conducting a mission on Earth that he hasn't been told the truth about, all of this and more can be found in Oblivion's pastiche of forty years' worth of science fiction. Yet that doesn't stop this from being an enjoyable trip, with Tom Cruise doing what he does best, an equally impressive foil in the form of Andrea Riseborough, some story turns that were still shocking if not all that creative, and absolutely stunning visuals from the director of TRON: Legacy. This is a movie worth seeing in theaters.
If you've seen any of the films that I named above, it probably won't take you long to figure out the direction of the plot here, especially given that some of the big twists are telegraphed fairly early on. Even so, the fundamental story is still engaging and moving even if you've seen all of those movies, for the same reason that people can keep watching formula rom-coms and action flicks if they're done right. The story has some noticeable holes in it, particularly one pertaining to how a certain flight recorder managed to make it to Earth, but even with them I was able to remain invested in the story of Jack Harper slowly learning the truth about his mission to help recover Earth's seawater. It's a big studio sci-fi film that's focused on ideas and story rather than being a spectacle-driven space opera trying to copy Star Wars or Star Trek, and even if it isn't original, it does what it does quite well (albeit not perfectly). For that, it should be applauded.
Speaking of Jack, the man who plays him, Tom Cruise, is in top form here. Not only does he look amazing for a guy who just turned 50, but he's always been one of the best actors of his generation, and he shows it here. It helps that this is the kind of heroic "movie star" role that has long been his trademark. Cruise is magnetic on screen, and with him in nearly every scene of this film, he carries it admirably. (And yes, like always, Cruise does a lot of running.) Matching him is British actress Andrea Riseborough as his partner Victoria, selling the bond that she and Jack have on their mission. As Jack's "mission control", she helped me get invested in Jack's mission and survival, while also making me interested in who she was and what she was trying to do. This is especially so in her own interactions with Sally, the mission's overseer, played by Melissa Leo in a performance that conveyed just the right mix of sweetness, mystery, and eventually menace.
The weak links in the sparse cast were Olga Kurylenko and, surprisingly, Morgan Freeman. In Freeman's case it wasn't so much his fault as it was his underwritten character, a rebel leader with only the most basic framework of motivations. He still does a decent job in the face of it. Kurylenko, on the other hand, felt flat when compared to Cruise and Riseborough, and given that her character, Julia, is the emotional anchor of the story, her inability to keep up with the rest of the cast is a serious black mark that quite significantly reduced my investment in the goings on. Without spoiling anything, I was supposed to believe that Julia and Jack were in love, and the fact that Kurylenko was little more than a pretty face that blended into the background made it difficult for me to buy that.
Last, but certainly not least, is Joseph Kosinski's supremely stylish direction and visual design. Just like he did with TRON: Legacy, Kosinski makes Oblivion look more striking than most of the summer blockbusters out there. I still enjoy the ascetic iPod aesthetic no matter how much it's appeared in recent sci-fi movies, and no matter how much we'll look back on it twenty years from now the same way we look back on the digitized computer interfaces of '80s sci-fi and the rayguns and rocketships of the '50s and '60s. It just looks damn gorgeous. What also looks good is the shots of Iceland and its jagged natural beauty standing in for the ruined East Coast, as well as the ruins themselves that here have started to blend in with the landscape after decades of wear and tear. Even when Kosinski is engaged with formulaic material, he still manages to elevate it with his eye behind the camera.
Score: 4 out of 5
It's nothing you haven't seen before, but it still does it very well. It's a mix of timeworn sci-fi plots with amazing production values, gorgeous visuals, and two great lead performances, and its flaws aren't so great that they ruin the film. Check it out. It's incredibly enjoyable and worth your time.