The latest Tom Cruise science-fiction epic features a pair of fairly major plot twists, neither of which I'll reveal here, but one I found fairly predictable and the other took me by complete surprise. And I like those percentages, since usually I figure this crap out pretty early on. OBLIVION feels like a beautiful quilt, made up of squares from so many different science fiction stories that you feel like you're playing a "Guess That Reference" game as you're watching it. But there's no denying the film is a stunning visual achievement (I highly recommend seeing this in IMAX; it's not in 3-D, thankfully) with a story that is both derivative but still capable of being smart and entertaining.
I particularly liked the setup. Cruise plays Jack, one of only a few humans who still works on the surface of Earth. According to Jack, most humans live on the Saturn moon Titan, while a few inhabit a space station above the earth, which keeps track of the surface. The future story is that Earth was invaded by alien "Scavs." We managed to drive them out, but the planet was so utterly laid to waste (due in large part to the aliens destroying our moon) that it had to be evacuated. Giant syphons are pulling the earth's water supply off the planet for fuel, and those machines are being guarded by automated drones that are under constant attack from stray aliens that Jack must take out as he makes sure the drones are in good working order.
While Jack heads to the surface every day searching for marauders and fixing drones, his off-world partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) guides him on his mission with instructions from Sally (Melissa Leo), a commanding officer on the space station. Victoria and Jack are, I believe, married or at least paired because they work and live well together in their outer-atmosphere spacious apartment/work environment. But that doesn't stop him from having intense dreams about another woman he keeps seeing himself meeting at the top of what used to be the Empire State Building.
One day, Jack witness a spacecraft crash on Earth, and what he finds are human survivors in suspended animation chambers, but the space station immediately deploys drones to destroy these survivors. Jack is able to save one, a woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko, who is also in TO THE WONDER this week, and was seen in the James Bond film QUANTUM OF SOLACE), who looks strikingly like the woman in Jack's dreams. He takes her with him, but before long, Jack is taken captive by what he believes are the roaming aliens, but are in fact other humans, led by Morgan Freeman's Beech (others in this group include "Game of Thrones" star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and DEATH PROOF's Zoe Bell, who I'm pretty sure never utters a word in OBLIVION).
One of the smart things the film does is not spell out every twist and turns as it's happening. While there is a great deal of dialogue, most of it is uttered in the name of character development. Amen. For example, rather than over explain what is really going on on Earth, Beech sets Jack on a mission to find out for himself, letting the discovery and mind-blowing reality be Jack's secret to uncover.
Directed by Jospeh Kosinski (TRON: LEGACY), OBLIVION is a technical achievement that doesn't forget to allow the humanity of the characters and situation to come the foreground. It's fascinating watching Cruise play a character that is actively worried about doing a good job for his overlords. He's been told his job is done in about two weeks, and he gets to join his fellow humans on Titan. In many ways, the film is about re-acquiring ones humanity. Jack is a proud earthling, who hates the idea of leaving his planet. "We won the war. Why do we have to leave?" he wonders. He's even built a little cabin stocked with found objects from his many surface missions, including stacks of books, clothing, and other memorabilia of what it meant to be an Earth dweller.
Some might think that OBLIVION's final act reaches too much, and maybe it does, but it never really bothered me. The film has a classic b-movie mentality, and if it had been made 40 years ago, Charlton Heston might have played Jack. But Cruise actually dials back the heroics substantially, and the film is better for it. And as she does in TO THE WONDER, Kurylenko really impresses me with her depth. Hell, I believed Tom Cruise's longing for her far more than I did Ben Affleck's in Malick's movie. OBLIVION's flaws are mostly issues of pacing, but the more deliberate flow of the film actually worked to help us understand the world these people live in. I wouldn't call the film the warmest of experiences in recent memory, but I don't need a film to be my best friend; I just need it to compel and provoke, and I think this film does both in small but noticeable doses.