Based on the marketing materials, one could be forgiven for assuming that Oblivion was perhaps John Carter without the camp, the latest in a long line of bloated, CGI-heavy sci-fi actioners which emphasize style over substance. How refreshing to learn then that it’s actually an intelligent, engaging picture, replete with impressive visuals and a vibrant score.

In 2077, a force of alien invaders attacked Earth, destroying the moon in the process. Though humans ultimately emerged victorious in the war, the moon’s destruction has rendered Earth uninhabitable (reminding us that tides are caused, in part, by the moon’s gravitational forces). The survivors have migrated to Titan — a moon of Saturn — but some of Earth’s natural resources are still of considerable use, particularly ocean water. Extracted by giant, floating vacuums, it’s processed into energy, then stored and transported to Titan. There’s a problem, though, in that the surviving, abandoned alien force on Earth — known as scavengers, or “scavs” — frequently seek to sabotage and destroy both the mammoth water-extractors and the armed drones that protect them.

Tom Cruise stars as Jack Harper, a technician tasked with the maintenance and repair of the drones as well as general security oversight. He’s joined in his efforts by his communications officer, Victoria Olsen (Andrea Riseborough). Living on a platform high above the clouds, the two represent the only human presence remaining on Earth and take their orders from their commanding officer, Sally (Melissa Leo), who’s stationed on the Tet, a colossal, tetrahedral space station. After some early establishing scenes, in which Cruise is shown to a) be part of an “effective team” with Riseborough and b) possess a certain sense of nostalgia for pre-war New York, he’s captured by a group of scavs. This particular band turns out to be human, and Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones) are chief among their ranks. Further plot details I will not reveal, but it’s safe to say that (in true sci-fi fashion) both we and Cruise start to learn that things are perhaps not what they seem.

Writer-director Joseph Kosinski, who also helmed 2010’s vastly underrated TRON: Legacy, adapted Oblivion from his unpublished graphic novel of the same name. While it’d be hard to argue that he breaks any new ground here, Kosinski does manage to effectively combine thematic and plot elements from a number of successful sci-fi predecessors, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running and Moon. The narrative is not quite as intricate nor as mind-bending as that trio, but judged against that high standard, it certainly doesn’t have to be to remain wholly entertaining.

Credit is certainly due to both Eric Barba’s visual effects team and cinematographer Claudio Miranda for creating strikingly beautiful CGI landscapes of a desolate Earth. Often in CGI-heavy movies, it’s fairly easy to identify the scenes in which actors are performing against green screens, either due to blurring movement of the actors’ “silhouettes” or the giveaway nature of the artificial backdrops. To be sure, technological advances over the years have made this process more seamless, but I don’t recall having seen such realistically convincing backgrounds. Bird’s-eye views of transitional scenes in which Cruise whizzes around the former New York City metropolitan area in his sleek aircraft are nearly worth the price of admission alone.

Kosinski notably commissioned Daft Punk to score TRON: Legacy to great effect, and he likewise does so here with the French group M83, opting to have their brand of electronica propel the action forward. Though their work here isn’t quite as memorable as Daft Punk’s, it’s nonetheless a great fit, appropriately complementing Oblivion’s futuristic tone and pacing.

The role of Jack Harper in many ways represents a reprisal of sorts for Cruise of Minority Report’s John Anderton. Both characters hold positions of authority in futuristic settings. After forces beyond their control are set against them, they come to question the nature of their lives and become active actors in shaping their fates. Though his relative dearth of roles in smaller art films might suggest Cruise isn’t interested in challenging himself, his actual performances suggest otherwise. He never mails in a role and even at age 50, proves a thoroughly viable and engaging action star.


Riseborough, heretofore more familiar to audiences across the pond for her work in British cinema, ably serves as Cruise’s co-star. As his boss, she must balance her love and loyalty toward him with her professional responsibilities. Particularly noteworthy are the scenes in which she communicates with a menacingly pleasant Melissa Leo via video chat — watch out for the conflict playing itself out in Riseborough’s eyes. Though Morgan Freeman is receiving top billing in some quarters, his screen time is fairly minimal. After several years of obscurity following her leading roles in 2008’s Quantum of Solace and Max Payne, Olga Kurylenko has returned in 2013 with performances in back-to-back weeks following her emotional turn in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. As the mysterious Russian Julia Rusakova, her performance here is a little too one-note and doesn’t do enough to make her character come to life.

Despite its minor shortcomings, Oblivion is a successful example of properly leveraging a big studio budget to make typically niche fare accessible to a wider audience. Kosinski has now proven he can make polished, well-crafted and entertaining science fiction. Would that more of his colleagues could do the same.