Oblivion – Film Review

Highly derivative but decent sci-fi with the always-watchable Tom Cruise, Oblivion delivers on visuals if not on originality or characters.

It helps to watch a movie with your expectations lowered. From memory the reception to this 2013 sci-fi actioner didn’t rise above tepid, but it was more entertaining than I anticipated – even if a lot of entertainment came from compiling a mental list of other movies Oblivion steals from: Matrix, Planet of the Apes, Wall-E, Total Recall just to name a few.

The year is 2077, decades after an alien invasion and catastrophically destructive victory won by humans rendered Earth mostly uninhabitable. The survivors have since relocated to Titan, one of the moons of Saturn, leaving only a handful of people monitoring the home planet. One of them is Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), a tough soldier/technician who is tasked with servicing the robot drones that defend the massive energy generators from the attacks by “scavs”, the remaining extraterrestrials.

Jack lives in a super-sleek penthouse-like tower with his communications officer and romantic partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who, despite working from home, always sports an impossibly immaculate ponytail, make-up and high heels. She reports daily to their boss Sally (Melissa Leo), whose extreme and almost robotic cheerfulness is maybe the first sign that something is off about this whole setup. In order to protect the mission in the event of capture by the scavs, Jack and Victoria’s memories have been wiped, however Jack is still haunted by the inexplicable black-and-white memories of a beautiful woman in New York before the war. Without going into spoilers, it’s not the only thing that Jack keeps secret from strictly-by-the-book Victoria.

Oblivion takes its time setting up the post-apocalyptic world and Jack and Victoria’s daily routine. With the film shot in Iceland, the desolate images of ruin look strangely beautiful and arresting, with nothing much left but the haunting remains of New York’s most famous landmarks (no Statue of Liberty though, which the filmmakers must have thought was too on the nose). The story kicks in when, one day, Jack witnesses a decades-old spacecraft crashing in the wastelands and rescues the lone survivor – a Russian astronaut (Olga Kurylenko) who looks exactly like the woman in his visions. It goes without saying that a whole load of secrets concerning Jack, Victoria and the true nature of their mission are unearthed.

After the effective setup of the first half, the story unfortunately turns into a mere mish-mash of ideas from other better sci-fi films; it’s perfectly fine to have influences and references but Oblivion doesn’t rise above them to offer something of its own. Though I’m not the type of viewer to gleefully point at plot holes, some of the movie’s developments are rather hard to swallow, and despite the weighty themes of identity and individuality, it’s less interested in its human characters than it is in visuals and future technologies. Tom Cruise does his best to lend his movie star charisma to a sketchy generic lead, and there’s not much for the two main ladies to do, even if I enjoyed Andrea Riseborough’s performance as controlled yet brittle Victoria as much as I did her memorable turn in Mandy.

Overall, despite its serious flaws, there are definitely worse ways to satisfy your sci-fi cravings than Oblivion.

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