Film superstar Tom Cruise has made plenty of movies (37 and counting), but his turn as Jack Harper in Oblivion is probably his best work ever. Yes, he did incredible and serious work in films like A Few Good Men and The Last Samurai, and he has shown remarkable good humor in movies like Rock of Ages and Tropic Thunder, but Oblivion provides him an opportunity to give his most nuanced and mature performance yet, with touches of humor but also deep and affecting moments of emotion and passion.
Jack is a lone tech guy (official name Tech 49) on a ravaged earth in the year 2077. We get a back story told in voiceover by Jack about a war against aliens that left the moon destroyed, the earth barely recognizable, and humans winning by using their nuclear arsenal. Now all humans live on Saturn’s moon Titan, and one lone project called Tet remains, sucking up ocean water for humans to use on Titan. Jack’s job is to repair drones that patrol the skies searching for Scavs (Scavengers), the last remaining aliens who are now the only inhabitants of earth.
Jack lives a relatively idyllic life in a raised and secure platform with Victoria (a stunning Andrea Riseborough), who monitors all of Jack’s actions on the planet on a huge computer board while talking to Sally (Melissa Leo), the seemingly omniscient person in charge on Tet. Jack and Victoria have all the amenities, including a swimming pool, and make love and are obviously very close. They are almost done with their mission, and in two weeks Sally has promised them that they will be able to move on to Titan and join the rest of humanity living there.
One problem is that Jack is haunted by dreams, particularly one involving a beautiful woman (Olga Kurylenko) he keeps seeing on the observation deck of The Empire State Building. Supposedly he and Victoria had their memories erased five years before in order to keep them focused on the mission at hand, but Jack is bothered by these intrusions into what he thinks is his life and career.
Things do change considerably when a spaceship, The Odyssey, crashes with human survivors. Although Jack is ordered by Sally not to go to the crash site, he feels compelled to do so and attempts to save the survivors (who are in suspended animation containers). The drones come and kill all the survivors except one that Jack saves, and this happens to be the woman he sees in his dreams.
To complicate matters even further, Jack returns the woman to the platform for medical attention, and Victoria is not pleased with her presence. Setting up the eternal love triangle, Andrea stares at the woman with looks that could definitely kill. We learn the woman’s name is Julia and that she was on a spaceship in 2017 going to Titan but something disrupted the journey. Having been in animation for 60 years, Julia insists on getting the flight recorder from her ship to find out what happened to it.
On a journey to the crash site Jack and Julia are captured by the Scavs who turn out to be humans, led by Beech (Morgan Freeman) and his second in command Sykes (Nicholas Coster-Waldau). Beech tells Jack that everything he thinks and knows is wrong, and Sykes tries to get him to program a captured drone to take a nuclear device up to destroy the Tet. Jack refuses, and they eventually send Julia and him on their way, urging them to go into the off limits Radiation Zone to find the answers that they need to know.
To go further would reveal major spoilers, but let it suffice to say that Jack and Julia have a touching scene on the observation deck of the now mostly buried Empire State Building, jogging Jack’s memory even more. The sight of the iconic building buried in the sand will remind some viewers of the ending of the original The Planet of the Apes, when Charlton Heston’s Taylor finds the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand, but I think that’s the whole point.
Director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy), making only his second film, has chosen to make it an amalgam of films he has probably admired and loved. There are so many nods to classic movies here including the original Apes and Total Recall, as well as Star Wars (the drones are mean versions of R2-D2 and the Scavs look like Sand People), 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Cruise’s own War of the Worlds and Minority Report; furthermore, it is really great to see Cruise in a cockpit again, with some scenes being reminiscent of Top Gun as Jack talks to his bobble-head and swoops his ship through tight spaces in between mountains while dispatching rogue drones.
Besides Kosinski (who also co-wrote the screenplay), huge accolades should go to cinematographer Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi) and Darren Gilford for production design. They bring this damaged world to life in vivid and distinct ways, with Iceland’s stark landscape also lending a hand in the projection of an earth that seems like a foreign planet. Also, the film is greatly enhanced by the score by M.8.3 (Joseph Trapanese and Anthony Gonzalez co-composers) that is haunting and powerfully appropriate.
Overall, Oblivion has an “epic” feel to it, a huge film that starts the summer season a month before the traditional big movies hit the screen. It also has the depth and scope to be a meaningful and memorable addition to the cinematic canon, and for Cruise this is another great role in his career. You shouldn’t go to see this one because it is another Tom Cruise movie but because it is the best Tom Cruise movie to date.
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