Original science fiction cinema is something of a precious commodity these days. Oh sure, we’ve got comic book movies and the all-consuming Hollywood drive to exploit established franchises. But a self-contained, start-to-finish original science fiction drama with earnest creative and visual ambitions? We haven’t really had one of those since Inception. (Or Serenity, if a spiked television show doesn’t count as a previous franchise.)
I wouldn’t rank Oblivion higher than Christopher Nolan’s dream-traveling romp, but I will say the latter’s strength lay purely in slick Hitchcockian creativity. Oblivion’s ambitions lie higher, in an earnest leap into creative, starlit splendor. We haven’t had much of that in a while, either. And even though Oblivion doesn’t quite get all the way there, it makes a damn fine effort.
It opens in 2077 on Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) a pilot and tech working on the uninhabited, desolate, war-torn remains of Earth. He and his coworker/lover Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) operate out of what can only be described as a post-modern condo in the sky, taking orders from the humans on board the Tet, a massive pyramid in orbit around the Earth. Every day their routine is the same: Victoria sits at the desk in the condo, guiding Jack as he flies around repairing drones and protecting giant fusion reactors that transmit power back to the space-bound human population.
Those reactors are under threat from Scavs – the remnants of an alien army that invaded and wrecked the face of the planet before humanity beat them off, forcing itself to abandon its home world in the process. Victoria is counting down the days until they finish out their contract and join the rest of the species in space, but Jack can’t shake the feeling he shouldn’t be leaving. When he can, he escapes to a rustic cabin he’s constructed by a lake, and nurtures plants he keeps along his route in discarded aluminum cans.
Then Julia (Olga Kurylenko) crash lands nearby in a 60-year old spaceship, bringing a story that forces Jack to reassess everything he thinks he knows about the war, about himself, and whether he is, in fact, there at all.
Writer and director Joseph Kosinski previously gave us Tron: Legacy, and he brings the same visual sensibility here: the plays of light and darkness, and the highly stylized compositions of beautific cosmic geometry. Oblivion also follows up on Tron’s musical sensibility: Daft Punk did the latter’s score, and this time the band M83 provides the music. It’s a thrilling, ethereal mix of the orchestral and the electronic, and one of the best parts of the movie. (Wikipedia informs me the genre is called “electronic dream pop,” which sound about right.)
For Tron, those conceits were a bit much. Yes, we get it, it’s all happening in a computer. But for Oblivion, which is set in a lonely, technologically advanced, highly regimented, but nonetheless very real world, Kosinski’s approach works. It creates a visual and aural experience that’s at once gorgeous, appropriate to the tech-geek thematics, but also allows the story’s humanity room to breathe. The film’s aesthetic pinnacle is a stunning early scene in which Jack and Victoria go for a night swim in a transparently-contained pool that’s literally sitting above the clouds, and M83 pulls out all the stops. The special effects are mostly air-tight, and there’s a wealth of arresting images: deserts littered with battleships, massive alien technological fortresses, a half-destroyed moon, and a canyon where New York City used to be.
The script is well-structured and tight, it doesn’t meander or bore, and it knows that one or two action sequences of high quality go a lot further than a lot of mediocre explosions. It layers on several plot twists that build upon one another into a coherent whole, rather than merely frustrating the audience. The character development isn’t amazing, but Oblivion has some genuinely moving questions bubbling under the surface: it wonders what the anchor for human meaning is in the foundation-less, post-modern maze of the computational world, with its countless bits of information and endless replicability.
On the down side, Oblivion makes a midway storytelling choice that, while it certainly keeps the plot interesting, forces the audience to restart its emotional investments halfway through the film. The filmmakers then stumble by actually delivering the initial investments better than the new ones. (See the aforementioned swimming scene.) There’s also a climactic bait-and-switch that’s fun in a superficial sense, but requires the protagonist to make a “heroic male” choice that’s both clichéd and dilutes Oblivion’s emotional and thematic power.
But these are modest quibbles. The best thing is that underneath all the sophisticated wizardry, and admittedly-enjoyable visual homages to techno-geek dreamscapes, Oblivion’s values are about as old school as they come. It’s about the power of literature and culture, the beauty of the natural world, and the simple devotions of love and friendship. It isn’t explicitly religious, but it clearly believes that humans will not find meaning in our own creative or progressive potential, but in submitting ourselves to far greater and more ancient forces.
Jack has a habit of reciting Macaulay’s lines from Horatius, asking, “And how can a man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his Gods?” When, at the climax, the forces of technological tyranny literally rise up to declare themselves Jack’s god, seeking an idolatrous usurpation of his devotion, his response is a crude, dry, defiant, and gloriously human “Fuck you.”