There are so many potential plays on words to be made in reviewing “Oblivion” that it’s just not fair: I shall abstain. Suffice it to say that, while the movie has its attractions, it remains a gorgeous muddle. Starring Tom Cruise in an all-too-familiar role, this sci-fi thriller will remind fans of the genre of several others, including “Star Wars,” “The Matrix,” “Planet of the Apes,” and “Alien.”
Aliens, in fact, figure largely here, if not quite in the ways they seem to. At the opening, in 2077, the world has been rendered all but uninhabitable by an invasion of beings from another world. They destroyed the moon, which led to the destruction of Earth. Much of the planet has been left radioactive in the war, which the humans purportedly “won,” if you can call it a victory when your home has been trashed, forcing you to evacuate the survivors to one of Saturn’s moons.
All that’s left are some giant machines sucking out the sea water for use on the new home, some drones that protect the machines, and a maintenance crew to repair the drones. Oh, and some “scavengers” or scavs, aliens scrounging parts and making a nuisance of themselves. One of the crews, consisting of repairman/soldier “Tech 49” Jack Harper (Cruise) and his live-in lover/communications officer, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), has just two weeks left on their “mop-up” assignment. They proudly tell their boss, Sally (Melissa Leo), that they are an “efficient team.”
Thing is, Jack has been having flashbacks or dreams, which include a young woman (Olga Kurylenko) and what looks like the observation deck of the Empire State Building, which he knows is in ruins. And at least ten of the plutonium-rich fuel cells of the drones are missing. Worse yet, he misses the old Earth so much that he has a secret, souvenir-filled pastoral hideaway in the mountains that he disappears to every so often and regrets having to leave behind.
Things begin to fall apart — in both Jack’s life and the movie — when he gets in a firefight with some scavs in the ruins of the New York Public Library. He opines to Victoria that they were not trying to kill but to capture him. Shortly thereafter, they succeed in doing just that, along with the girl of his dreams, though it wouldn’t be fair to say just why she’s there. Indeed, given director/screenwriter Joseph Kosinski’s script, developed from his own graphic novel, not very much is clear after the first hour or so.
Kosinski, cinematographer Claudio Miranda — an Oscar winner for the stunning “Life of Pi” — and a small army of graphic artists have produced some great eye candy. Until it gets wearisome and overdone, the original score by Anthony Gonzalez, M.8.3, and Joseph Trapanese adds to the sensual experience. The film badly needs editing, however: even the action sequences take too long to develop and feel derivative, rather than inventive.
The audience gets lost in the various twists and time jumps in the last half-hour. (I heard one departing fellow viewer tell an usher that it was “different,” the kiss of death here in the Upper Midwest.) Cruise fans will doubtless like “Oblivion,” which is rated “PG-13” mostly for language and sci-fi violence. Teenagers and video game players will find something to enjoy, too. Others might well wish to remain (sorry, I couldn’t resist) oblivious.