Although it has been shortened and transposed over time, a quote attributed to Robert Louis Stevenson goes: “To travel, hopefully, is a better thing than to arrive.” I think of Stevenson’s words during movies such as Tom Cruise’s “Oblivion,” movies where the journey to the ending is so much more satisfying than the ending itself.
The overall setup is familiar to post-apocalyptic science fiction. The hero has a straightforward job. He lives by his mission and understands his world. Movie viewers suspect early on that life as the hero knows it is a deception. Viewers hope that as the answers are revealed, they will be as surprised by the truth as the hero. In at least one instance, “Oblivion” succeeds.
The year is 2077. Sixty years earlier, the Earth was attacked by aliens. The world retaliated with nuclear weapons, which defeated the invaders but left behind a global wasteland.
“We won the war, but lost the planet,” Cruise says in the opening, scene-setting narration.
Cruise’s character, Jack Harper, is one of the few workers remaining on the planet’s surface. The rest of the war’s survivors are orbiting above in a giant spaceship that looks like a sideways pyramid and is called the Tet, which I assume is short for “tetrahedron.”
Jack and his partner, Victoria (British actress Andrea Riseborough), oversee the automated, skyscraper-sized crafts vacuuming up the massive amounts of ocean water necessary for survival on Titan, the Jupiter moon where humankind intends to establish its new home. Jack also maintains robotic battle drones that engage the pockets of remaining alien resistance fighters called Scavs.
Jack identifies himself as Tech 49. It doesn’t occur to him to ask where are – or what happened to – the other 48 techs.
One day Jack sees a spaceship with NASA markings fall to Earth. At the crash site, he recovers a life pod containing a woman (Olga Kurylenko) in suspended animation. The woman’s face astonishes him, for she is the woman who has been appearing in his dreams, dreams set in present-day (to us) New York City.
What could it all mean?
For the first hour or so, while that question lingers, “Oblivion” is an intriguing and eye-boggling science fiction tour de force. “Oblivion” was conceived and directed by Joseph Kosinski, whose only previous feature is “TRON: Legacy.” Whatever else you can say about Kosinski, he is a skilled builder of cinematic worlds. If sheer movie spectacle makes you drool, “Oblivion” is worth seeing in IMAX, which is how I experienced it.
Abetted by cinematographer Claudio Miranda and production designer Darren Gilford, Kosinski imagines a stunning vision of a desolate Earth offset by the stainless steel sheen and glass-smooth technology of Jack’s existence. For a repair crew, Jack and Victoria live in conspicuous luxury, an artistically spare and architecturally improbable penthouse held above the clouds by a spindly tower. Jack flies about in a sleek aircraft that looks suspiciously like a B-wing fighter from “Return of the Jedi.”
Stationed on the Atlantic Seaboard, Jack buzzes past ruins common to post-apocalyptic sagas, a cratered Pentagon and an unidentified stadium where the final Super Bowl was played in 2017. Jack’s duties often bring him to the remains of New York City, where the topography has been radically altered. Only the upper floors of the Empire State Building protrude through the surface, while the ruins of the public library (a Scav base) are beneath a sinkhole, and the Brooklyn Bridge is encased in icebergs. The Statue of Liberty makes a fleeting appearance, as she often does in dystopian futures.
Lady Liberty isn’t the only familiar element. Just about every idea in “Oblivion” comes from another dystopian science fiction movie, from “THX 1138” to “Silent Running” to “Logan’s Run” to Cruise’s own “Minority Report,” and it ends with the mother of all “2001” references.
The clearest inspiration is the most uncomfortable. Unknown to Victoria, Jack has discovered a forest refuge where he has filled a log cabin with mementos of pre-apocalyptic Earth and listens to music from the ’60s. This definitely establishes Jack as a live-action version of Wall-E, with Kurylenko as his Eve, the female who descends from the stars and changes his (and the world’s) destiny.
Steal from “Logan’s Run” and audiences shrug. Steal from a cartoon and they giggle.
While Jack still lives in blissful ignorance, and the script (credited to Karl Gajdusek and Michael DeBruyn and based on Kosinski’s self-published comic book) merely teases the secrets of Jack’s assignment, we can luxuriate in the opulence of Kosinski’s vision. Once the mysteries unravel, so does the story.
If you’ve seen the commercials, you know Morgan Freeman co-stars and you can probably guess the nature of his role. That ought to be a spoiler, but don’t worry, many others remain. Nearly every science-fiction plot twist ever imagined is deployed in “Oblivion” with tactical precision. Most are predictable, but a few are not.
For every question that the script answers, it raises several more questions the filmmakers don’t want to answer, and the story’s plausibility (tenuous from the start) evaporates. “Oblivion” is not as laughable as “Prometheus,” last year’s visually staggering “Alien” prequel, where not a single aspect of the plot made a lick of sense. You can make a case for the logic of “Oblivion,” but it requires accepting several premises that are awfully implausible.
The ending is overlong and disappointing, but for an impressive stretch of time, “Oblivion” is a wonder to behold – with crackerjack action sequences (the airborne equivalent of a “Bourne Identity” car chase) and Cruise in his element as a feisty hero. “Oblivion” collapses, but while it holds together it is undeniably a marvel.
Rated PG-13 for science-fiction action violence, brief strong language and some sexuality and nudity
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes
Who’s in it: Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Morgan Freeman
What it’s about: A maintenance worker (Cruise) left behind to repair robots on a post-apocalyptic Earth sees a spacecraft drop from the sky. He discovers a life pod containing a woman (Kurylenko) who has been in suspended animation for 60 years, and he recognizes her from his dreams.
Verdict: This science-fiction opus comes from the same man, Joseph Kosinski, who directed “TRON: Legacy.” Whatever else you can say about him, Kosinski is a genius at building fantastic worlds for the screen. The production design and special effects are outstanding, creating a chilling dystopian wasteland contrasted by the shining futuristic architecture of Cruise’s existence. Typical of heroes in post-apocalyptic science fiction, Cruise is living a lie. As the truth is revealed to him, the plot becomes more and more implausible as it deploys nearly every plot twist ever used in science fiction. The first hour is amazing to see, though. British actress Andrea Riseborough and Morgan Freeman co-star.