One can pick apart “Oblivion” for its liberal pilfering of science-fiction tales and tropes — or sit back and enjoy how cleverly director Joseph Kosinski builds those spare parts into a fast, exhilarating and sometimes smart thrill ride.
It’s 2077, we’re told, and Earth is a wasteland. As our hero, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), informs us in the opening voiceover, alien invaders called The Scavengers attacked the Earth, and humans fought back with nuclear weapons — driving away the Scavs but leaving Earth uninhabitable. The surviving humans have relocated to a terraformed new home on Titan, Saturn’s moon, except for a few good soldiers, like Jack, left behind to maintain the robot drones that patrol the planet.
Jack and his mission partner/lover, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), spend their days monitoring drones and dodging rogue Scavs, with Jack in the field and Victoria watching the screens back at their home base — with their only contact a Mission Control official, Sally (Melissa Leo), on a space station called Tet. Jack and Victoria hold onto the hope that their mission is nearly over, and they will soon go to live on Titan.
But Jack harbors a fondness for Earth, having found a secret safe haven by a lake where he collects trinkets he finds in the field. He also keeps from Victoria his dreams, which include a recurring vision of meeting a beautiful woman (Olga Kurylenko) at the Empire State Building.
On a patrol one day, Jack sees a spaceship crash-land nearby. Disobeying Sally’s orders, he investigates and finds the wreckage of a NASA ship — whose survivors include the woman from his dreams. It’s the first of many discoveries that prove to Jack that things are not as he believes them to be. (One discovery the movie’s ads have already given away: Morgan Freeman is tied up in all this somewhere.)
Kosinski (“Tron: Legacy”), who wrote the story for the graphic novel on which the script (by Karl Gajdusek and Michael deBruyn) is based, cribs generously from a wide array of science fiction — from “2001” and “The Matrix” to “Star Wars” and “The Road Warrior.” He adds a stunning visual panache, ranging from the airy all-glass perch where Jack and Victoria live to the cobbled-together wilderness of the Earth below. And he springs some sharp surprises throughout the plot, twists that urge you not to divulge to friends who haven’t seen it yet.
Once the truth is revealed, “Oblivion” does fall into the unfortunate habit of repeating things until everyone in the audience catches up. But that’s a minor quibble for an action drama that has something on its mind other than just getting to the next explosion.
In this sharp action movie, Tom Cruise labors on a post-apocalyptic Earth that isn’t what he thinks.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens today.
Rating • PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, brief strong language, and some sensuality/nudity.
Running time • 126 minutes.