The year is 2077 and Earth has been attacked by aliens known as Scavs who have blown up the Moon. In retaliation, world leaders decided to release nuclear weapons, defeating the Scavs but effectively destroying much of the planet. Humans have since left for a giant space station known as the Tet and the Saturn moon of Titan, although Technicians remain to oversee mining of the Earth’s remaining resources. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is one such Technician, living with his communications officer and lover Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). However, when Jack is captured by the Scavs, everything he thought he knew is turned upside down.
The scale of Oblivion is vast, and despite an apocalyptic setting, much of the film doesn’t feel beyond the realms of possibility. The scenes based on Earth, which is most of the film, feel real enough to buy into the story, creating a setting that feels alien but at the same time familiar. This is helped by the film’s unbelievable visual effects. There are few individual instances that stand out but the whole minimalist aesthetic is just impeccably realised.
Oblivion is most certainly not short of ambition, but ambition isn’t enough; it needs to be backed up with substance, which is perhaps it’s biggest failing. A handful of scenes have no importance whatsoever (see scene in the swimming pool for an example) and the motivations of the characters are seemingly non-existent. The film’s set pieces, big reveals and final climax feel just a little hollow and don’t hit home as perhaps they should.
The characters and their relationships are also paper-thin, particularly Olga Kurylenko’s Julia, a survivor from a crashed spaceship somehow linked to Jack’s past. Andrea Riseborough does an admirable job with what she’s given, whilst Cruise, well, he just plays Tom Cruise. Morgan Freeman’s role here is also entertaining enough but his very limited screen time gives little room to work in. It could be argued that there’s a narrative reason these characters and relationships don’t feel fully developed, but it only really succeeds at keeping you at arm’s length rather than pulling you in.
Director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) has stated that Oblivion pays homage to the science fiction films of the 1970s, but it’s evident that inspiration has come from films spanning more than just the one decade. You don’t have to look too closely to see nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, Planet of the Apes, Alien, Star Wars, and various others. Some are so blatantly referenced that it’s difficult to know where to draw the line between homage and a simple dearth of originality. However, that’s not to say Oblivion doesn’t have at least some identity of its own. Its setting feels unique enough to work well, even if some of the aspects within it do not.
Oblivion feels like somewhat of a missed opportunity; there was the potential here to create something dark and mysterious rather than something that feels slightly ‘Disneyfied’. However, it’s a little unfair to judge it on what it could have been rather than what it is, which is a solid sci-fi film that doesn’t have anything that truly spoils it, but equally nothing that truly makes it stand out. It could easily have been a great, memorable sci-fi adventure. Conversely, it could just as easily have been just a generic vehicle for Cruise. As it stands, Oblivion sits somewhere in between.