2013's Oblivion is one that I think a lot of people unfortunately skipped when it was released, and that's a real shame. It initially received a luke-warm critical response, and while I suppose I can see some of the problems pointed out by critics during that time, the good in this film far outweighs its flaws, and it certainly deserves higher praise than it received.
Oblivion follows Tom Cruise's Jack Harper, Tech 49, a drone repairman in the year 2077, after a massive war between mankind and an invading alien species known only as "The Scavs." As Jack himself says, we won the war, but lost the planet. In our desperation, we turned to nuclear weapons to defeat our enemies, but in so doing, we made most of the surface of the planet uninhabitable due to radiation fallout. Jack and his supporting comm-officer/partner Vika are tasked with repairing the legion of drones in their sector, which in turn protect the massive machines that are converting our oceans' seawater into energy for humanity's journey to its new home Titan, one of Saturn's moons, aboard a colossal space station called the Tet.
That's the setup. What unfolds is a solid and respectable science fiction tale that some have called a thinly-plotted grab-bag of sci-fi concepts, but I call a film that takes joy in the telling, a story that revels in the tropes of its sci-fi lineage, and does so in such a well-executed manner that I couldn't help but love it.
Director Joseph Kosinski is a guy I've had my eye on since he directed Tron: Legacy (another movie that got critically panned that I very much enjoyed). And he really steps up his game for Oblivion.
There is so much about this film to love. The clean and sleek design of the tech and environments is top-notch. And the sweeping vistas of a by-gone earth that Kosinski puts on screen are beautiful to behold, even amidst the desolation. It's an empty world, a world returned largely to its natural state, and the relics of man pepper the landscape like exactly what they are: ruins of a civilization long past.
But one of the best things about Oblivion is the absolutely stellar score/soundtrack by M83. Filled with stirring strings and understated synth percussion, the music acts as a perfect compliment to the visuals, and goes a long way in selling this story to the audience.
And on a personal note, I love it when a film uses an excerpt of poetry to act as the crux of the theme or tone. Skyfall did it. Interstellar did it. And Oblivion does it with a favorite of mine, a few lines from the Lays of Ancient Rome.
Which leads us to Jack Harper. Say what you will about Tom Cruise, but there's a reason he's one of the biggest movie-stars in the world. The guy is watchable. And in my opinion, Cruise is at his best when he's playing the guy-next-door, the everyman, the regular dude. And there's a lot of the everyman in Jack Harper. He's a glorified blue-collar wrench-jockey, a guy who reminisces about old football games, a man very much in love with the idea of the earth that once was. But perhaps he is more than he seems.
The other two leads are a sharp contrast. Andrea Riseborough gives a compelling performance as the hopeful and perhaps naive Vika. Her whole-hearted belief in the mission and the tireless work she puts in to earn her place on the ship to Titan are often at odds with Jack's romantic sensibilities of Earth.
Then there's the second female lead of Olga Kurylenko. I won't say too much more about her character for the sake of avoiding spoilers, but she is one example I can agree with when it comes to the thinness of the script. Kurylenko's character is the one we are supposed to care about the most, but we are given much more context for Vika and her arc, and in the end, Vika is a vastly better character. One gets the sense that they needed a pretty face to fill a spot, and Kurylenko fit the bill. The character is poorly developed and boringly acted, and certainly the weakest part of the movie.
Despite its flaws, Oblivion really does add up to something better than its pieces, something greater than the sum of its parts. It's in many ways a simple story, wrapped in high-concept sci-fi tropes. The film doesn't do anything groundbreaking, but most things it does, it does really well. It doesn't pack the same philosophical maturity and weight of an Arrival or an Interstellar, but it certainly resonates emotionally. It boasts beautiful imagery, sleek design, an amazing score, and one of the best final-battle one-liners in the genre. Oblivion is a movie that knows what it is and what it's about, and doesn't try to be something it's not.
If you missed Oblivion when it was released, do yourself a favor and give this one a watch. It really is a gem that got pushed to the back of the drawer, and one of the more solid sci-fi adventures this decade. As hard as original sci-fi movies are to get made these days, I'm really glad we got this one.