'Oblivion' Review: Spectacular Sci-Fi Leaves Awkward Questions Unanswered

'Oblivion' Review: Spectacular Sci-Fi Leaves Awkward Questions Unanswered

Some of the best science fiction fare has us mulling more questions than answers. It’s why the genre corrals such an enthusiastic fan base, and why its best films like Blade Runner endure.

The nagging questions that arise after watching Tom Cruise’s Oblivion aren’t the sort its filmmakers likely intended. That isn’t a buss of doom for the film, which still offers remarkable visuals, a fiery lead performance and a tasty array of sci-fi themes already touched on by previous genre films. Those stubborn queries simply prevent it from taking its place beside Cruise’s previous sci-fi triumphs, Minority Report and War of the Worlds.

Cruise is Jack Harper, a drone repairman and literally the last man who still calls Earth home. The planet was attacked by an alien race known as the Scavengers, and humanity resorted to nukes in order to beat back their invasion.

That left the Earth an inhospitable realm, and Jack with the solitary assignment of ensuring the planet yields enough energy to power humanity’s new home on one of Saturn’s moons. So Jack must keep a small drone army operational to fend off attacks from the remaing Scavengers while biding his time before he rejoins the human race in space.

Lousy gig, right? Not for Jack, who walks atop once-great cities with a skip in his step and a throwback Yankees hat on his head. He’s got a nostalgic streak, and it helps him pass the time even as flickering memories of an old flame cloud his mission.

Jack’s partner in crime (Andrea Riseborough) serves as both his scout and his lover, and their both overseen by an executive (Melissa Leo) with a sweet as sugah southern drawl.

Not everything is what is seems, and when Jack is confronted by what he thinks is a new Scavenger attack the film’s greater purpose begins to blossom.

Writer/director Joseph Kosinski, whose first film was the intriguing Tron: Legacy, summons a superbly inventive Earth for our consideration. It’s the kind of sumptuous sci-fi that can leave us marveling at every detail even as the story’s twists defy instant comprehension. Combined with a moody score by the French outfit M83, Oblivion takes us to a new reality that feels both fully realized and intriguing to behold. 

Morgan Freeman appears mid-film in a role that can’t be defined without a spoiler or three, but his arrival is one of many story contortions that set off our plot hole sensors.

Cruise’s Jack Harper is hard to define, a task which intensifies as the screenplay lets loose with its true intentions. The actor’s intensity–does Cruise have any other mode?–cuts through the narrative muck, leaving us with a rooting interest in an oasis of frozen emotions. Said chill envelops Olga Kurylenko, playing the mysterious woman who keeps appearing in Jack’s dreams.

Oblivion wraps with an attempt to solve the puzzles in play, and it does so with an eye toward brighter tomorrows. It’s a clumsy coda for a production filled with dizzying vistas, spectacular effects and a story too flexible for its own good.