Oblivion is familiar territory, both for Cruise and for the science fiction genre. It unquestionably remains devoted first and foremost to delivering stylish visuals and gorgeous imagery, yet unlike Tron: Legacy’s emptiness, second-time feature director Joseph Kosinski laces the world he’s built with ideas. Granted, we’ve seen these ideas elsewhere, but in an era so hellbent on catering an absence of actual philosophy in its biggest budget studio fare, I found myself grateful that Oblivion didn’t merely find inspiration in plot points from better sci-fi stories, but also in their themes. While many moments will likely provide deja vu, I didn’t find the film derivative in a negative sense, but in a literal sense: the word derive comes from the Latin derivare, to draw off, as if from a stream. Oblivion draws its samples from the best sources available– in a film whose first frame is a memory, it uses its familiarity to us to its advantage. It’s like making a sandwich the way your mom used to make them, achieving sense memory of past pleasures. For a film set in the future and chock to the brim with special effects, it’s surprisingly old-fashioned.
Jack (Tom Cruise) is the Wall-E of 2077. When invaders destroy our moon– an impressively gorgeous effect, always immaculately framed in the background of nighttime sequences– Earth is effectively ruined, thanks to tsunamis and earthquakes. Humanity successfully wins the war against the invaders, but Earth is no longer habitable. Luckily, we find a safe home away from home in Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. Traveling to Titan takes energy, so we develop a means of converting our ocean water into energy. Some invaders remaining on Earth attempting to disrupt this process, so a huge space station called the Tet controls a hefty number of drones which patrol the Earth hunting down our opponents who mean us harm. Jack and his lover Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are stationed high above Earth to serve as repairmen for the drones. Yet since Jack experiences memories from sixty years ago, memories he couldn’t possibly have, we know from the beginning that this idyllic simplistic life he leads contains secrets stashed below the surface.
It’s impossible to delve into the particulars of the story without spoiling what unfolds, but as the posters reveal, Morgan Freeman shows up, given the type of outstanding entrance shot that is destined to be at the top of his Lifetime Achievement Oscar montage one day. In his first film, Kosinski showed a gift for creating impressive pictures that aspire to be iconic– here, he improves upon his initial efforts, using his images to flesh out the characters and tell the story in a way he didn’t seem to fully comprehend last time at bat. The best shots are stored in the brain more effectively this time around: Freeman’s entrance, a memory of the Empire State Building, a nude swim in a glass pool, a descent into a spooky old library, and a certain fight sequence that pits Cruise against an enemy unlike any he’s faced before. The action is wittily staged, the energy remains high, and the visuals never lose their luster. Those hoping for deeper commentary through the genre will find a message on the dangers of reliance upon drones, and while it’s certainly far from new, it feels especially timely at this particular date.
Then there’s Cruise. Tom Cruise simply will not go away. Even as he crosses 50, he remains astonishingly ageless, refusing to bow out or let the nay-saying harpies in the media affect the quality of his work. No matter how jam-packed his films are with gunfire, explosions, and CGI, the most special effect of all remains Cruise himself. His success comes from our never-ending awareness that’s he actually driving that motorcycle, he’s actually leaping from that building, he’s actually suspended thousands of feet in the air. I can’t think of another action hero who runs like Cruise does: someday, there should be a video of him running in the Smithsonian. Perhaps he plays the role of Man On The Run so well because he lives it, as he runs from the tabloids, the critics of his personal life, and perhaps the most frightening adversary of all, old age. In Oblivion, he continues doing what he knows he does best. There’s a sequence in Oblivion where he pines for a simpler time, living away from technology, playing sports outside and listening to old records. This gets to the heart of what works about Oblivion and nearly all Tom Cruise films: technology may improve, but it will never fully eclipse tried-and-true man-on-the-run storytelling. Especially if that man is Tom Cruise. Literally running.