The Empty Thrill of 'Oblivion'

Tom Cruise stars in a mildly satisfying sci-fi epic that thinks it's smarter than it is.

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The year is 2077, and weaponized drones zip along the Earth's decimated surface, hunting shadowy, cave-dwelling insurgents. Human technicians on the ground tend to the machines but don't control them; instead, a command center in space instructs where to go and who to kill.

The set-up for the first great, big-budget film about the moral implications of drone warfare? Ha, no. Joseph Kosinski's Oblivion is solely about how good Tom Cruise looks in sunglasses, how awesomely M83's music pairs with CGI cloudscapes, and how fun it can be to recreate the most vivid moments of sci-fi movie history. In other word, it's a movie of appearances—including, maybe more than anything else, the appearance of grappling with something bigger than itself.

The premise seems weighty enough. Earth, we're told in voiceover, has been attacked by aliens called "Scavs," who blew up the moon and lured humanity into nuclear warfare. Mankind prevailed at the cost of the globe's habitability, so civilization headed skyward, leaving behind a skeleton crew to maintain giant water harvesters—as well as drones to fight off the few surviving Scavs. Cruise plays Jack Harper, a maintenance guy who got his memory wiped but retains a hokey, Cruise-ian patriotism. Early on, in perhaps the film's most awful scene, he stands in the ruins of football stadium and over-revently narrates the Big Game that happened there 70 years earlier so that it sounds like every big game before it: "Seconds left on the clock... the QB throws a hail mary... Touchdown!."

The opening stretch—during which Jack and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) investigate downed bots, Skype with their suspiciously smiley boss (Melissa Leo, communicating a lot with her body language though only ever shown from the shoulders up), and have sex in a glass-bottom swimming pool above the clouds—is slow but intriguing in the way it seems to be setting the stage for a mystery. Eventually, Jack finds himself face to face with a cigar-chomping stranger played by Morgan Freeman, and then, well, the movie really begins.

Or so it would like you to think. Oblivion presents itself as the kind of film that's vulnerable to spoilers, serving up some unforeseen revelation or twist every half hour or so. But its whats, hows, and whys just aren't that interesting. Tropes like rebellion, surveillance, cloning, identity, loyalty, and repressed memories pop up, but the movie never really asks you to think about them. All it asks is that you believe that love persists and good beats evil—stock themes for what, boiled down, is a stock storyline of a dude finding himself, rescuing a girl, and saving humanity.

That's fine, though. Forget its pretensions of mind-blowingness, overlook its dumber plot points and dialogue, and Oblivion makes for a fairly entertaining action epic. Kosinski, who wrote the graphic novel upon which the film is based, makes everything feel significant by piling on gorgeous visuals and M83's cartoonishly powerful score. And when he swipes from better sci-fi movies, as he so often does, he swipes well. One aircraft dogfight, for example, feels ported in from the original Star Wars trilogy—and actually approaches some of Lucas's X-Wing/Tie Fighter chases for thrill factor. So there are plenty of fun scenes here; I'll just never think about them again.

Well, one element might stick in my nightmares: the drones. Though there are aspects of better movies in their DNA as well, they're the freshest thing about Oblivion and scary in their own right. Their X-shaped "faces" are scrunched and pug-like. They dart around menacingly like wasps. Quickly, we learn to fear the firepower contained in the smooth orbs of their exteriors. If only anything else in Oblivion had as much going on below the surface.