Caution: Review may contain mild spoilers.
Jack Harper has a lonely job. He is one half of the “mop-up crew,” the last two humans on Earth after an apocalyptic war wiped out the planet. His partner Vicca is also his lover, more by default than choice. They make an effective team, working to clean up the last of the “scavs” — the aliens the humans defeated — before they can join the rest of humanity on Titan. Or at least that’s what they remember after having their memories wiped so that they can focus on their mission. But with just two weeks left before their mission ends, Jack starts getting more and more attached to Earth — and suddenly, a blast from the past triggers a chain of events that has him questioning everything.
Good science fiction, especially futuristic sci-fi, uses the trappings of technology and dislocation to tell stories about humanity. Oblivion meets that challenge, as Jack (Tom Cruise) ends up questioning not just his world but also his own uniqueness in it. The cold sexual relationship between Jack and Vicca (Andrea Risenborough) is almost as antiseptic and emotionless as the glass-and-metal chalet in which they live. It’s only when Jack runs across a book while fighting off what he thinks are aliens, and then has a chance to rescue a woman who often appears in his dreams (Olga Kurlyenko), that Jack’s humanity begins to emerge from his drone-like existence as a drone repairman. Eventually, Jack’s humanity can only be rescued when he gets in contact with other human beings, even if Jack himself may not be as authentic as they are.
Oblivion telegraphs a few of its punches; the backstory Jack tells in narration doesn’t seem to make too much sense right off the bat, and all of Oblivion’s trailers give away part of the game. The music seems rather intrusive and overdone in the beginning, and distracting where a lighter touch would have worked much better. (One pool scene in particular has background music that prompts one to expect a heroic army to march in for a quick swim.) However, these are minor issues. The action is genuinely suspenseful, the movie has a few surprises up its sleeve, and it holds all of your attention throughout — although the epilogue is far too neat and cheery.
The cast delivers well enough to stay out of the way of the story, the effects, and the cinematography. Riseborough gives a particularly subtle performance, while Morgan Freeman gets to play Morgan Freeman. Cruise has to carry most of the load, though, and this role fits right into his wheelhouse. Mostly, though, Oblivion works because of the script and the intriguing look into what it means to be fully human. This is much more than a popcorn movie or action flick, and it mostly delivers.
Given all the shooting and the few occasions of nudity and sexuality (mostly bare posteriors and clinches in the pool and shower), I’m a little surprised that this got only a PG-13 rating. I’d be cautious taking anyone younger than teen years to see this film, and even then, it’s pretty intense.
Update: Raging Conservative proposed this rating system:
— Raging Conservative (@RagCon) May 11, 2013
On that basis, I’d say this is at least a 2, and perhaps a 1 if you like sci-fi.
Update: RagCon proposed his initial system because it puts the critic on the spot to relate the review to the value of the money being spent by the moviegoer. Let’s use a modified version of this system from now on:
- 5 – Full price ticket
- 4 – Matinee only
- 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
- 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
- 1 – Avoid at all costs
Using this scale, let’s give Oblivion a solid 4, perhaps a little higher for sci-fi fans. It’s worth seeing in the theater.
Update: I’m not surprised to see others with a similar rating approach. DirkFlix uses a seven-step process based on cash investment in viewing the film. I especially like this explanation of the worst of the scale: “People have lived full, productive lives without seeing Van Helsing, or as I call it, “Van Hellsuck.” Be like them.” Not bad advice, although I would have given Van Helsing a 2 on the scale I’ve adapted.
Update: Daniel Reyes in the comments says that this is basically Moon with Sam Rockwell. Both films have some elements in common, but the plots are different. However, Moon is definitely superior, and a must-see.