A funny thing happened on the way to Avatar. While we were learning to craft the dazzling digital landscapes and go-for-broke action sequences that define modern big-budget science-fiction movies, we forgot how to write them. In spite of the occasional Matrix or Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Hollywood has mostly been content to crank out space fantasies, leaving the business of real sci-fi to the indie crowd.
True science fiction, in my mind, is less about aliens than it is about us, and it's just as concerned with the past as the future. Sci-fi, as much as horror, is about our fears—no one wants to watch a movie where everything is fine and nothing bad happens to anybody. The genre's best films—Blade Runner, Alien, 2001 and so on—don't just imagine our future, or the farthest reaches of the universe; they try to figure out what our place there might be, and the answer usually isn't "on top."
Oblivion, then, is just as interesting for what it might mean for sci-fi fans as for what it actually is. It gives us everything we'd expect from a movie that comes with a reported $100 million price tag, but it's also a throwback to the thoughtful science fiction of the 1960s and '70s. It asks some pretty bold questions about where we are now, where we're headed, and the nature of that troublesome thing we call a soul. Its answer is to shrug, shuffle its feet and mumble something that we can't quite make out, but at least it bothers to ask.
Anyone versed in the language of sci-fi flicks will find few surprises in Oblivion's setup. Sixty years from now, Earth has been attacked by aliens known as Scavengers, who began their assault by blowing up our moon. We repelled the invasion, star Tom Cruise tells us in a lengthy preamble, but ruined the planet in the process. The remnants of humanity are being ushered off to Saturn's largest moon, where they'll start over.
Cruise stars as Jack Harper, a futuristic mechanic better known as Tech-49. Along with his partner, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), Jack must protect the giant hydro-somethings that suck up seawater on Earth and use it to generate power for the new colony. Defending the generators from roving bands of aliens is a job mostly handled by the deadly drones that patrol the decimated planet, but someone's got to keep the drones in working order. Jack and Victoria, who share more than a working relationship, are nearing the end of their tour of duty, and will soon be joining their fellow humans on Titan.
Victoria can't wait, but Jack doesn't want to go. Though he was born after the world was lost, he feels like Earth is his true home. He longs for an era he can't possibly remember—a time of Super Bowls and baseball caps and warped, scratchy vinyl. He and Victoria have undergone memory wipes so they won't spill any vital info if they're captured by aliens, but Jack is remembering things that happened years before he was born.
If it all sounds like a rehash of the sci-fi greats that preceded it, well, it is. Oblivion has a deeply synthetic feel that it rarely shakes. It's a distillation of elements from 2001, Total Recall, Planet of the Apes, and even WALL-E, among others. It takes the film a long time to find its own narrative voice, but even though its component elements are familiar, it strings them together in a way that is frequently engrossing and never less than entertaining.
Visually, Oblivion is an unmitigated success. Director Joseph Kosinski reteams with Claudio Miranda, the cinematographer who shot the filmmaker's disappointing but gorgeous first feature, Tron: Legacy (and who deserved a co-director credit for his work on Life of Pi.) Miranda's photography, coupled with fellow Legacy vet Darren Gilford's retro-futuristic production design, makes for a stunning experience; I popped for IMAX and stopped fretting about the upcharge after the film's opening scenes. The sweeping landscapes, shot from the skies above Iceland, are just as thrilling as the cleanly staged, seat-rumbling action sequences; this is, without a doubt, the most elegant apocalypse we've seen in ages, and it's all set to a terrific electronic score by M83 that, once again, recalls the futuristic epics of times gone by.
Oblivion is at its most interesting, if not its most exciting, when it abandons chases and shoot-outs in favor of chin-stroking ruminations on identity and memory, both personal and cultural. It doesn't quite have the narrative chops to fulfill its heady promises, but it deserves credit for aiming high, even if it falls short. It's a movie that exists at a sort of crossroads, and it clearly points us in the right direction: back the way we came.