OK, so it’s 2077, and Earth is not the place to be. Things got really bad here in 2017. Aliens showed up. No, not the secure-the-borders kind, the secure-the-skies kind. People called them the Scavengers. Humans won the ensuing war, but at great cost. The moon was destroyed, as was much of the Earth. The human race now lives on a moon of Saturn.
One of the few people left on the planet is Jack Harper. Maybe “above” would be a better word than “on.” He’s stationed with his lover/communications officer, Victoria, in a slick, sleek command post atop a tower thousands of feet in the air. “We’re the mop-up crew,” Jack says. He goes down below on patrol, keeping an eye on the remaining Scavs and overseeing the extraction of water and other resources from the now largely ravaged Earth. How ravaged? It looks a lot like the planet in “Prometheus,” which makes sense, since Iceland is where both movies did a lot of their exteriors.
That’s the basic plot situation. Really, though, all you need to know is that Tom Cruise plays Jack Harper. He rides a motorcycle. He shoots fancy-looking guns. He never gets fazed, though he does get conked on the head. That’s the kind of guy Jack Harper is. Last winter, Cruise played the title role in “Jack Reacher.” What is it with the Jacks? His agent must have had some explaining to do when Cruise didn’t get the lead in “Jack the Giant Slayer.”
“Oblivion” is a lot like its star: clean, cold, efficient, increasingly overblown, and not a little inexplicable. It’s based on a graphic novel by Joseph Kosinski, the film’s director. Kosinski’s previous movie was “Tron: Legacy.” He plainly likes repurposing older movies. At times, “Oblivion” looks a lot like “WALL-E” (which makes Cruise the robot?). There are bits of “Planet of the Apes,” “2001,” the “Matrix” movies (Morgan Freeman, as chief Scav, resembles a cross between Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus and Bill Russell), “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” the Death Star in “Star Wars,” and, I’m not making this up, “Sleepless in Seattle.”
Andrea Riseborough plays Victoria. Sitting up in the tower, she uses her hands to move the images on a big computer screen just like Cruise in “Minority Report.” Did he teach her? That’s about the only thing they have in common. With her blank, lugubrious face, Riseborough’s an odd match for Cruise’s wolfish avidity.
When Olga Kurylenko’s spaceship crashes, and Cruise goes to the rescue, the match seems just as odd. Is there another actress today whose eyes are so empty and lips so full? It’s a big month for Kurylenko. She’s starring in Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder,” too. She doesn’t get to say much in that movie, and this one she doesn’t want to say much — at least not at first. She’s mum about the ship’s mission or why she is so desperate to retrieve its flight recorder.
Once we find out, it’s major switcheroo time, plot-wise. This gives Cruise the chance to struggle with himself onscreen as he never has before. It also provides Kosinski with a big action sequence and climactic confrontation. He handles both somewhat confusingly. Good with openness and wide vistas, he’s challenged when put in tight places, whether spatial or narrative.
Any science fiction movie worth its space suit (Cruise’s is silvery-white and, happily, bulletproof) will offer at least some commentary, however glancing, on the present. In “Oblivion,” this comes courtesy of the ubiquity of drones. They resemble angry-looking, white, weaponized versions of Pacman. These drones have a clunkiness that’s pretty consistent with the other bits of technology in “Oblivion.” Cruise’s motorcycle, for example, looks like something from a yard sale compared to Anne Hathaway’s in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Darren Gilford’s production design is not “Oblivion” at its best.
Instead, that would be whenever Melissa Leo’s no-nonsense image wavers on Cruise’s or Riseborough’s computer screen. She’s like Jack Nicholson showing up on the TV monitor in “Broadcast News,” except Leo’s a lot tougher. Forget Riseborough or Kurylenko. Here’s a woman who’s a match for Cruise. She’s mission control on the space station that’s their home base. The station is called Tet. For anyone over 50 (admittedly, not the target demographic), that’s even more bewildering than that “Sleepless in Seattle” connection. As its title might suggest, remembering and forgetting are important elements in “Oblivion,” as is history generally. In how many other movies has Lord Macaulay’s “Lays of Ancient Rome” been a plot point? But sometimes “Oblivion” can be pretty oblivious.