‘We won the war but lost the planet,’ declares Tom Cruise’s ex-soldier Jack Harper in voice-over at the start of epic sci-fi adventure Oblivion, introducing us to the post-apocalyptic Earth of 2077.
The war was fought with invading aliens and in its aftermath Jack’s fellow human survivors have been evacuated from our blasted, irradiated planet to a spaceship preparing to leave for one of Saturn’s moons. In two weeks’ time he and navigator partner Victoria, ‘Vika’ (Andrea Riseborough), will join them. For now, they’re the mop-up crew. Jack’s job is to maintain and repair the hi-tech drones that patrol the skies, while Victoria monitors the activity of elusive alien scavengers from their cloud-topping watchtower home (a sleek minimalist pad with its own swimming pool).
Jack and Vika’s memories have been wiped as a precaution against capture and interrogation, but Jack is haunted by sepia-tinted dreams of life before the war. Vika, in daily contact with briskly chipper supervisor Sally (Melissa Leo) at Mission Control aboard the spacecraft, dutifully tows the company line. Jack, by contrast, is curious, reckless, a bit of a rebel.
Nostalgically drawn to the ruins of Earth’s former civilisation, including the splintered remains of the stadium where the last Super Bowl was played in 2017, he’s even created his own private oasis far below the Skytower, a secret hideaway where he collects such relics as printed books and vinyl records. (Another example of how digitally threatened Hollywood is currently making a fetish of analogue artefacts in apocalyptic-themed movies – see also Warm Bodies and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World).
No wonder that he’s not looking forward to departure. For Jack, but not Vika, Earth feels like home. Yet before their time is up, Jack’s world is turned upside down by the discovery in a downed spacecraft of fellow human survivor Julia (Olga Kurylenko). Suddenly, everything he’s ever known about the Earth and about himself is being challenged…
Based on director Joseph Kosinski’s own graphic novel and shot in eye-popping 4K, Oblivion immerses us in its dazzlingly created future world from the start (particularly if you’re seeing the film on an Imax screen). And it’s not long before the intriguingly mysterious set-up hooks us too. What are Jack and Vika’s bosses not telling them? What is the meaning of those sepia flashbacks?
As the story develops, Kosinski doesn’t quite manage to sustain the film’s opening promise – and his debts to a string of past sci-fi classics also become more and more apparent. Indeed, parts of the second half are disappointingly generic – you just know that the whizzy bug-like helicopter Jack pilots will inevitably get pitched into video-gamey dogfights.
But the spell created by the enigmatic, less eventful first half isn’t entirely dispelled. Credit goes to Claudio ‘Life of Pi’ Miranda’s gorgeous cinematography, M83’s spacey electronic score and the film’s small but perfectly formed cast. Cruise proves he still has his action-hero chops, Kurylenko is suitably alluring and Riseborough beautifully conveys the vulnerability beneath Vika’s prissy professionalism. Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Headhunters, Game of Thrones) pop up later, but if I told you what roles they play I’d have to wipe your minds.
In cinemas from Wednesday 10th April.
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