‘Oblivion’ soars as tribute to classic sci-fi

Darin Miller Movie Critic
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Recent science fiction films “Looper” and “Inception” prove that 111 years after Georges Méliès introduced the world to sci-fi movies, there are stories left untold. “Oblivion” is one. But instead of a new concept, it’s a concoction of classics, remixed for a new generation.

The year is 2077. Sixty years after an alien invasion left Earth an unrecognizable wasteland, humankind is preparing to evacuate for a far-off space colony. Humanity won the war, but at the cost of Earth’s sustainability. Now the remaining alien “Scavs” slink about the planet, attacking the machines extracting Earth’s remaining resources for later human use. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his assistant Victoria or “Vika” (Andrea Riseborough) are technicians charged with monitoring the weaponized drones that protect the resource-gathering structures. They’ve been operating as a two-person repair team out of an Ikea-esque “Skytower” for five years — though it’s all they know thanks to a pre-mission memory wipe for security purposes.

But weeks away from mission accomplished, a woman (Olga Kurylenko) crash-lands in a spaceship that’s been orbiting Earth since before the war. Her arrival sparks a chain of events that puts Harper at the center of the war between the aliens and humans, and makes him question everything he thinks he knows.

“Oblivion” is both an intimate story about a man’s quest for truth, and an epic action movie about the survival of the human race. Cruise’s Harper dreams of a quiet life on Earth. While his assistant Vika is ready for the new world, he’s not sure he wants to leave the old one. The script, adapted from director Joseph Kosinski’s graphic novel of the same name, gives Cruise plenty of time and opportunity to develop Harper, and Cruise wears the character like a glove. Harper’s “Top Gun” dogfights and the numerous battles between Scavs and drones drive the movie forward. M83’s electronic score pumps it full of adrenaline.

Much of the film is built on references. The “TRON: Legacy” director created the story in part as a tribute to classic sci-fi, and on the cusp of a new “Star Wars” trilogy, “Oblivion” proves that the next generation of filmmakers understand what makes the classics foundational. This bodes well for Disney’s supposed plan to have Kosinski work on a “Star Wars” spin-off. Kosinski recognizes the visual style of the Lucas films, evident in the Scavs, who resemble Tusken Raiders, and the drones, which were modeled on a “Star Wars” spy drone and sound like an angry R2D2.

But Lucas isn’t the only influence. Kosinski names a handful of movies from the ’60s to the ’80s as influences and inspiration, including “Silent Running,” “The Omega Man,” “La Jetée,” “Blade Runner” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Like the classics, “Oblivion” combines Tron-like tech with rugged post-apocalyptic ruin. Unlike the planet depicted in many of the film’s peers, though, the strange, scarred planet in “Oblivion” is our own, centered on a devolved Manhattan with occasional familiar landmarks breaking through the blackened soil. Partly filmed in Iceland, the world of “Oblivion” looks alien.

What keeps “Oblivion” from greatness is it’s striving to be so. The references to classics of the genre are great, but the riffed plot points necessarily lack the emotional impact of the originals. We know the story — we’ve seen it before. Thankfully, Cruise and the epic soundtrack keep “Oblivion” from crashing. With a supporting cast including Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (“Game of Thrones”), there’s plenty to love. “A New Hope” it’s not, but “Oblivion” still lands among the stars.

Darin Miller is a film critic in Washington, D.C.