In science-fiction blockbusters, world-building is where the real meat is. Usually in the first act of a good futuristic science fiction movie, a director will set the scene for the world the audience is about to find themselves in and establishes the rules.
In Oblivion, that world-building is very well done. A sense of uncomfortable monotony and unease is expressed early on and helps to set the tone of the film. Still, like so many good-looking sci-fi movies, everything eventually turns into a giant, explosion-riddled battle for survival.
Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough star as a couple living in a massive spire built in the destroyed vestige of New York City. 50 years prior, Earth was attacked by aliens called Scavengers, or “Scavs,” and the war that eventually drove them off left Earth a shadow of its former glory. Humanity has been driven to turning the oceans into fuel for giant ships bound for Saturn’s moon Titan.
Cruise and Riseborough are some of the last people on guard duty, protecting these massive ships from the last remnants of the Scavs, while also reporting to mission controller Melissa Leo, a mildly sinister lady whose evil intentions you can see coming from a mile away.
Oblivion looks great. Directed by Joseph Kosinski, whose last movie was the controversial (and also beautiful) Tron: Legacy, the art style is simply inspiring. Environments shift from sparse, clean looking, utopian settings to organic, dirty, and somewhat welcoming scenery. Both come off as completely real and are a testament to both the directing and the cinematography from Claudio Mirana, who also worked on Tron.
However, Tom Cruise is still there. There’s nothing here to really distinguish him from his roles in Minority Report or Mission: Impossible. He briefs the audience on his emotions with voice overs telling us he’s sad or in love. He also keeps repeating a poem by Thomas B. Macaulay about death, in which he tells us he’s gonna pull through. He never really brings any real character to the role, sleepwalking through gorgeous post-apocalyptic landscapes.
All in all, Oblivion looks fantastic. It just isn’t hiding any depth underneath all that beauty.