It might seem easy at first glance, but it’s actually very hard to pin down what exactly defines a “Tom Cruise movie.” There’s the obvious answer of “big action movie where he does his own stunts,” like the Mission: Impossible franchise, but the actor’s choices are surprisingly varied. Cruise is just as ready to send up his persona as he is to enhance it, as seen in Tropic Thunder and his hair-metal turn in Rock of Ages.
And then there’s Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion, which seems to comment directly on Cruise’s role as a heroic action star. The 2013 movie is aesthetically in line with Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival and Dune. When its 10th anniversary arrives next year, maybe it will be seen as a fellow traveler in embracing grandiose minimalism in an isolated world.
Cruise plays Jack Harper, the last repairman on Earth following an attack by a mysterious alien race called “the scavengers” who struck first by blowing up the Moon. An epic battle ensued. Earth won, but it was a pyrrhic victory. The planet's nuclear weapons were used with abandon and the planet is unlivable. So humanity is planning a mass exodus to Titan, a moon of Saturn, on a giant spaceship called the Tet.
What’s Jack doing? Well, humanity’s trip to Titan is going to be powered by seawater, so massive harvesters are sucking up the ocean. But there are still scavengers about playing saboteur, so humanity has built drones to defend the harvesters. When they’re attacked, they need repairs. Jack’s job, along with Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), and Sally (Melissa Leo) back at Mission Control is to repair those robots. It’s a little like a military school commander once predicted in The Simpsons — except their memories have also been erased.
Jack, known as “Tech 49” to the drones he repairs, loves zipping around Earth in his bug-like ship and a sweet motorcycle while reciting old football stories. It’s hard to blame him. The world Kosinki built is gorgeous. Originally an unpublished graphic novel, Oblivion’s setting is as massive as it is bleak. Technically a New York movie, Jack spots several of the city’s landmarks on his travels. Most of the Earth has been wiped out, leaving only the peaks of skyscrapers and the flame of the Statue of Liberty above the surface.
Oblivion’s vision of an abandoned Earth is fascinating. The Pentagon lies in ruins, the Washington Monument is beachfront property and leaning over like the Tower of Pisa, and sunken ships are scattered across the desert of once-vast oceans. These massive vistas are offset by smaller touches, like the seatbelt in Jack’s ship and his Elvis bobblehead.
One of the most effective visuals is the Space Tower where Jack and Victoria live far above the dangerous Earth. The spindly tower is surrounded by gorgeous views; the production crew actually filmed its vistas from a Hawaiian volcano and projected the results around the room. It makes the Space Tower feel part of the Earth, yet distant from it, in ways simple CGI couldn’t achieve.
After picking up a book at the New York Public Library, Jack encounters a signal being sent into space from the Empire State Building. Even more mysteriously, objects start falling out of the sky. While Sally urges Jack to let the drones solve these mysteries, he’s spurred on to investigate. In doing so, Jack finds stasis pods with humans in them that shouldn’t be returning to Earth.
Jack is able to save one of the people in the pods, a woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko). Julia’s in for quite a shock. She’s been in stasis for around sixty years, during which the whole “the Moon gets blown up by aliens and humans use nukes to blow up the aliens and then humanity has to mass-evacuate to Titan” thing happened. Stunned, Julia wants to go back and investigate the crash.
When Jack gets her to the site, they’re attacked by scavengers. But the scavengers have a surprise for Jack and Julia. They’re not aliens. They’re humans led by Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman, cigar in hand) and Sergeant Sykes (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, in-between seasons of Game of Thrones).
Jack suddenly realizes that he doesn’t know everything about his life on Earth. Oblivion is a twist-based movie, with a narrative change crucial to understanding the plot that emerges late. Secrets are revealed, lies exposed. Jack Harper isn’t who he thinks he is, and his mission is a very different one than he was told.
One aspect of Jack’s past that comes into play is that he was once very respected by everyone on Earth. This aspect of his character, his heroism, is in line with so many of Cruise’s action star roles. Uncovering and subverting the truth of this role in Oblivion shows that perhaps no one has been more critical of Tom Cruise movies than Cruise himself.
With gorgeous visuals, a small and fascinating cast, and a wonderful soundtrack by M83, Oblivion is a surprise in Cruise’s canon waiting to be discovered.
Oblivion is streaming now on HBO Max.