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Visually stunning 'Oblivion' celebrates sci-fi's greatest hits

Tom Cruise stars as Jack Harper in "Oblivion."
Tom Cruise stars as Jack Harper in "Oblivion."
David James

Oblivion” is not an original movie, but it is a good movie. It plays like a visually stunning greatest-hits collection of the best sci-fi films from the past 50 years and could almost be considered a sequel to 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

The film is set in the year 2077, in the aftermath of an alien invasion. Technically, the humans won the war, but the damage to Earth was so extensive that the survivors have been relocated to a massive monolith-like space station called the Tet. Once the last of Earth’s usable resources are harvested, the human race will migrate to Titan, a hospitable moon near Saturn. But for now, a drone army patrols the landscape protecting the harvesting machines and fighting off the scattered alien survivors, dubbed “Scavs” (short for scavengers).

Enter Tom Cruise, who plays Jack, the human “cleanup crew” who provides maintenance to the drones and fights the Scavs under the watchful eye of his communications officer/love interest, Victoria (played by Andrea Riseborough). They live in a sleek outpost perched high in the atmosphere, stocked with touch-screen technology and a clear-bottom swimming pool suspended thousands of feet in the air. If you’re gonna be stuck in a postapocalyptic wasteland, you might as well be stuck in style.

Jack is a dutiful servant but one who flashes just enough of a personality to be suspicious about his circumstances. He is haunted by dreams of a woman he’s never met and memories of a city he’s never visited. He’s also managed to put together a Walden-style shanty in a remote canyon that still sees sunlight and vegetation, packed full of books and records he’s scavenged from his travels.

One day amid the usual routine, a mysterious spacecraft crash-lands in the area. To Jack’s surprise, it’s carrying human passengers, and the lone survivor (Olga Kurylenko) sparks a plot twist that throws the film’s entire premise into doubt.

The film's greatest strength is its visual impact, which is drawn from a who’s-who of sci-fi landmarks. Fans of films like “Blade Runner,” “2001” and “Moon” will feel right at home, and “Mad Max” fans will love the Scavs. Various sweeping shots explore the remains of famous landmarks, which mostly fall in the New York area, since the film takes place on top of what used to be Manhattan. In one memorable sequence, Jack reminisces on a past Super Bowl inside the dramatic ruins of a football stadium, and you half expect him to drop to his knees and start screaming like Charlton Heston in “Planet of the Apes.”

The film was written and directed by Joseph Kosinski, who also helmed the recent “Tron” sequel. The connections are apparent, from the sleek interior design to the Daft Punk-sound-alike score (with welcome exceptions from Led Zeppelin and Procol Harum).

A film like this doesn’t call for a lot of nuanced acting, and Cruise and company respond accordingly, reflecting the stone-cold seriousness of their postapocalyptic surroundings. And though “Oblivion” tries to sustain an air of suspense with a pair of massive plot twists, they are as derivative of their sci-fi predecessors as the film’s visuals.

Still, learning from those who came before you isn’t exactly a heinous crime. “Oblivion” is an enjoyable film that makes the most of its Imax format and is vastly superior to other recent sci-fi fare like “The Host.” But by the time 2077 rolls around, it will be better remembered as a tribute to other sci-fi landmarks more than for any achievements of its own.

“Oblivion” offers plenty of harmless sci-fi action violence but earns its PG-13 with some scattered profanity (including one use of the F-word) and some brief female nudity that parents will want to avoid.

Points for Parents: Oblivion

Violence: Mostly sci-fi laser-blast-style violence heavy on explosions but light on gore. There are a few scrapes and fisticuffs, and some blood on a female character who takes shrapnel to her abdomen. Pretty tame overall.

Language: Some scattered PG-13 level profanity including references to deity, with one especially dramatic use of the F-word.

Nudity/sexuality: Jack and Victoria go skinny-dipping early in the film, and Victoria is seen nude from behind in a couple of fleeting shots.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who teaches English Composition for Salt Lake Community College and appears weekly on the "KJZZ Movie Show." You can see more of his work at