The score for Oblivion was composed by M83, a superb French electronic outfit that derives its name from one of the spectral pinwheels known as spiral galaxies. I point this out because it's the best element of the movie — a cascade of dreamy synthesizers that registers as appropriately futuristic (at least the future as suggested by '80s pop) while allowing an undercurrent of romantic yearning.
More than that, though, it underlines director Joseph Kosinski's pursuit of digital beauty — some combination of "ones and zeros" that can approach those pinwheels' heavenly perfection.
It's not the first time: Kosinski's last film converted the arcade-game kicks of Disney's 1982 relic Tron into the $200 million screensaver Tron: Legacy. With Oblivion, the content comes a lot closer to matching the pristine form. Though it's derivative in the extreme, the film keeps the dialogue to a minimum — and what dialogue it has is often deliberately formalized and robotic — while creating a future of insidious elegance, one in which the remnants of humanity and nature represent a threat to the artificial order of things. And so Kosinski's personal commitment to gorgeous artifice above all other considerations only harms the film so much.
Based on the director's own unpublished graphic novel, Oblivion gets all its exposition out of the way in one graceless chunk of opening narration. It's 2077, exactly 60 years after alien invaders called Scavengers (or "Scavs") appeared from another dimension and wiped out the moon before setting their sights on the Earth's resources.
Though mankind "won" the war against the Scavs, the nuclear weapons required to do so — combined with the devastating natural disasters brought on by the moon's destruction — killed off much of the population and rendered the planet uninhabitable. Those humans who did survive were whisked onto a space station until they can colonize elsewhere.
Enter Jack (Tom Cruise) and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough, whose Disconnect is also out this week), a couple living in a home in the clouds, above both the lingering radiation and the remaining Scavs stalking the territory below. Their official duty is to protect the machines drawing precious water from the seas, mainly by ensuring that the unmanned drones intended to suppress the Scavs remain online. Though his memory of the war has been wiped, Jack dreams of a woman (Olga Kurylenko) from a distant past who reappears when a NASA capsule crashes and forces him to rethink his mission.
Oblivion occupies an awkward no-man's-land between escapist space adventure and heady science fiction, but it's neither thrilling enough nor intellectually stimulating enough to satisfy devotees of either. The strongest scenes tend to be the least eventful: long, moody stretches in which Jack and Victoria go about their rounds, then retire to a domestic life with too practiced a rhythm. Jack registers his lost-world longings by slipping off to a secret hideaway of lush greenery and the analog pleasures of books and LPs, but it's Riseborough's Victoria who's the most affecting, because her humanity registers in cracks that never fully disrupt her commitment to the mission.
Kosinski handles the obligatory action beats capably, with Jack zipping through the skies on a helicopter-spaceship hybrid that resembles a cross between tech from the Star Wars prequels and Cruise's own Top Gun. (Kosinski throws in a stylish pair of aviator glasses as an homage to the latter.) The eventual gunplay distracts from the cool ambience of those early quiet scenes, but as the film goes on and Kosinski's meditations on individual will grow gloppy and predictable, such distractions become more welcome.
There's a faintly political message here about drone warfare, but for all its hard sci-fi portentousness, Oblivion advocates mainly for an earthy lifestyle of organic vegetables, classic vinyl and more time in the great outdoors. In a film created entirely in front of green screens and behind computer terminals, selling a message like that takes a certain nerve.