Tom Cruise vs. The Berserkers

Oblivion: written by Joseph Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek, and Michael Arndt; directed by Joseph Kosinski; starring Tom Cruise (Jack), Morgan Freeman (Beech), Olga Kurylenko (Julia), Andrea Riseborough (Victoria), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Sykes) and Melissa Leo (Sally) (2013): Most of the plot problems of Oblivion can be explained away with one simple premise: the alien invaders in this film are like Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker machines insofar as the whole point of their existence is to seek out intelligent life and destroy it, while inspiring as much despair and terror along the way as possible. Accept this as a given and most (though not all) problems can be explained.

While the film could survive a bit of tightening up (at about two hours, it’s draggy at times), it’s certainly watchable science fiction, with some interesting production design and a certain level of thought put into the characterization. The direction is solid and imaginative when it needs to be, and the visuals of the burned-out Earth, while familiar at times, still manage a few surprises.

Tom Cruise is fine as the protagonist, who begins the movie as a sort of Watchman for the power supply of what remains of humanity. Cruise could stand to start showing his age more, though, and tailoring roles to reflect that age — I think some of the critical and commercial backlash against him at this point comes not only from some of his weirder public moments, but from a problem similar to what almost every action-heavy movie star of the last 40 years has faced at this point in his career and which only Bruce Willis and Clint Eastwood seem to have to at least partially solved. Your audience will continue to love you if you act your age.

We begin with a devastated Earth and a “destroyed” Moon. Most of the Moon is still in orbit — it’s just in several pieces, a relic of the First Strike of an alien race of hooligans whom humanity calls The Scavengers. Humanity has relocated off-world to the Saturnian moon of Titan, leaving behind machines and technicians to harvest what’s left of the Earth while simulataneously dealing with the remnants of the Scavenger invasion force.

Of course, there are twists. Oblivion shares a lot of characteristics with the late 1960’s and early 1970’s science-fiction films of Charlton Heston. Had it been made then, it would probably be remembered fondly. As is, it’s better than all of Heston’s science-fiction output other than Planet of the Apes, and better than a lot of cult movies in the genre as well (Silent Running comes to mind). It certainly didn’t deserve the critical lashing it got when it came out — there are an awful number of worse science-fiction films out there, past and present. Recommended.

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