For its first hour or so, Oblivion is a visually mesmerizing, intriguing picture that doesn’t feel like the same-old: It engages your eyes and piques your curiosity. Then, gradually, the novelty wears off, the clichés start to pile up and we’re back to Post-Apocalyptic Dystopia 101. In his follow-up to TRON: Legacy, director Joseph Kosinski, with the aid of Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda ( Life of Pi), crafts some dazzling images and beautiful designs (the movie was shot using 4K cameras and enormous rear projections instead of green screens; see it in IMAX if you can). He also teases you with the story, letting you know right from the start things may not be what they seem.
The movie, based on Kosinski’s graphic novel, is set in the year 2077, decades after Earth fought a battle with space invaders that rendered the planet a radioactive wasteland. Mankind has relocated to a moon off Saturn and relies on enormous long-distance power generators that feed off the ocean tides. Only two human beings remain: Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who live in a sleek floating apartment and are assigned “mop-up crew” duty. Their job is to keep the electricity flowing and deal with roaming packs of the defeated alien forces, which are still hanging around for some reason, constantly making trouble.
Jack and Victoria live and work together as a romantic couple. But he has a recurring dream of standing atop the Empire State Building, before the end of the world, with a beautiful woman (Olga Kurylenko) he doesn’t know. Cruise is tasked with carrying Oblivion on his own for a surprising while — there are long stretches when he’s the only person onscreen — and he has wisely chosen to tone down the clenched-jaw intensity he used in his last movie, Jack Reacher, and make this Jack a more relatable, vulnerable fellow. Once again, he appears to be doing a lot of his own stunts, and he helps to sell the film’s great CGI illusions — such as the floating drones that dot the planet, ready to exterminate anyone or anything they don’t recognize.
Oblivion also features a thunderous score by the French electronic band M83 that elevates the excitement of the action sequences, such as a gigantic shoot-out between man and drone in cramped quarters. But once the plot starts doling out the surprises, the seams begin to show. Oblivion was co-written by Michael Arndt, who won an Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine and also worked on Toy Story 3 and Brave, so it’s especially disappointing to watch the movie dissipate into ideas and visuals from other films. There are distracting vibes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Wall-E, Total Recall, TV ’s Battlestar Galactica, the underrated Moon — even Star Wars. The filmmakers don’t even have the courage to see the story to its proper end, opting for a ridiculous finale that feels vaguely insulting to anyone who had invested in the film as a work of serious, yet accessible, pop sci-fi. See Oblivion for its look, but don’t expect anything more.