Go on! Indulge in the very best movie promo tie-in ever: the Oblivion-branded Mandatory Memory Wipe, available at the concession stand with the popcorn and nachos. It’s so cool! Because then you walk into Oblivion with no recollection of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Independence Day and 2012 and The Road Warrior and Planet of the Apes and the entire history of science fiction movies, and you’ll enjoy yourself ever so much more.
And you get to be like Tom Cruise! Because a Mandatory Memory Wipe is exactly what his Jack Harper has undergone. It’s a security thing, you see, in case he gets captured by the alien Scavengers still scurrying around on planet Earth, still hanging out even though they lost the war with humans. It’s Jack’s job, as a sort of roving Maytag repairman, to maintain the fleet of drone weapons that are protecting ginormous fusion-reactor thingies from Scav attack. Their job is to turn Earth’s oceans into a power source for Titan, moon of Saturn, to which the human survivors of the war have decamped now that Earth is a radioactive wasteland. Jack’s partner — in work and love — is Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), and she’s been memory-wiped, too. Only two more weeks to go in their tour of duty, and then it’s their turn to head out to the new paradise on Titan.
If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn — only slightly damaged by some minor planetary crustal displacement — to sell you.
Of course, you do believe that just like Jack and Victoria do, because you can’t recall having seen anything like this before. To be fair, there is some small downside to experiencing Oblivion on Mandatory Memory Wipe. For in this postwar year of 2077, Earth may be a radioactive wasteland, all its cities erased from the planet, but it’s a bright, sunny kind of postapocalyptic hellscape: you won’t recall that we haven’t seen this before in a science fiction film. Sure, it doesn’t make any sense, because it seems likely that your standard planetary ravagement wouldn’t result in clear blue skies … but it is pretty in a strikingly original sci-fi way. I don’t know if writer-director Joseph Kosinski intends Jack and Victoria’s life to be a winking parody of The Jetsons, but it’s amusing anyway. Their home in the sky is all sci-fi sleek and futuristic, and Jack gets in his shiny bubble helicopter every morning, after getting a kiss on the cheek from Victoria, to fly off on his rounds.
It’s possible that Kosinski instead imagined he was shooting a commercial for Ikea 2077, but that’s cool too. You will drool over the glossy domestic techno-porn that is Jack and Victoria’s cushy postapocalypse lifestyle. The film on the whole is far more visually intriguing than Kosinski’s debut, the dreadfully ugly Tron: Legacy. The imagery of the destroyed Moon — which ostensibly caused the geological upheaval that did much of the damage on Earth — is shocking like a train wreck, a colossal cracked egg in the sky now trailing rings of debris, but also beautiful, too, in a horrific way. If you’re going to see Oblivion, see it in IMAX, as I did. You will get some geeky satisfaction out of its rendering of planet Earth’s land and sky as a newly alien place.
Just don’t expect to be surprised by the plot or characters, which are derivative not only of classic SF films and little cult favorites, but also of recent big-budget blockbusters that drew the same audience Oblivion will. Jack is bothered by dreams that feel like the memories he’s not supposed to have, and he can’t help but investigate things he’s told by his bosses to leave alone. The discoveries Jack makes as a result won’t satisfy anyone who might have been hoping for ideas as fresh as the visuals, and the rote sci-fi chases and battles padding out the movie do little to distract from that disappointment.