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! Cuz 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 hence you’ll enjoy yourself ever so much more.
And you get to be like Tom Cruise (Jack Reacher, Rock of Ages)! 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. (You’d think they’d take a hint and go home, but no.) The Scavs are intent on causing trouble, and it’s Jack’s job, as a sort of roving Maytag repairman, to keep in the air the fleet of drone weapons that are protecting, from Scav attack, the ginormous fusion-reactor thingies that are turning Earth’s oceans into a power source for Titan, moon of Saturn, to which the human survivors of the war have decamped, what with Earth reduced to a radioactive wasteland and all. (We’re here for our water!) Jack’s partner — in work and love — is Victoria (Andrea Riseborough [Shadow Dancer, Brighton Rock], cashing what I hope is a huge paycheck), 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 Titan awaits them, 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 cannot 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 kinda doesn’t make any sense, because it seems pretty likely that yer standard planetary ravagement of the sort that has supposed to have occurred here wouldn’t result in clear blue skies… but it is postcard-pretty — greetings from afterscape Earth! — 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 — which you also won’t recall, your memory having been wiped — 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 — the loss of 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, like a mushroom cloud that never dissipates. If you’re going to see Oblivion, see it in IMAX, as I did: even without a memory wipe, you will get some geeky satisfaction out of its rendering of planet Earth, land and sky, as a newly alien place.
Just don’t expect to be much surprised by the plot or characters, which are so derivative not only of classic SF films and little cult favorites, many of which will have been seen only by the geekiest of geeks, 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.