Harper and his communications officer Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) live a on floating platform in the sky, complete with high-tech weaponry, satellite uplinks and a heated swimming pool, so that's nice. On the horizon, massive levitating hydrogen processors suck water from the oceans. Jack's mission is to patrol his designated sector in a dragonfly-shaped spaceship, repairing the automated defensive drones that guard the hydrogen processors. In the sky, shattered fragments of the moon – blown up by the aliens– curve over the horizon in an eerie ellipse.
Such is the set-up for the visually dazzling science fiction film Oblivion, new this week in a special digital pre-release. This is an emerging pattern for the big Hollywood movies – "digital" meaning the various streaming and download options (iTunes, Amazon Instant Video) for your compatible devices (laptop, tablet, game console, etc.)
Starring Tom Cruise and directed by Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy). Oblivion delivers the popcorn movie basics: bold images, big sound and a generous assortment of action scenes. It scales all right to the smaller screen, though you'll miss a lot of the bombast if you're watching on tablet or phone.
Anyway, I crunched the numbers and by my estimation Oblivion is around 75 percent inspired sci-fi fun and 25 percent ridiculous Tom Cruise preening. That's a ratio I can live with. For every scene of Cruise on a futuristic motorcycle or shirtless in the shower (there are several), you get three crackling chase sequences or grand dystopian displays.
That image of the splintered moon, for instance, is the kind of thing that works really well in a movie like this. The image evokes a feeling of queasy wonder that comes from some sub-rational place. As a species, we've been gazing up at the moon for a long time. To see it broken and drifting apart is unsettling.
The broken moon also serves as an important plot device. We learn that during the invasion, the aliens made their first shock-and-awe assault not by bombardment or armada. Instead, they just blew up our moon. The resulting gravitation effects triggered earthquakes and floods, which softened up resistance rather nicely. I'm actually a little worried about this. If an alien army really does attack us someday, we don't want to give them ideas.
As Oblivion speeds along, several dubious plot twists introduce new mysteries. Jack keeps getting flashbacks of pre-invasion Earth that don't add up. The aliens on the planet's surface aren't behaving like menacing monsters. Earth's orbital HQ, a floating monolith called The Tet, begins issuing some puzzling directives. Oblivion attempts to bring these elements together in its final scenes, but by then the story is terminally confused.
Tom Cruise anchors the movie just fine, I suppose, deploying his standard array of action star maneuvers. The Rakish Grin. The Steely Gaze. I'll say this for Cruise: He's not afraid of the grand and unironic movie star gesture. We need guys like that for movies like this. Cruise and director Kosinski indulge in a little playfulness, too. Watch for several Top Gun in-jokes.
Oblivion borrows from many movies that have come before – Star Wars, Alien, Mad Max. Even The English Patient, if I'm not mistaken. But that's unavoidable, I think. It's almost impossible to make a truly original sci-fi movie anymore. Oblivion presents some new sights, sounds and ideas, then delivers them with maximum movie technology.
Extras: The trade-off with the early digital release is you won't be getting any extras. Supplementary bonus materials like production documentaries and deleted scenes are exclusive to the DVD/Blu-ray combo pack release on August 6. It's all part of the master plan.
Also New This Week:
British director Danny Boyle is incapable of making a boring movie, and his new thriller Trance finds weirdness when crime meets hypnotherapy.
The acclaimed indie drama Ginger and Rosa follows two young girls as they come of age during the Cold War and the sexual revolution.
For you film nerds, the 1987 Danish drama Babette's Feast has been reissued on DVD and Blu-ray with a new digital film transfer and an impressive buffet of supplementary materials.