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— Hugh Grant, Two Weeks Notice

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Atomic Blonde

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Director Joseph Kosinski has avoided the sophomore slump with a remarkably ambitious tale of man versus machine.

Planet of the Drones

Cruise and Freeman: on the brink of oblivion
Cruise and Freeman: on the brink of oblivion

Kosinski’s directorial debut was Tron: Legacy, the much-hyped and long-awaited Tron sequel that upgraded the graphics while being virtually nothing more than a copy-and-paste of the original movie’s anemic storyline.

With Oblivion, Kosinski tackles a story with which he’s much more intimately familiar: he wrote the source material, a yet-to-be-published graphic novel.

Story elements, and some of the designs Kosinski puts to use, on the surface can be dismissed as nothing more than derivative of much that has hit the screen before. There’s a mysterious, undefined alien force gobbling up worlds that, in concept, is curiously reminiscent of V’ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It, and other forms of robotic intelligence, sports a red eye much like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. And, well, that theme of man versus machine certainly isn’t a new one.

Nonetheless, what Kosinski has done here is big and exciting. It’s a tricky movie to write about in spoiler-free terms, but that’s also a good clue Oblivion is a movie that’s sure to reward repeated viewings.

Another Day in Paradise

Things go bad for Earth and mankind in 2017. That’s when scavenger world beaters destroy the moon, throwing Earth’s environment into disarray and plunging Earth’s inhabitants into war with the scavengers. Man won the war, but lost the planet.

Set in 2077 (marking the 100th anniversary of Star Wars, by the way), Oblivion picks up with the last two humans on Earth finishing off the final two weeks of their mission, mining Earth’s water, before bustling off to a new life on Titan. Jack (Tom Cruise, War of the Worlds) is a high-tech mechanic; it’s his job to keep the machinery in working order. He’s been paired up with Victoria (Andrea Riseborough, W.E.) as his companion, colleague, and mate. Together, as they repeatedly assure this movie’s equivalent of Weyland-Yutani’s Mother in Alien, they are an effective team.

As Jack scurries around the remnants of greater New York City, highlights include Giants Stadium, the New York Public Library, and the Empire State Building. The latter in particular strikes a haunting chord with Jack. He’s been there before, he simply can’t remember the details of why and with whom.

There’s attraction and repulsion at the thought of some sort of Planet of the Apes-like twist at the end; given all the New York landmarks, it seems inevitable. Instead, Kosinski goes for something else and strikes a strong note about humanity while playing with the characters and the story in ways that keep the mind engaged while the eyes absorb all the visual candy. Oblivion is the kind of movie best experienced on the biggest screen available.

In the Minority

Kosinski tells the story at his own pace, with his own timeline, and that’s an admirable approach in this age of big-budget movies serving up huge moments of grand excitement with the timed precision of an intravenous feed.

While Oblivion has many scenes of visual grandeur and some moments of action, the reward is in the ideas milling about under the movie’s sleek exterior.

Even as Jack attempts to protect the hydro gear from the remaining warring scavengers, he is his own scavenger. Away from the pristine, sterile abode he shares with Victoria, he collects trinkets of pop culture at his hideaway man cave and he chats with an Elvis Presley bobble head in his super-sleek ship.

Books, vinyl albums, and other tactile things are the elements that help bridge the gaps in Jack’s memories of the past. That notion of tactile versus untouchable digital media is another common refrain in sci-fi stories old and new, good and bad. A Tale of Two Cities makes a hard cover cameo here as it did in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan; heck, good ol’ paper books even figured into the digital landscape of Tron: Legacy. The current affinity and nostalgia for vinyl has popped up frequently, appearing recently - and prominently - in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and Warm Bodies, among others.

The twist is in the vicious cycle of sci-fi tech’s penchant for sterilizing everything and humanity’s need for tactile reassurances. As Tom Cruise noted during a post-screening Q&A, Steve Jobs credited Steven Spielberg’s exceptional Minority Report (also starring Cruise) for inspiring the iPad, which in turn eliminated the need to use vinyl and paper in favor of mass consumption of digital bytes.

And that’s where Oblivion excels. The story takes a deep dive into how man’s own technical creations can destroy the soul and it’s told in a way best described as art house meets big-budget sci-fi.

Lays of Ancient Rome

A favorite element of Oblivion is its reference to Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome and its account of Horatius and two other men guarding a bridge against the Tuscan army. Ultimately, Jack will find two other companions to aid in his quest to release mankind from the treachery of assimilating machinery.

One passage in particular casts an eerie spell: “To every man upon this earth death cometh soon or late. And how can man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his gods.”

Even with all the bits and pieces pinched from other sources, Oblivion finds its own soul and creates its own nourishing atmosphere.

That endeavor is aided by the exceptional cast, led by Cruise and the intoxicating loveliness of Riseborough. They’re supported in no small part by Morgan Freeman (The Dark Knight Rises) and Olga Kurylenko (a Bond girl in Quantum of Solace who is, quite deservingly, finding roles of substance post-Bond).