Top Gun: Maverick may have cemented Tom Cruise’s return to the top echelon of the Hollywood ranks last year, but that film is far from the only impeccably made blockbuster that Cruise has worked on in recent years. As a matter of fact, Cruise has been on a bit of a hot streak for well over a decade now, basically ever since his practical stunts in 2011’s Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol helped put him back on viewers’ radars again
In the 12 years since then, Cruise has had a few misses here and there (we’re looking at you, Rock of Ages), but he’s nonetheless managed to steadily rebuild his reputation among moviegoers with blockbuster hits like Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation and Mission: Impossible — Fallout and cult favorites like Edge of Tomorrow. In 2013, Cruise also teamed up for the first time with Top Gun: Maverick director Joseph Kosinski for the original sci-fi adventure film, Oblivion. Unlike Maverick, though, Oblivion received a lukewarm critical and financial response upon its release.
Ten years later, Oblivion doesn’t just seem undeserving of such a tepid response, but it feels like the kind of film that should be discussed far more often than it actually is. For that reason alone, Oblivion has earned the unfortunate distinction of being not only one of the most underappreciated genre films of the 2010s, but also the most underrated blockbuster that Tom Cruise has ever starred in.
Set on a future version of Earth that has been left dilapidated and terraformed by an alien invasion decades prior, Oblivion follows Jack (Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), a pair of humans who have been tasked with ensuring that the last of the planet’s resources are successfully stripped for the remaining survivors who have relocated to new colonies throughout space. When the film begins, their mission is nearly complete. Unfortunately, Jack has also begun to find himself overwhelmed by waves of nostalgia for the days before Earth was destroyed and plagued by memories of a mysterious woman, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), whom he doesn’t fully remember.
There is, of course, more to Jack and Victoria’s mission than meets the eye. In that way, Oblivion shares the same kind of mystery-driven structure as many of the popular sci-fi films that came before it — namely, Moon and Minority Report. The places it goes and the reveals it eventually delivers aren’t, by any means, revolutionary or unpredictable. However, while the film’s story suffers a little from its overfamiliarity, Oblivion makes up for its narrative shortcomings with a pace and overall level of technical craftsmanship that, frankly, feels increasingly hard to come by these days (at least, in films that don’t happen to star Tom Cruise).
The first act of Oblivion is, for the most part, an exploratory introduction to its futuristic, dystopian version of Earth. Viewers are invited to tag along with Cruise’s Jack as he flies across the planet’s torn but gradually healing surface, relives old baseball games in long-destroyed stadiums, and traipses with Riseborough’s Victoria through the film’s greatest creation: a floating Sky Tower that is constructed almost entirely out of translucent glass walls and floors. The film’s first act essentially culminates with a nighttime sequence between Cruise and Riseborough in the Sky Tower’s suspended swimming pool that is simultaneously sensual, hypnotic, and visually awe-inspiring.
Part of the reason why the film’s Sky Tower sequences are so visually stunning is that Kosinski and his cinematographer, Claudio Miranda (who also shot Top Gun: Maverick), insisted on avoiding blue screen and green screen effects to create the set’s lighting and exterior environments. Instead, the pair worked with a special effects house to surround the film’s Sky Tower set with screen projectors that not only allowed Miranda to accurately light Oblivion’s actors in real time. but also afforded the performers themselves the opportunity to see the same views as their characters. Miranda and Kosinski, in other words, put themselves at the forefront of the kind of on-set screen projector technology that has now been made popular by shows like The Mandalorian and films like The Batman.
Beyond the technically innovative nature of some of their behind-the-scenes methods, Kosinski and Miranda consistently manage to make Oblivion’s postapocalyptic world feel both real and paradoxically lived-in. Despite how empty many of the film’s vast dystopian environments are, you can still feel the history behind every locale that Cruise’s Jack moves through, which just makes it easier to feel the same sense of nostalgia that drives so many of his actions throughout Oblivion.
There isn’t a single bad or lackluster frame in the entire film. Even if its story isn’t nearly as rousing or crowd-pleasing, Oblivion boasts the same kind of polished visual artistry that helped make Top Gun: Maverick stand out from so many of last year’s other blockbusters. It’s the same level of impressive technical precision that is, in fact, on display in nearly every movie that Kosinski has directed.
Oblivion, to its credit, packs more than enough thrilling action sequences into its relatively lean 124-minute runtime. What makes the film so rewatchable, though, is how well it manages to make you fall in love with its futuristic alternate reality. Like so many of the best movies that Cruise has ever made, the film relies heavily on its lead’s considerable star power and charisma. Fortunately, Cruise is up for that job. Oblivion is, consequently, able to occasionally shrug off concerns about plot progression in favor of moments and sequences that allow both Jack and those watching the film to pause and get lost in its sci-fi world.
On-screen, Oblivion’s debt to the Space Age sci-fi stories of old is obvious. What’s more impressive is just how well the film manages to tap into the same pulp quality that made the sci-fi worlds of those stories so appealing in the first place. It’s a movie that is easy to turn on and get lost in, and it deserves to be remembered far more fondly than it seems to be these days.
Oblivion is streaming now on Peacock.
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