Tom Cruises’s Oblivion Remains a High-Concept Sci-Fi Hidden Gem a Decade Later

It’s been more than 10 years since the release of Oblivion, the Tom Cruise sci-fi vehicle that has been largely forgotten in the discussion of the genre in the 2010s. The film performed decently upon release, earning back its budget and then some, and received some very positive reviews, as well as a few negative reviews that at the very least found the film interesting.

At the time of its release, it sort of felt like the kid of movie that landed right in the middle of the blockbuster pack, neither stellar nor dismal. So it’s easy to see why many viewers may not have taken the time to go back and revisit the story in the past decade.

Oblivion teamed Tom Cruise and Joseph Kosinski

Since the 10th anniversary has recently come and hone, with the Oblivion team of Cruise and director Joseph Kosinski coming off the massive success of Top Gun: Maverick, it makes for an interesting time to go back to the Universal Pictures film to see how it holds up, and what it may achieve now that it perhaps didn’t upon its initial release. What I found was a wonderfully imaginative genre release that, while not wholly successful, rises through sheer force of vision into the realm of underrated modern sci-fi gem. 

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Oblivion‘s Graphic Novel Origins

We have Kosinski to thank for that vision, as the film stemmed from a graphic novel he was developing and its various sci-fi concepts. Working toward making the story into a film someday, Kosinski saw clearly the idea of a ruined Earth, bombed into dust by a war with an alien race, plagued by hidden alien creatures scavenging for their lives in the wake of a war they’d lost. He saw a tower in the sky where a drone mechanic named Jack Harper (Cruise) would venture out each day in a small aircraft, keeping tabs on humanity’s remaining machinery so he could one day earn a journey out to a permanent new settlement on the moon of Titan, his trusted colleague and lover Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) by his side.

Even before the various twists and turns — and there are many — kick in, watching Jack move through Kosinski’s world is, even now, an awesome sight. There’s a beauty to the destruction that sets the film apart from many other dystopic and apocalyptic sci-fi adventures of its era, lending the film a sense of peace and a contrast between the tactile ruins of the outside world and the sterile sleekness of the sky tower where Jack lives. We’ve seen the end of the world on the big-screen before, but watching Oblivion‘s visions of the Empire State Building’s observation deck buried in the rubble of the past, underground abandoned libraries, and even a desolate old football stadium, you get the sense that you’re watching a singular view of the end, and it keeps hold of you. 

Revisiting Oblivion as an Original Sci-Fi Film

Looking back on the film now, though, the real master stroke of Kosinski’s vision is the casting of Cruise as Jack Harper, an ordinary guy who turns out to be part of an extraordinary conspiracy. Jack’s a guy who takes pride in his work, who has a job to do and does it well, but he’s also attached to the past in ways that Victoria is not, and even their supervisors orbiting Earth don’t fully understand his ways. He lingers on relics of how things used to be, collects them all into his own little hideaway, and is haunted by visions of a woman in New York City before it fell, a woman whose presence will eventually change everything. 

From the beginning, even when we’re told Jack is an ordinary guy, we get the sense that something is off. Much of that off-ness comes through in the production and sound design, and in the way Kosinski paces the film like a slow-burn paranoid thriller just waiting to spring its trap on the audience. But Cruise’s presence also feeds that off-ness, because we know this is Tom Cruise, legendary movie star, stuntman extraordinaire, and screen presence that pulls everyone’s eye to him. Of course he’d be the center of something vast and secret and life-changing, and of course he’d be the only one who could really combat it when it rises to the surface.

And of course the film would reveal that he’s not just special, but a template for something much bigger. It works within Kosinski’s story of an alien secret, but it works even better because it’s Cruise, the big-screen’s most tireless fictional American hero, sprinting across movie after movie to make sure we get our money’s worth. With 10 years of hindsight, and especially since the earth-shaking power of Maverick came around again, that makes the film work even better, and makes it that much more worthy of a revisit.

Oblivion is now streaming on Peacock.

Originally published Apr 19, 2023.