Oblivion has its meh moments, but one hell of a satisfying payoff

With its cool, liquidy visuals and CGI-esque Tom Cruise as its lead, Oblivion has all the hallmarks of a summer action movie. But it's not. This is a flick that aspires to be a psychological thriller — and occasionally, it succeeds quite well.

Cruise is generically rugged and fearless as Jack Harper, a technician assigned by the 2070s human government to oversee the final destruction of Earth. After a protracted war with the alien "Scavs," the menace is contained — but the planet is ruined. Most of humanity has relocated to Titan, or to a vast, pyramid-shaped orbital city called the Tet. Jack and a few remaining humans have stayed behind to draw the last bits of energy from the oceans, which they're sucking dry and converting to hydrogen. (Apparently this is easier than mining the Sun or Jupiter for hydrogen? Whatever.)

Because the Scavs still live in hidden colonies on Earth, Jack has had his mind wiped "for security," and remembers nothing about his life before he lived with his gorgeous co-worker/lover Vicka in a pyrex mansion high above the clouds. From the transparent bottom of their outdoor pool, the two of them can see the enormous water-sucking machines and the deadly, spherical drones that shoot any Scav who dares approach their precious energy plants.

Oblivion was directed by Joseph Kosinski, whose first feature was the gorgeous but uneven Tron Legacy, and you can see his characteristic visual style everywhere. The movie is shot in frothy blues, whites, and grays, and Jack's helicopter/motorcycle is spotlessly white and unbound by the laws of physics. Jack and Vicka live above the former New York City, which has become a wind-buffed ruin, inexplicably converted into a long ravine lined with skyscrapers. Everything looks beautiful, if a little antiseptic and implausible.

As the movie opens, we're immediately plunged into a rapid-fire chase and shootout with the Scavs, a drone, and Jack, which unfolds in a zoomy kaleidescope of blaster fire. But it's already obvious that there's a lot more to this story than cowboys vs. aliens. First of all, there's something strange about the idea that Jack and Vicka have had their memories wiped. Plus, why do they never meet anyone from the Tet or hear news from Titan? Why is their one contact on the Tet always wearing the same clothes and using the same canned phrases to communicate? And who is the mysterious woman that Jack keeps remembering?

Things get weirder and weirder, especially after Jack goes to investigate an encrypted signal that the Scavs are sending from the top of the decimated Empire State Building. The signal triggers the crash-landing of a pre-war Earth starship, its occupants still in hypersleep. Though the drones accidentally (or not?) blow up most of the sleep pods, Jack manages to rescue one — and the woman inside, Julia (the awesome Olga Kurylenko), recognizes him. He recognizes her, too. She's the woman in his dreams. Why does a woman who has been asleep for 60 years know Jack? Why did the Scavs call her ship down?

Jack and Julia's quest to find the answers to these questions make up the bulk of the movie. And ultimately, what they discover comes with a pretty cool twist that's both creepy and unexpected. In this way, Oblivion sets itself apart from many "surprise ending" tales, which are all buildup and crap payoff.

That said, it's really the saggy middle of this movie that's a problem. It's hard to balance the broody pacing of a thriller with the spastic energy of an action movie, but that's what Kosinski has tried to do here. Sometimes it works, but sometimes things just get boring and repetitive. There are also so many hat-tips to other popular science fiction films, from The Matrix and Moon to 2001, Minority Report, and even Planet of the Apes (yes, there will be a buried Statue of Liberty), that at a certain point it stops being fun and starts feeling just a little desperate.

The same desperation clings to Jack's character, who feels less like a person and more like a checklist for building the perfect all-American hero. Loves baseball despite having grown up decades after the last baseball game was ever played? Check. Zooms into danger despite his girlfriend's cries of fear? Check. Has a secret hideaway packed with lost Earth civilization memorabilia? Check. Loves old-fashioned rock 'n roll? Check. Rides a cyber-motorcycle? Check. Again, there's nothing necessarily wrong with all this — it just feels very paint-by-numbers.

Overall, Oblivion is a fun, competent film, almost worth it just for the visuals alone. Despite some problems with pacing and slightly flat characters, it has an interesting premise and a damn fine payoff. It's not going to change your life, but it will definitely help you escape for a little while.