Aliens have invaded the Earth and we defeated them with nuclear weapons. The Earth is a wasteland and man has packed it up and colonized Titan, one of the moons of Saturn. Meanwhile, one ship (the Tet, which I assume is short for Tetrahedron, because the ship’s physical shape is that of a tetrahedron) stays behind to do clean-up. This involves protecting these large autonomous platforms from the remnants of the alien invaders known as ‘Skavs’. They suck in the Earth’s ocean water to be used by the human colony on Titan. This is the story told to us by Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) via voice-over at the beginning of the film, part of the clean-up crew. Assisting him in this task is his controller Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) with whom he is romantically involved. He will soon come to realize that everything he thought he knew was true is not quite what it seems.
Oblivion, directed by Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy), is what I would describe as a hard-core science-fiction movie. A lot of people think all movies with spaceships and advanced technology are science-fiction, but this is not the case. Science-fiction is a method of storytelling where you tell human-interest stories (morality plays if you will) among a backdrop of futuristic tech and worlds. Star Trek: The Original Series was science fiction. As an obvious example, the episode ‘Let That Be Your Last Battlefield’ involves two aliens who want to kill each other. Bele is black on the right side and white on the other (the master race) while Lokai is black on the left side and white on the other (the slave race). Clearly this was a story about racism and hatred. There was even a bit that touched on, in a roundabout way, the Vietnam conflict as well. The writers of that episode took an issue relating to the human condition and wrote a tale that puts the issue in another light. In this case in a future where the Federation was free of racism and could not immediately see the distinction in skin color between Bele and Lokai.
Oblivion uses this method of storytelling to explore the theme of human identity. What is it that makes us who we are? Is it our genetic background, our experiences as a person, or perhaps, metaphorically speaking, our soul? The backdrop might be a planet that has been laid waste due to war and conflict, but the story is that of a human, Jack Harper, and who he is and what makes him human.
There are parts of the film that are intended to make the general public not be bored by such a tale. There are action scenes meant to get the viewer’s adrenaline pumping and to introduce a feeling of conflict as well as some brief nudity to amuse the adolescent audience. However, these events are all necessary in order to show who Jack is and his place in the world. And then when something happens to put his worldview in question, he embarks on a “hero’s journey” to come to terms with how this affects his place in the world and what he is willing to do to save humanity from extinction as well as the person that he loves. Make no mistake, this is definitely a science-fiction film and one of the better ones in recent memory. I highly recommend it.