I know that this started as a graphic novel by the director Joseph Kosinski, but it has the feel of a movie adapted from a short story. Instead of cramming in too many characters, we get a solid amount of time dedicated to a smaller number of them. Instead of world building bursting at the seams, we have a simple enough concept fleshed out enough for the story’s purposes. This movie has room to breathe, offering a completely self-contained science fiction story that has no need for sequels. It’s not perfect, but I can appreciate all of that along with the movie’s simple ability to tell a straight-forward story.
It’s been decades since Earth was attacked by an alien force. Humanity won the war, but they lost the planet which has become a radiated wasteland. They’ve built water harvesters that are taking the water from the ocean and turning it into energy. Guarding these harvesters from the remnants of the alien force, the scavengers, is a pair of humans, Jack Harper and Victoria Olsen. She mans the tower, communicating with the Tet, an orbiting space station and waypoint for the last of the humans on Earth before moving on to the established colony on the Saturn moon Titan. Jack maintains the flying drones that protect the harvesters.
Now, I will say that this movie starts wrong. There’s an extended voiceover from Tom Cruise’s Jack that explains all of that in precise detail, and it feels like something added after a test screening where some people filled out cards saying that they were confused slightly in the beginning. Better to have Cruise explain everything right up front rather than help build a sense of mystery. That explanation robs the opening of a certain sense of discovery that it would otherwise have. Maybe the voiceover was planned from the beginning, I don’t know, but it’s a mistake nonetheless. That most of it gets repeated, word for word, later in the film to another character, tells me that it was added in later.
Anyway, aside from that voiceover, the movie begins really well. Jack has to find two downed and missing drones. He fixes the first, giving us a view of the destruction of the world, his sense of the past that he was never a part of, and the danger of the drones that nearly kill Jack as soon as the first gets resurrected. The second one is hidden in a sink hole that leads to a library. Jack goes down alone into the dark only to find that it’s the drone’s transponder, not the drone itself, that is hidden below, and he gets attacked by the scavengers. Saved by the drone he just fixed, Jack picks up a book (Lays of Ancient Rome by Thomas Babington Macaulay), and makes it out again, heading back home.
Jack’s been questioning his role in everything, why they have to abandon the planet even though they won, but Victoria just wants to follow the regulations. The source of his difference is probably that he found a refuge away from the tower. It’s a green oasis in the middle of the brown devastation, hidden from radar where Jack has built a small home by a lake. Filling it with trinkets he finds in his travels, like a King Kong doll from the top of the Empire State Building that sticks out of the ground, he has a refuge from the clean lines of the tower and the dangers out in the wild. He’s also haunted by visions of New York before the war, before he could have been born, and a woman he doesn’t know.
Everything changes when the scavengers emit a beacon from the top of the Empire State Building, bringing down a ship in orbit that crashes nearby. Jack goes to investigate, against orders from Sally in the Tet, and discovers several humans in cryo-sleep pods. Soon after he arrives, the drone arrives and starts blasting the survivors in their pods, Jack barely able to save one, filled with the woman from his visions. This is Julia, and she seems as shocked by the people in front of her as the world around her, and the reason should be easy enough to glean from anyone with a bare understanding of how stories are put together. There are particulars that probably can’t be guessed, but it’s obvious enough that Jack is Julia’s husband in some capacity. That this is so easy to guess undermines some of the middle section because the movie, while giving up so much mystery in the beginning with its voiceover, has little mystery left and this point is so easy to figure out that there seems to be a hole. Really, that opening voiceover was a mistake.
Julia ends up the source for a lot of the movie’s second half reveals, but it’s Morgan Freeman’s Beech that offers up the most. He is a human on the planet, one that Jack thinks is a scavenger until he’s captured by them, given the opportunity to destroy the Tet which goes against everything Jack has known for his entire memory, the past five years. It’s when Victoria, concerned at Jack’s increasingly erratic behavior and finally broken by the obvious bond between him and Julia, tells Sally that they are no longer an effective team that the Tet makes itself known to Jack, turning on him and convincing him to help.
Now, there’s one more piece of mystery that gets added late, and I think this is a mistake. Jack gets allowed onto the Tet by bringing Julia with the promise that they will be a more effective team. However, it turns out that Jack didn’t bring Julia, he brought Beech and a bomb to blow up the Tet. We know the bomb is there, but the switch of personnel is kept a mystery from us, and I don’t really see why. The point should be that Jack is lying to Sally to get in to explode the bomb, which is there, but the addition of the idea that Julia is in the sleep pod that the audience is supposed to carry on actually undermines the amount of tension in the scene. Jack wondering if he can get through with not only a bomb but the wrong person adds to that tension. Hiding that was a mistake.
There’s a late moment in the confrontation with Sally that I unabashedly love. Jack quotes some of the Lays of Ancient Rome to Sally, namely from Horatius’ speech where he says, “How can a man die better than facing fearful odds for the ashes of his fathers and the temple of his gods.” Sally then replies, “I created you Jack, I am your god.” That’s such an awesome line, well established early by the introduction of the book and the specific lines of text and delivered wonderfully nastily by Melissa Leo as Sally’s voice.
The design of the movie is clean with a wonderful tower set that utilized massive projectors to create a very natural feel without any compositing in post-production. The combination of super advanced futuristic design with the grungy futuristic design of the underworld humans is well done. I wish some minor changes had been made to help enhance the film, but with each viewing I end up enjoying this more and more. This is a solid science fiction tale, well acted, well designed, and well told. It’s not great, and it could have been more than it is now, but it’s solidly good.