There are only two kinds of viewers that I can imagine getting much enjoyment to speak of from Oblivion,and I am both of them. The first kind are those people who felt about director Joseph Kosinski's 2010 debut TRON: Legacy, an unfathomably shallow demonstration of visual and aural style at its most computerised, that it was a wholly gratifying sensory experience, and they'd like to see more of Kosinski's video game-inflected cinematic style with a throbbing electronic score by a prominent European band (though, sadly, M83's music here, though excitingly paired with the imagery, is a massive step down in ambition and achievement from Daft Punk's TRON compositions). The second kind are people raised on a steady diet of the kind of science fiction that primes a person to regard the chief accomplishment of that genre is not its elucidation about the human condition, nor its study of the evolution of our society, but its exacting, technologically precise description of futuristic gadgets. I tell you that I belong to both of these groups mostly so that, when I hereafter claim that Oblivion is a good movie, you'll know that I'm wrong.

By all means, regardless of qualitative judgments about "good" and "bad", Oblivion is primarily concerned with establishing its world, at least for the first of its two indulgent hours. Adapted by Karl Gajdusek and Michael DeBruyn from a graphic novel that Kosinski wrote and has been trying to get turned into a movie for several years, the film takes place on Earth, several decades in the future, after the planet has been decimated by an alien attack in the late 2010s. That invading force destroyed the moon, which in turn made the larger planet hugely unstable, and by the point we arrive on the scene, geography has changed enough that New York City is buried mostly below ground. Here, humans Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are the single two representatives of the species left, assigned there by the commanders of the giant pyramidal space station Tet to maintain and protect the seawater-extraction machines that are preparing saline as fuel to get humanity off on its desperate flight to the Saturnine moon of Titan, the last hope to survive the dying Earth.

That's basic stuff, and it's pretty much what we get for a good long time: communicated awkwardly ( a massive infodump in voice-over at the very beginning, along with some artificial "do I have to tell you what you already know again?" dialogue), and dramatically indifferent, but as a love of post-apocalyptic scenarios, I don't mind saying that I was overjoyed both by the concepts and the way they're presented. Blowing up the moon to destabilise the Earth is a terrific idea, and it;s visualised tremendously well, with night scenes casually showing not just a giant pair of rock fragments in the sky, but also a barely visible band of white rubble stretching in either direction, describing the orbit of what used to be our satellite. I'm sorry, but I'm enough of a geek to think that's a really cool touch. And then there's the human element to this broken future: flying ships and weaponry and security drones and living spaces that are beautifully designed in the sleek, hyper-white style that has been a sci-fi mainstay in everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey to the 2009 Star Trek (the film's net of references, homages, and rip-offs includes these and just about every other moderately profitable mainstream sci-fi film or TV series of the last half-century), and presented in enough detail and with enough loving attention from the director and cinematographer/CGI landscape specialist Claudio Miranda that we can develop a fairly good idea of the functionality of these objects, rather than just gawking at their shininess. It's a stunningly well-designed future (outside of the unusually penis-ey ship that Jack flies), and all praise be to production designer Darren Gilford, art director Kevin Ishioka, and set decorator Ronald R. Reiss for their deep, convincing work, both in the sky-bound tower where Jack and Victoria live, and in the desolate ruins of New York below them. And to the visual effects team, as well, for the CGI (which almost totally eschews anything organic, and that helps) is as good as anything I've seen, in every detail, in a couple of years at least.

It's the kind of movie that you'd rather explore than watch, poking around and interacting with the objects (it's one of the only movies that I can ever recall seeing where I acutely wish it was shot in 3-D), and with Kaminski having cut his teeth as an architecture student and video game commercial director, he's uniquely well-equipped to make movies in this peculiar new world of popcorn cinema where "I'd rather play this movie than watch it" is a halfway legitimate statement to make. He is not, though, as demonstrated in TRON: Legacy and emphatically reiterated here, a natural-born storyteller, and as Oblivion starts to become inevitably more wrapped up in its story - first because of the appearance of a confused human from an old NASA mission, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), then because of a masked and caped Earth human leading an anti-Tet rebellion, Beech (Morgan Freeman) - it begins to go off the rails pretty hard. It is, as a narrative, entirely a delivery system for shocking twists that aren't really shocking, and stand up to not the remotest scrutiny; as in so many movies of this breed, part of the reason it's nominally unpredictable is because it's stupefyingly illogical. But oh, does Kosinski believe in this story, sacrificing all of the sense of world-inhabiting and visual bombast that make the first chunk of Oblivion giddy, addicting eye-candy in order to focus on the ebb and flow of a story that oozes more than anything.

The cast is terribly ill-equipped to make anything of their cardboard characters - Riseborough is the only person doing anything that's interesting in even the vaguest degree, and that only once the film's clunky love triangle (made worse by Cruise's total absence of heat with Kurylenko) kicks into third gear. There is a howling vortex in Oblivion where the characters are supposed to be, and that's only okay as long as it's a spectacle; TRON: Legacy could survive this, like Avatar could survive this, because of the sense you get that the filmmakers themselves didn't take the story very seriously, and new enough to keep the crushing visuals flowing freely. Oblivion can survive this only by the skin of its teeth, and only because I'm an easy lay for Asimovian "this is what buttons do in the future!" medium-hard science fiction. People who need anything remotely resembling an emotional anchor in their movies had best look elsewhere.