Tom Cruise soars in ‘Oblivion,’ an epic paying homage to sci-fi
If you’ve never seen “Total Recall,” “Minority Report,” “WALL-E,” “Prometheus,” “Vanilla Sky,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Moon,” “War of the Worlds,” “Blade Runner,” “District 9,” “Predator,” any of the “Star Wars” or “Matrix” movies or “Independence Day,” you’ll exit “Oblivion” convinced you’ve experienced the greatest science-fiction thriller the world has ever known.
Then again, if you’ve never seen any of those movies, why are you starting with “Oblivion”?
Listing all those titles doesn’t really warrant a spoiler alert, as “Oblivion” could be borrowing or paying homage to any of the hundreds of memorable characters, images and story lines from that catalog. (No doubt I’m missing at least a half dozen other films referenced in this movie.) Suffice to say “Oblivion” is an extremely well-crafted, at times engrossing but ultimately standard-issue futuristic epic with some big ideas and spiritual touches separated by some very loud and explosive chase scenes, high-powered gun battles and even some good old-fashioned hand-to-hand combat involving Tom Cruise and — well, no more needs to be said here.
It’s the sci-fi movie equivalent of a pretty damn good cover band. You’re not getting the real deal, but you’re getting a medley of hits performed by some talented artists who clearly have great affection for the original material.
Consider this fun fact concerning Mr. Tom Cruise: For more than half his life, he’s been playing maverick action heroes with a propensity for falling in love on the job, disobeying commands at key junctures and overcoming his own flaws to do the right thing at just the right time.
That’s not more than half his adult life; it’s more than half his life.
We’re about a month away from the 27th anniversary of the release of “Top Gun,” yet the 50-year-old Cruise is still convincing as a 35-ish pilot of a very different sort in “Oblivion.”
Cruise plays Jack (not to be confused with his recent movie character “Jack Reacher”), one of the last humans still stationed on his home planet in the year 2077: the postapocalyptic, literally scorched Earth, which was rendered uninhabitable around 2017 after aliens dubbed Scavs (Scavengers) destroyed the moon, causing catastrophic earthquakes and tsunamis. We’re told Americans (and presumably any allies or even enemy nations with nuclear capabilities) eventually won the war, but the planet is now practically glowing radiation, and all that’s standing are the toppled landmarks that always seem to poke through the rubble in movies such as this: the top of the Empire State Building, a notable bridge or two, the Washington Monument, etc.
Jack and his partner Vika (Andrea Riseborough, in another top performance following her work in “Disconnect”), are tasked with repairing the drones protecting an elaborate system that is vital to the survival of the surviving humans who have set up camp on one of Saturn’s moons, and if I lost you at some point there, join the club.
We haven’t even talked about Olga Kurylenko as a hauntingly familiar, apparent time traveler named Julia, Morgan Freeman (who else?) as the leader of a certain movement and Melissa Leo, who delivers a fully formed performance despite certain visual limitations to her character.
The first hour of “Oblivion” is filled with Oscar-level special effects and set pieces, from the those relentless drones to Jack and Vika’s Skytower home base, which is so cool and provides such amazing views of the universe, even Tony Stark/Iron Man’s house would have Venus envy. (Apologies.)
Jack and Vika know their memories have been wiped — the better to perform their task without asking too many questions — but like most sci-fi heroes who have undergone a memory erase, Jack occasionally dreams or has visions of another life, another woman, another … mission?
Working from a short story that was eventually fleshed into a graphic novel, director Joseph Kosinski (“Tron: Legacy”) has created a terrific-looking futuristic world. Claudio Miranda follows his Oscar-winning work on “Life of Pi” with another stunning visual feast of digital cinematography and visual effects that almost never feel tacked-on or “thin” or herky-jerky. It’s a visually arresting movie.
But as the plot layers are peeled back, and we’re given one answer after another, “Oblivion” actually becomes less interesting. A few twists are pretty nifty; you can see others coming light-years away. The biggest payoff of all carries a lightweight emotional punch precisely because we’ve been told too much, so it comes off as vaguely creepy instead of deeply romantic.
Even though Cruise has gone through these paces before, he’s rock-solid here. Leo and Freeman deliver the kind of crackling supporting work you’d expect from Oscar winners. Kurylenko (also in the limited release “To the Wonder”) is a real screen beauty. She tries hard.
Having seen “Oblivion” in the IMAX format, I encourage you to do the same. It doesn’t mean you’ll forgive the script flaws or you’ll miss the nonstop references to other, mostly better films — but it’s the best way to see a film that shoots first and worries about plot later.