He rides a sweet motorcycle, flies a badass futuristic stealth bomber, wears a cool NASCAR-like uniform, does a scene in zero gravity, and kisses two beautiful women. Needless to say, Tom Cruise had several reasons to sign up for “Oblivion,” and as an added bonus, writer/director Joseph Kosinski assembled a slick, compelling story around which to frame the riding and the flying and the floating and the kissing. Sci-fi fans will likely cry foul with regard to how much “Oblivion” borrows from a smaller film released a few years back (to say its name would give away too much), and rightfully so. Indeed, “Oblivion” is in many ways a souped-up, big-budget remake of the smaller film. The original is better, as is often the case, but “Oblivion” is quite good as well. It’s beautifully shot, it carries a palpable sense of unease, and it keeps its cards close to the vest. The poker face approach gets frustrating at times, but in the end it was nice to see a science fiction film that doesn’t patronize its audience.
In the years following a war that devastated Earth and killed the population, technician Jack Harper (Cruise) and his work/life partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) literally live in a penthouse in the clouds. Jack and Victoria take instructions from Sally (Melissa Leo) at Mission Control to keep a group of spherical drones functioning so the good guys can defend themselves against a group of alien scavengers who seek to undermine their efforts even though the war is long over. Jack has strange memories, though, of a woman he’s never met and a life he’s never lived. When the scavengers set up a beacon that attracts a ship, Jack investigates the landing site and is stunned to discover that the woman in his dreams is one of the passengers. Soon after, Jack receives a visit from the scavengers, and is forced to rethink everything he has ever known.
Kosinski showed with his directorial debut “TRON: Legacy” that he had a great eye for visuals, but he was hogtied by an underwhelming script. He’s in full control this time around – he actually wrote out a graphic novel of the story before shooting – and the difference in quality is significant. The drones, in particular, are beautiful and menacing, and they emit disorienting blasts of sound a la Hans Zimmer’s score for “Inception.” Eye-popping scenery and effects were a given, though; what sets “Oblivion” apart from “TRON” is how Kosinski handles the story. In an age where speed is king, Kosinski takes his good sweet time telling his story. In fact, when he finally decides to ramp up the action, it feels out of place with the rest of the film. Calling this thinking man’s sci-fi might be a bit of a stretch, but this is closer to that end of the spectrum than, say, any of the “Transformers” movies.
Alas, it is not without its flaws. The movie’s first act is in dire need of some tightening, and the fingerprints of focus groups are all over the movie’s bookend narration, which leads to the movie’s plot being explained twice in the first 30 minutes. Ironically, the film undercuts itself in the opposite way on the back end as well; once the story does its Big Reveal, it shines a light on doors that the movie never opens. There damn well better be a director’s cut on the Blu-ray that explores these avenues.
Tom Cruise doesn’t do science fiction very often, but he’s had good instincts when he picks his sci-fi projects (“War of the Worlds” notwithstanding), and the character of Jack in “Oblivion” is a good choice for him. It doesn’t demand a dramatic range – it just needs a hero, and Cruise has that down to, well, a science. It doesn’t hit all of the right beats, but it hits most of them, and gets extra credit for trying to raise the bar. We could use more movies like that, even if they don’t completely succeed.