After two misfires, Tom Cruise gets back to the business of being Tom Cruise with Oblivion.
This means big budget, high production values, and action aplenty for the ageless 50-year-old star, paired with a solid but not spectacular post-apocalyptic film heavy on genre references.
The planets near demise is caused by the alien Scavengers, Scavs for short, who, in their zeal to pillage Earth for its resources, destroyed the moon as a pre-invasion tactic. In desperation, humanity countered with nuclear strikes.
The good news: We won the war. The bad news: Earth was laid to waste. Mankind has since relocated to Saturn’s moon Titan as its new home, while an orbiting station keeps tabs on our former planetary residence.
Even in its bleak state, Earth still has the necessary resources for our survival — namely water — which is drawn out in towering vacuums and ship to our Titan colony. To protect these structures from the Scav remnants, two lone humans, Jack (Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough, a pleasant screen presence), are dispatched to live in a high-tech apartment in the clouds propped up by giant stilts and monitors the desolate world below.
Jack spends most of his days zipping across the barren landscape and its remnants of civilization in a sleek rocket-plane. His priority is to repair the robotic security drones, floating orbs of death with an array of nasty weaponry to fry anything alien in the remaining habitable zones.
Victoria sits at a high-tech desk monitoring his status and keeping their space station boss, a southern woman named Sally (Melissa Leo), apprised of their missions. Victoria is in love with Jack, and with only two weeks until they are to be relieved of their duties and sent back to the Titan colony, she wants nothing to interfere with their future.
But there’s another woman in Jack’s life — a mysterious beauty who haunts his dreams. His obsession turns into flesh and blood when he investigates a spacecraft’s crash landing. Julia (Olga Kurylenko) is the lone survivor of this 60-year-old NASA mission from a time before the Scav war — she’s been in a state of hibernation — and she hints that there is significantly more to Jack’s reality than he knows.
Adding to his confusion is the appearance of Beech (Morgan Freeman, in a small but important role) and his small group of disheveled humans hiding in the wastelands from the drones. If humanity left Earth, why are there people remaining on the planet? And what lies beyond the safe zones of no radiation?
Jack’s quest for answers presents a few twists, but none of what he discovers is particularly revelatory, as Oblivion director and co-writer Joseph Kosinski name checks post-apocalyptic movies such as The Planet of the Apes, Independence Day, The Matrix, Wall-E, and others. Based on an unpublished graphic novel from Kosinski, Oblivion is a hand-me-down of genre ideas and concepts grafted into something new, but hardly different. It’s a film that fails to differentiate from the familiar as truly great science fiction does.
Kosinski debuted in 2010 with Tron: Legacy, a hollow film memorable for its intense action sequences and seamless blend of real world and CGI. Oblivion isn’t a significant departure from that formula or a sizable maturation of his filmmaking skills. Like Tron: Legacy, the film’s arsenal of effects and impressive scale often overwhelm its story and cast.
This is where Cruise earns his sizable paycheck and reputation, as his charisma and significant star power are more than adequate to win our attention through the dazzling visuals as he shoulders the story despite its lack of originality.
Even as so many once-bankable action stars ungracefully age out of the genre, Cruise reclaims it ... and returns to doing what he does best.
Directed by Joseph Kosinski. Written by Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek, and Michael Arndt, based on the graphic novel. A Universal release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, brief strong language, and some sensuality/nudity. Running time: 126 minutes.
Critic's rating: ***
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.