Some people love Tom Cruise. Others… not so much. I fall into the first camp, thinking that pretty much anything the guy touches will be (at least) entertaining. My guess is that studio heads may fall into the second camp, or think the majority of people do, anyway. How else could you explain “Oblivion”, the big-budget, sci-fi Summer blockbuster that was released in mid-April? Helmed by “Tron: Legacy” director Joseph Kosinsky, the picture has a sleek, futuristic visual style that would’ve wowed Steve Jobs and has the biggest movie star in the world fighting space aliens. What happened? Why isn’t Cruise’s Jack Harper going toe-to-toe with the likes of Tony Stark, Dominic Toretto and Jay Gatsby? Maybe because ”Oblivion” isn’t the movie you think it is.
The trailers give you everything you need to know going in… but thankfully leave plenty to be discovered in the theater. It’s the future and humans have prevailed in a war for Earth against a hostile alien race. Sort of. After resorting to nuclear weapons to defeat the invaders , the planet has been practically destroyed. Civilization has been left in ruins, radiation pollutes the landscape. Large harvesters hover in the sky, extracting what’s left of planet Earth’s resources to ensure human survival on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, our new home. Jack (Cruise) and his lover, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are part of a two-man clean-up crew, maintaining attack drones that protect these harvesters from “Skavs”, or hostile cells of aliens still living on the planet.
With their boss Sally (Melissa Leo) guiding them from an orbital space station, Jack and Victoria operate in a haze of amnesia. They’ve been given “Security wipes”, erasing their memories and critical information should they ever be captured and interrogation by the enemy. Now, just two weeks away from finishing their mission and rejoining the human race, a mysterious space shuttle is brought down by a “Skav” beacon. Inside, Jack finds a crew of people, a link to his past and important clues as to what really happened on Earth all those years ago.
While you might be able to predict where some of “Oblivion” is going, a few of the twists will surely shock even the most seasoned moviegoer. But perhaps the biggest surprise left out of the film’s advertising is the lack of action. There are a few fight scenes peppered throughout, but this is no “Matrix” or “Star Wars” film. It’s closer to “2001″ or the severely overlooked “Moon”. “Oblivion” plays out more like a character driven indie than a tentpole FX extravaganza, with a fairly minimal cast and a slow burn story that would drive Michael Bay batty. It’s a lot of mood and mystery, and sort of crawls around until the last third of the film, when the pieces begin to fit together.
The script is as strong as the film’s VFX. Originally conceived as a comic book by director Kosinski, the look and feel of the environment were extremely detailed before he ever sat down to write the screenplay with “The Departed” scribe William Monahan. When Universal picked it up, they brought Michael Arndt on board to do a final rewrite. Arndt is no stranger to the genre. You may recognize him as the screenwriter behind Disney’s upcoming “Star Wars: Episode VII”. In any case, “Oblivion” has some top-notch minds behind the story and those who don’t need breakneck music video cutting will enjoy absorbing this lonely, desolate and dangerous future world brought before us.
Visually, the film is stunning. Kosinski certainly knows how to craft futuristic worlds. However, there were moments where I thought, “This looks pretty ‘Tron’-like.” Not that it’s bad for a filmmaker to put his stamp on work, but if he isn’t careful, Kosinski could become a one trick pony; the director who’s movies look like they’ve all been shot at the JFK’s Jet Blue terminal. Even the M83′s original music sounded like Daft Punk’s “Tron: Legacy” soundtrack. Fortunately, there are plenty of classic rock songs thrown in to break it up as Jack listens to old vinyl to help himself remember the Earth as it was.
The performances are good all across the board. Tom Cruise is perfectly cast as Jack as the camera is on him for literally 99% of the movie. Cruise has always been the kind of actor that just keeps your focus. You could watch him drink a cup of coffee or mail a letter and he’s just incredibly fun to watch. No, he may not be the best “actor”, but as a bona fide movie star he shoulders the burden of having all eyes on him for 126 minutes. Had it been, say, Kal Penn or Zac Efron as Jack, I probably would’ve thrown my oversized Coke Zero at the screen by minute 12 and wished for a real alien apocalypse to end the misery. Tom makes it work.
Both Andrea Riseborough and Melissa Leo do fantastic jobs as Victoria and Sally, respectively. Riseborough plays Victoria as part stepford wife, but scientist. You like her, but something is off. Leo does the same with Sally. These are the only two people in Jack’s life and the less the audience trusts their fronts, the more you wonder where the story is going. Both performances are key in establishing the feel of “Oblivion”.
“Oblivion” gets 3 out of 4 angels. There’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. From some deep rooted philosophical questions like “Do your memories and past experiences make you you?” to “What if there is no God?”. Maybe it’s good that they didn’t try to package and sell this as a Summer movie, because it may not have stood a chance against big guns and fast cars. But for now, before those crazy cinematic confections hit the screen with all the subtlety of a nuclear weapon, you can whet your appetite with this sci-fi gem. You may come for the eye candy, but you’ll be staying for a solid story with some pretty cool twists.