4/19/2013

Review: 'Oblivion' starring Tom Cruise and Olga Kurylenko




The lead character in the visually stunning sci-fi juggernaut Oblivion is a guy named Jack Harper, a regular blue-color dude who keeps having flashbacks to a happier time when Earth wasn't a scarred ruin. He's played by former megastar Tom Cruise, and it's a wonder if maybe he was experiencing a similar longing for the days when his films could be counted on to dominate the box office. In particular, Cruise found success with this particular genre in Minority Report and War of the Worlds, so it was always curious that he decided to largely ignore it for as long as he did. Here's hoping he never goes away from it again. We need more Jack Harper, much less Jack Reacher.

Science fiction films, perhaps more so than any other, have a tendency to crib liberally from what has worked before. Oblivion is no different. It's a very familiar film in terms of story, with elements of Star Wars, Moon, and Blade Runner, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's all in the execution, and Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski has constructed a gorgeous film with a powerful artistic signature and a compelling script.

Set in the year 2077, we're told via voice-over of the Earth's devastation at the hands of the Scavengers, an invading alien force who blew up our moon. The debris hangs in the darkened sky ominously, reflecting the bleak terrain of the planet below. The humans won the war with the help of nuclear weaponry, but Earth was destroyed in the process, so the survivors flew off to a giant space station called the Tet. Jack and his partner/lover Vika (Andrea Riseborough) are the only two left behind, their mission to repair the weaponized drones that protect the machines that drain water to fuel the survivors' transport to a new colony on Titan. Jack and Vika are the "mop up crew", picking off random packs of Scavengers whenever they turn up, which is usually at the worst time possible.

But there's something else going on that Jack doesn't quite understand. Unlike Vika, Jack has a memory of and fondness for the past. With his Yankees baseball cap and Elvis bobble-head, he's a nostalgic throwback who speaks in sports analogies and prefers to get his hands dirty even when technology could do the job. His jumbled memory often flashes back to a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko), and the feeling of happier times she inspired. Meanwhile Vika watches over his work from the comfort of their ivory tower of a home, reporting to the grinning, controlling head of Mission Control (Melissa Leo) who repeatedly asks if they are an "effective team".

The story begins to show signs of weakness as a questions begin to be answered, but fortunately Kosinski and a plethora of screenwriters are more than happy to keep throwing fresh questions into the mix. Jack suspects that something's not quite right with the world. His memory tells him so. It only gets more confusing when an escape pod crash-lands and he rescues the very same woman from his dreams. Morgan Freeman turns up as a secretive character who perhaps is too reminiscent of Morpheus from The Matrix, but to reveal any more than that would give away the film's biggest twists. The trailers have done a good enough job spoiling most of them.

Oblivion is the sort of huge, mesmerizing film IMAX was designed for. Kosinski has a better handle on choreographing his action, and it doesn't hurt having Cruise around to execute it. Putting his architecture background on full display, Kosinski has built a world of impeccable design, combining new age geometric styles that sit atop crushed ruins of the world's greatest landmarks. Cruise is no spring chicken but he seems to relish parts like where he gets to play the tough, exotic hero. Jack isn't as fully fleshed-out as one might hope, but it's only out of necessity. He still makes for an easy character to root for, largely due to his bravery, even he remains something of a blank slate. Freeman gets to chomp cigars and smirk devilishly, but not much more. Riseborough has the most complex role of all, though, bringing a vulnerability to a role that could have been thankless. She's had a number of great performances in her short career, usually in movies undeserving of her talent (W.E., Disconnect), but in her first blockbuster she more than holds her own opposite Cruise.

We've entered something of a science fiction Golden Age, and movies like Oblivion are a large part of the reason why. While it may not be as ambitious as some others, Oblivion is a gripping roller coaster that delivers on an epic scale.