Tom Cruise is the biggest star on the planet, yet his greatest strength is a willingness to take a back seat to a director’s vision. In Oblivion, the actor dials back his usual heroism to play pensive wanderer Jack, a technician preparing to return to the rest of civilization that recently vacated a post-apocalyptic version of Earth. After aliens destroyed our planet’s moon, humans nuked the crap out of them before heading to Saturn. Jack helps harvest remaining sea water of Earth, used as fuel on the new planet, and with only days left, he dreams of the past — memories he, theoretically, should not have.
That’s some serious plot. Cruise wisely goes along for the ride, leaving most of the work to director Joe Kosinski (Tron Legacy), who’s just as caught up with the fluid motions of his futuristic vehicles and decimated metropolis landscapes as he is with Jack’s emotional roller coaster ride. Kosinski, working off a screenplay he wrote with Karl Gajdusek (Last Resort) and Michael Arndt (Star Wars VII), picks and chooses an array of sci-fi concepts to stuff into the movie, making Oblivion a wholly original story where every moment feels familiar. Luckily, Kosinski is a master patch worker. He sweeps slowly over every landscape like he’s shooting a nature film, with a fetishism over the operation of every piece of technology so we understand how it works, takes us through the daily operations of Jack and his Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) step by step so we’re drowning in the monotony of their jobs. It’s a slow build and Kosinski, unlike so many genre movies we see today, demands we see the work he’s put into building the world of Oblivion. And it’s satisfying.
Cruise makes for the perfect surrogate on Jack’s observational journey. Like War of the Worlds, he can sell the blue collar worker going through the motions of flying his Mac-inspired spaceship to fix broken drone bots and he can sell the action that amps up as he uncovers the truth about his existence. Jack is never confident, and the emergence of a mysterious human visitor, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), or the leader of a subterranean resistance group (enhanced by the gravitas of Morgan Freeman), make him draw back further into his head. Kosinski twists and turns and forces Cruise back into his own head and it subverts our expectations of a public figure we still imagine jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch.
There’s an epic quality to Oblivion that Kosinski embraces too casually. It misses out on greatness by never finding an emotional hook and letting the score by electronica artist M83 do the talking. While Victoria and Jack’s relationship is meant to be cold (“We are still an effective team,” Victoria tells her literal higher ups each morning), there’s little personality in the world around them — especially in the overcompensating soundtrack. It’s a Tron Legacy rehash, blaring horns and pounding drums burying Cruise’s hushed work. By the end, when Jack rises up to hero status, it feels more like an excuse to match the soundscape than the next step of his evolution.
Oblivion is the definition of style over substance, but Kosinski delivers on the eye candy. He and Cruise give the story and characters just enough weight that they’re worth following through the multi-million dollar screensaver world — a spectacle that must be seen on IMAX. Dense with backstory, Oblivion is the type of movie that won’t survive scrutiny, and that’s half the fun. It’ll mesmerize in the moment and spur debate, fury, and plenty of questions on the walk to the car.
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