Review: “Oblivion”

Olga Kurylenko and Tom Cruise star in the sci-fi blockbuster "Oblivion," here reviewed by James Frazier.“Oblivion” is a movie certain to give you déjà vu, and not because that peculiar sensation is a plot point. This Tom Cruise vehicle sports a narrative that’s a blatant composite of countless other films, including but not limited to “WALL-E,” “The Matrix,” “Independence Day,” “Total Recall,” “Planet of the Apes,” and even director Joseph Kosinski’s own “Tron: Legacy.” A more interesting title than “Oblivion,” a word that doesn’t even appear in the film, might be “Tom Cruise Presents: Sci-Fi’s Greatest Hits.”

This is the latest film in Cruise’s continuing (and understandable) quest to prove wrong the forces that cast him aside after the odd spectacle some years ago that seemingly saw critical elements of his genuine personality and philosophy unleashed onto a public used to seeing its movie stars merely issue banal smiles in front of the camera. It’s thus perhaps just a bit ironic that Cruise’s presence serves to make “Oblivion” somewhat bland, smoothing out any potential edge of the story in service of his place as the film’s star. A major actor with less perceptible ego such as Hugh Jackman or Brad Pitt might have let this film take well-traveled material into new territory, but with Cruise, his own iconography as an alpha male lead becomes the film’s unfortunate subtext.

“Oblivion” starts with Cruise’s Jack Harper apparently the last man on Earth, a drone technician in 2077 protecting human assets from the remnants of an alien force that devastated Earth decades earlier. Humanity, nearly wiped out by the interplanetary conflict, is relocating to Titan, stripping Earth of its resources first, leaving Cruise’s Jack one of the only faces around, a situation that doubtlessly appealed to the star, whose films almost invariably require he be present in at least 90 percent of the scenes.

Jack lives and works with Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), the two of them sharing a residence in the form of a tower perched on top of a hill that looks, as do most futuristic things in film now, as if it were designed by Apple (the iTower). Jack and Victoria are lovers, sharing a romantic swim that temporarily spikes the film’s watchability, their only contact being Sally (Melissa Leo, angling for hammiest actress of all time), a superior officer whose video communications are transmitted in black-and-white, for some reason. Jack’s half-workplace, half-domestic bliss is threatened by visions of Julia (Olga Kurylenko)—black and white for some reason, again—a beautiful woman he may or may not know.

I won’t reveal much more about the plot, though the trailer has likely done that for most. I will say that for the first third or so, “Oblivion” is a serviceable sci-fi blockbuster, well-photographed and featuring some nice design work. Though the post-apocalyptic landscapes are too derivative to be fascinating, the iMachines, particularly the movement of Jack’s spacecraft, are a delight to observe. It’s later, when the twists are revealed and the plot begins to unfurl, that “Oblivion” becomes maddeningly mundane. Even the casual moviegoer is certain to have seen the lion’s share of its inspirations, meaning that the majority of the action plays more like a game of “spot the source” than the dazzling sci-fi adventure it should be.

The story, cribbed as it is, carries some significant dramatic potential. Here, Cruise plays a man who finds out that his reality might not be what it seems, but the film itself is largely disinterested in high concepts and characterization, instead defaulting to action sequences designed to satiate audiences’ thirst for spectacle. At one point in particular, after Jack has received a truly revelatory piece of information, the story positions itself to place its characters in a fascinating moral conflict, but it then simply resolves the situation with laser beams and explosions. Why do so few filmmakers realize that such scenes are exponentially better when there is a compelling human drama behind them?

If “Oblivion,” along with last year’s cringe-inducing bomb “Rock of Ages” and the dull “Jack Reacher,” are more indicative of Cruise’s lengthy “comeback” than the exciting-but-boilerplate “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” then the actor should seriously consider the possibility that those who doubted him were onto something. Cruise generally understands his strengths as a performer, but his desire to play the hero in expensive action films clouds his judgment. He can pull this role off, but he needs a director with the capacity to channel his charisma and energy into something fearsome, or at least interesting. What he doesn’t need is another film like “Oblivion,” glossy but forgettable, because one or two more and his leading man days will be blasted into the film’s titular state of nonexistence.