‘Oblivion’ a visually stunning but too familiar Tom Cruise vehicle

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oblivion posterOblivion

Directed by Joseph Kosinski

Written by Karl Gajdusek and Michael DeBruyn

USA, 2013

Oblivion is a science-fiction Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together with the parts of older, better, films within the genre. If you have seen the seminal sci-fi movies, the ones everyone calls to mind when considering the best the unknown and supernatural have to offer, then you will be familiar with the angles of Oblivion, its many nooks and crannies. This Tom Cruise vehicle boasts striking visuals and a weirdly claustrophobic plot structure, but the familiarity it engenders only winds up doing it harm.

In a typically committed performance, Cruise plays Jack Harper (not to be confused with the title character of his last movie, Jack Reacher), one of the last surviving humans on planet Earth in the year 2077. Aliens attacked Earth and destroyed the Moon sixty years ago; as Jack emphasizes, though humanity won the war, they lost the planet, if for a few caretakers like Jack and his co-worker/lover Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). As Jack goes about his daily routine, specializing in fixing drones that ferret out any aliens wishing to continue the fight, he’s plagued by memories of another woman (Olga Kurylenko) that eventually leads him to some desperately-hoping-to-be shocking revelations about what’s really happening on and off Earth.

oblivion tom cruise

Tom Cruise may have flaws as an actor, but he doesn’t phone in his work, even if many of his action-movie characters feel of an interchangeable piece. They’re all dedicated men, inflexible in their duty and heroism, often to the point of rigidity. Jack Harper is no different, a textbook action hero: taciturn, a risk-taker, a lone wolf, but also a regular guy (proven here by his love of the New York Yankees and vinyl records). Jack Harper is, like Oblivion, generic. You have seen this man before, played by Tom Cruise or any number of other headlining performers. Oblivion stands out partly because it has very few characters, so we’re often spending good chunks of the film with just Cruise. And he’s still a commanding screen presence, but after a while, restlessness sets in. At what point will we learn more about the world of this film, about the monolithic representation of humanity in Oblivion’s futurescape?

The answers, when they come, are less dramatically satisfying or rousing, and more an extensive dump of exposition at our feet. (A similar problem occurs with Cruise’s opening narration, which does lay out the past conflict clearly, if quickly. However, we see Cruise say almost the same thing, in a slightly more nuanced fashion, later on in the film to a character who needs to be clued in. Why repeat this information as opposed to letting it unfurl as the story moves forward?) Of course, when it’s Tom Cruise or Morgan Freeman (who’s not in much of the movie but delivers the most crucial expository dialogue) weaving us these stories, you may be at least mildly compelled to pay attention. Still, what world-building we get here almost entirely is reserved for character monologues; it’s simply less fascinating to hear of this world’s creation instead of seeing it come to life.

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Director Joseph Kosinski (who wrote the graphic novel upon which the film is based) has, both here and in Tron: Legacy, the ability to be patient behind the camera. There aren’t many jump cuts in Oblivion, rat-a-tat editing that drowns the audience in visual chaos. Also, in an improvement on Tron: Legacy, Oblivion is a brighter film, though not terribly colorful; the film is being presented in IMAX, in a bigger but not IMAX-official aspect ratio, allowing it to feel more expansive. So there are moments where Oblivion achieves a sense of unique style, as in a shot where Jack and Victoria embrace in a clear pool, hovering thousands of feet above the ground. But even on the visual canvas, Oblivion often calls to mind touchstones of the genre like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, movies whose influences are too hard to forget and too easy to ignore.

Oblivion is not a notably terrible film nor a remarkable one. It lands squarely as a film that’s pretty to look at but difficult to care about. Tom Cruise, even after crossing the age of 50, has not lost his movie-star abilities, though it would be nice if he’d once again return to the time in the late 1990s when he was less known as an action star and more as a serious actor willing to take chances on risky projects. Tom Cruise in Magnolia or Eyes Wide Shut is far more memorable, both in skewering his public persona and in delivering nuanced, complex, hypnotically charismatic performances, than Tom Cruise in Oblivion. Considering that his character is known for being risky, it’d be nice for Cruise to make those leaps again, and soon.

— Josh Spiegel

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