Tom Cruise could really use a box office hit right about now and “Oblivion” might be the film to do the trick. Already a success overseas, the sci-fi mindbender opens in the U.S. just two weeks ahead of the official summer movie season’s launch with “Iron Man 3.”
It’s not just Cruise who could use a hit after a string of recent disappointments, but also the entire movie industry. So far the year has produced only three real hits (“Oz,” “The Croods” and “Identity Thief”) and a few modest overachievers (“Olympus Has Fallen,” “Mama,” “Safe Haven”), to say nothing of the even more troubling dearth of movies that are actually, you know, good.
The quick take on “Oblivion” is “great visuals, not-so-great story,” but it’s worth saying a little more about this ambitious piece of sci-fi filmmaking from director Joseph Kosinski (“TRON: Legacy”).
Cruise stars as Jack Harper, a human stationed on Earth after the planet was evacuated in the wake of a nuclear war with sentient technology. Jack informs us that humans won the war, but have been forced to flee to Saturn’s moon Titan. He believes he will join the rest of humanity in just a few weeks, after his mission repairing defense drones and extracting vital resources is complete.
Jack lives with Vika (Andrea Riseborough), who stays in their home/mission control to monitor and assist him remotely when he travels to the surface. Both of their lives are turned upside down when Jack discovers the literal woman of his dreams (Olga Kurylenko) in a spaceship sleep pod and brings her home. Saying much more will spoil the film’s multiple twists — but we’ll just note that the film’s action-heavy advertising is drawn more from the movie’s second half and not its contemplative, slow-building and evocative first half.
Plus, just like he did with Daft Punk in “TRON: Legacy,” Kosinski supports the film with a killer electronic score. This time it’s by the French band M83.
If you’re still on the fence about whether or not “Oblivion” is for you, here are five more things to know about the movie:
1) “Oblivion” is first out of the gate in a big year for sci-fi
2013 is shaping up to be a major year for sci-fi filmmaking with hotly anticipated titles like Neil Blomkamp’s “Elysium,” Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim,” J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek Into Darkness,” Marc Forster’s “World War Z” and M. Night Shyamalan’s “After Earth” all due for release this summer, plus Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” and Francis Lawrence’s “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” following in the fall. As the first major sci-fi release of the year, “Oblivion” sets the bar at an acceptable level. But we’re betting that it will be quickly overshadowed by what’s to come. Releasing it before the summer season was probably smart.
2) It gives Tom Cruise one of his best roles in years
Tom Cruise has three Oscar nominations — for “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Jerry Maguire” and “Magnolia,” all well deserved — but it’s easy to take his talent as an actor for granted. Lately he’s been squandering those skills in various duds and misfires including “Jack Reacher,” “Knight and Day,” “Valkyrie,” “Rock of Ages” and “Lions for Lambs.” Only “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” provided a sturdy vehicle to properly capitalize on his movie star charisma, and the demands of that top-notch action film were more physical than emotional. “Oblivion” balances both sides of what Cruise can do so well, and even though the material isn’t up to the level of his performance, it’s nice to see Cruise over-delivering in a project that challenges him at least a little bit.
3) Director Joseph Kosinski’s visuals are worth seeing on as large a screen as possible
With a major assist from director of photography Claudio Miranda (who won the Oscar this year for “Life of Pi”), Kosinski delivers a nearly nonstop assault of striking imagery. “Oblivion” is truly something to see, from Jack and Vika’s sleek pristine living quarters atop an isolated tower to Jack’s lonely missions on the surface of an abandoned Earth — some areas have transformed into empty deserts in the wake of nuclear devastation, while others survive as lush and unspoiled natural hideaways (Jack loves to disappear to a cabin in the woods, and amazingly no horror movie antics disturb the peaceful escape).
The sci-fi imagery expands to include killer drones, Jack’s main mode of transportation — the helicopter-esque “Bubbleship,” and the mysteriously armored creatures Jack encounters on the surface. Take in the movie on an IMAX screen and you may be awed enough to forgive the storytelling shortcomings.
4) The storyline is a sci-fi mishmash
Like any young filmmaker, Kosinski owes a debut to those who came before and his self-confessed influences include “Blade Runner,” “2001” and “The Twilight Zone.” All of those are very much in evidence in “Oblivion,” but sci-fi fans will detect additional echoes of recent genre touchstones including “Total Recall,” “The Matrix,” “Moon” and even “WALL-E.” Some of the thematic and narrative overlap can be attributed to unavoidable sci-fi tropes, but taken as a whole it leaves “Oblivion” feeling like a great looking film constructed out of borrowed parts. The characters aren’t quite deep enough and the story’s twists are too dependent on murky motivations and head-slapping coincidences to satisfy. A little fleshing out would’ve gone a long way toward making “Oblivion” unique enough to reward the precision and detail in Kosinski’s visual aesthetic.
5) There are other actors in the movie besides Cruise, but not many
Not counting non-speaking extras, the only principle performers in the film besides Cruise are Morgan Freeman, Kurylenko (“Quantum of Solace”), Riseborough (“W.E.”), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (“Game of Thrones”) and Melissa Leo (“The Fighter”). That’s a pretty formidable line-up, but only Kurylenko and Riseborough have much of interest to do as the two very different women in Jack’s life. Freeman has a few exposition-heavy speeches and Leo has a pivotal role as a disembodied talking head overseeing Jack and Vika’s operation with a smooth Southern drawl, but they’re not characters, just plot devices.
For the most part, “Oblivion” is a one man show with Cruise backed by Kosinski’s eye-popping visuals and M83’s driving music. As pre-summer movie-going experiences go, audiences should hope for better but surely know they can do a lot worse.