Clapping for Cruise

PHSMThe screening at which I saw Oblivion was, as many advanced screenings are, hosted by a local radio station that had given away passes to contest winners. Usually, someone low on the totem pole at the station gives away t-shirts and tries to get the crowd excited that they got to see a movie for free. Some of these people are better at their job than others, and some of them get better movies than others. That said, the poor woman who was assigned Oblivion was not at fault when the audience responded to her question “Who’s excited about Tom Cruise?” with five or six slow claps. Oof. Then someone yelled out, “Morgan Freeman!” And the crowd clapped. Unfortunately for the crowd, Oblivion is 95% Tom Cruise; Morgan Freeman is barely there. However, if you forget that you hate Cruise, you may like him in Oblivion, which is a serious, artful science fiction film hidden behind the veneer of a shoot-‘em-up blockbuster.

Cruise plays Jack Harper, who along with his girlfriend Julia (a most excellent Andrea Wiseborough), is tasked with managing and repairing an army of flying, armed orbs that are protecting massive hydropower machines hovering over the ocean. Seventy years earlier, aliens destroyed the moon, causing world-wide disaster, and then they invaded Earth. Earth won the war after nuking their enemies, but that made the planet uninhabitable. The survivors have fled to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. Jack and Julia are part of the clean-up crew, helping make sure those hyprodower machines create the energy needed on Titan. Jack fixes them when they’re broken, and Julia is the liaison between them and their boss Sally (Melissa Leo), who is in a giant space station orbiting the planet. The drones are protecting the machines from the smattering of aliens still trying to destroy all things human.

Or at least that’s what Jack tells us in the voice over at the beginning of the film.

An old NASA ship crashes down in one the areas Jack patrols, and when he investigates he finds the crew in suspended animation. The drones show up and kill all of the survivors except one, a woman (Olga Kurylenko) who he had been dreaming about, which is weird, since his memory was wiped five years ago. This strange event leads Jack to discover everything he believes is wrong. Morgan Freemen is the one who tells him.

As directed by someone like James Cameron or Roland Emmerich, this mystery and the Tom Cruise-centered action could have led to more forgettable, slighter, and bombastic movie. But Joseph Kosinski, directing from a script based on his own graphic novel, and cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who just won an Oscar for his brilliant work on Life of Pi, made a serious, stunningly beautiful film. In IMAX, the visuals and the sound are awesome; I was actually in awe. The landscapes of the destroyed, desolate East Coast of the United States, from buried New York City with only the tip of the Empire State Building visible to a mountain lake oasis where Jack escapes to think, are wonderfully imagined, designed, and photographed. Jack and Julia’s home high in the sky and the bubble plane Jack flies are also gorgeous: inspired futurism.

I can imagine that heady ideas and occasionally slow pacing of the film will bore some audiences. But I actually wish the film was more ponderous. It is at its best when Kosinski is paying homage to 2001 or Blade Runner and at its weakest when he throws red meat to blockbuster expectations, mostly through his use of a hammy Morgan Freeman. Cruise, to his credit, does an admirable job as the center of every bit of the story, as lovelorn, confused, determined, and honorable. I think the movie would have been better with an actor of more gravitas (Michael Fassbender, for example), but there is a reason Cruise is a superstar. He is a believable action hero. He deserve a little applause.

Directed by Joseph Kosinski
Written by Joseph Kosinski, William Monahan, Karl Gajdusek, and Michael Arndt
Starring Tom Cruise, Andrea Riseborough, and Olga Kurylenko
Rated PG-13
At your local multiplex


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