Anybody familiar with science fiction cinema will know where Tom Cruise’s third sci-fi saga “Oblivion” is heading before it arrives as its formulaic destination. Whether anybody cares is another question. Frankly, I preferred Cruise in his previous movie “Jack Reacher” to the slick but lackluster “Oblivion.” Tom Cruise displayed greater personal charisma in “Jack Reacher” than he does in “Oblivion.” Mind you, nothing about this post-apocalyptic actioneer where earthlings duke it out with better-armed extraterrestrials is anything like Cruise’s first sci-fi outing, Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report.” “Minority Report” was a futuristic morality thriller set in Washington, D.C., about an elaborate machine that predicted crimes before they occurred. Instead, “Oblivion” resembles Steven Spielberg’s abysmal adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic “War of the Worlds” with its global destruction drama where Cruise struggles to protect his daughter.
Comparatively, “Oblivion” (** out of ****) occurs primarily on Earth, but the action unfolds in the year 2077 long after planet Earth has been devastated by both aliens and Mother Nature. Cruise is suitably cast as a handy man in a uniform who flies around in a dragon-fly helicopter and repairs drones on the planet surface. Although he has five decades of stardom under his belt, Cruise hasn’t let it go to his waistline. In other words, he isn’t ashamed to show off his lean, muscular physique. Unfortunately, he plays a rather dreary, straightforward schmuck who, through no fault of his own, could be anything but dreary. When he isn’t fixing space gadgets, Cruise falls back into action hero mode with a look of grim determination to vanquish evil. Meanwhile, two women wage their own war over him. Sure, even in the future, some things never really change. This enigmatic, earth-bound, sci-fi epic looks sensational. Oscar winning “Life of Pi” lenser Claudio Miranda’s lush cinematography and Darren Gilford’s sleek production designs are a treat for the eye. Sadly, stunning, sunlit scenery and scintillating photography cannot compensate for a plodding narrative. Sophomore director Joseph Kosinski of “Tron: Legacy” and “Trepass” scenarist Karl Gajdusek with “Toy Story 3” scribe Michael Arndt serve up predictable pabulum, with hum
drum characters, and surprises that only sci-fi fans will anticipate without relish. I cannot really divulge much about the plot without spoiling it.
The premise of “Oblivion” is difficult to accept without hoisting your eyebrows. Most of planet Earth sprawls in ruins after the mother of all wars. Aliens identified only as ‘Scavengers’ have blasted away half of the Moon. Afterward, Mother Nature raised Hell itself with every cataclysm you can imagine. What Mother Nature and the aliens didn’t bring to this apocalyptic smackdown, Earth provided in the form of nuclear weapons. We’re informed that Earth repulsed the extraterrestrials, but the devastation has prompted mankind to pack up for Saturn’s largest moon Titan. Meantime, Earth’s survivors have masterminded an enormous tetrahedral space station known simply as the Tet. Imagine the Death Star from the “Star Wars” franchise orbiting Earth. This Tet can launch dozens of spherical drones that resemble the ball turret gunners on vintage B-17 Flying Fortresses from World War II. Jack keeps these heavily-armed, drones airborne and the drones fly sorties to safeguard mega-gigantic hydro rigs sucking water out of Earth’s ocean. These rigs are extracting the last useful minerals that will be shipped off to Titan. However, there is one catch. The Scavengers haven’t entirely surrendered, and these guerrilla factions menace Jack and company. Nevertheless, Jack and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) live together in blissful ignorance on a towering house far above Earth’s surface and conduct their assigned routines.
One day Jack watches as a spacecraft re-enters Earth’s atmosphere and crashes nearby. He manages to get to the crash site and save one of the life pods that contains Julia (Olga Kurylenko of “Centurion”) before the drones wipe the rest out. All along, our hero has been having some wild dreams inhabited by a woman who resembles Julia. Equally distressing for Jack is that the lady of his dreams lived over sixty years ago well before he was born. Imagine his surprise when she tells him that she is his wife. Things get even weirder when Jack stumbles onto an army of beastly looking customers led by a cigar-chomping Morgan Freeman. This is about as far as I can go without blowing the lids on several significant plot points.
“Oblivion” doesn’t qualify as the kind of sci-fi movie you’ll remember a week after you’ve seen it. The aliens versus earthlings tale doesn’t provide the kind of cool looking action featured in either “Star Wars” or “Robinson Crusoe on Mars.” Cruise’s military outfit and his arsenal of weapons look bland. The clever looking dragon-fly helicopter performs some nimble stunts, but it is a far cry from the chopper in “Blue Thunder.” The plot and its surprises are something that you’d expect from the SyFy
Channel. Only a handful of characters populate this two-hour plus spectacle, and none of them spout any memorable dialogue or strike an interesting pose. At one point, Cruise’s Jack straddles a motorcycle and rides through desolate oceans that have become colossal sandlots with nuclear subs and aircraft carriers littering the terrain. The mission that Jack embarks on eventually is straight out of the first “Star Wars” movie as is an aerial dogfight between Jack and the drones along a twisting corridor of rocks. When you finally learn what is really going on in “Oblivion,” you’ll know why it lives up to its name. Director Joseph Kosinski really botched this adventure. Not only does he wimp out with his characters, but also he stages some of the tamest confrontations in many moons. Incidentally, after you watch or avoid “Oblivion,” you should watch another sci-fi movie with similar themes entitled “Moon” with Sam Rockwell. Altogether, “Oblivion” qualifies as respectable but second-rate fare.0