“Vision” is the word. It’s the thing that for 20 years now every D-grade twaddle tosser in American film has claimed to have – especially those in the business of mounting pro forma nine-figure blockbusters meant to harvest gobs of money at the civilized world’s collective megaplex.
It’s as if every Michael Bay or Brett Ratner wannabe somehow thought of him or herself as the equivalent of David Lynch or Ridley Scott or Tim Burton in the Hollywood Visionary Club.
Well, you might want to sit up here and pay attention with me. Joseph Kosinski’s “Oblivion” is an authentic sci-fi vision. It is, in fact, rather stunningly pure – amazing to look at in any case, from beginning to end. No one’s going to claim that taut narrative and behavioral subtlety will have you on the edge of your seat for 126 minutes, but as a visual projection up on a screen, it is so uncommonly fine that some of us, frankly, are willing to sacrifice a good deal of dramatic urgency in exchange.
When I say “Oblivion” is a pure vision, that’s literal. It began with writer/director Kosinski as a short graphic novel, so its creator had created something of its mesmerizing look at the same time as its story. And that creator – Kosinski – now reveals himself to be a vastly more promising filmmaker than anyone thought the 38-year-old was while watching his previous film, the “Tron” sequel called “Tron: The Legacy.” (It seems that when Kosinski isn’t making originals, sequels and remakes – or agreeing to make them – he teaches architecture. You’ll believe it in “Oblivion” as he imagines how the Empire State Building will look as a post-nuclear ruin.)
His cinematographer here is the great Claudio Miranda, whose seamless work with computer-generated imagery in “The Life of Pi” was both amazing and exemplary. Kosinski’s all-important production designer is Darren Gifford, his man in “Tron: The Legacy,” too. The two of them are clearly a remarkable team.
So you want to know about Tom Cruise now? Well, he’s fine. His character is named Jack again in this – Harper this time, not Reacher. His Jack luck is holding. His “Jack” films are giving this congenitally boyish actor a plausible way to hit 50. (He celebrated his 50th birthday when this movie was being made.)
Good Scientologist that he seems to be, he gravitates as naturally to sci-fi as Steve Carell does to schlemiel comedies. Give Cruise a part that requires as much running around, falling, rope-dangling and explosion-dodging as he’s still able to do, and he’s as happy as a pig in Congress – especially if his dialogue is decidedly minimal and replaced by a lot of flat-toned voice-over narration.
“Oblivion” is a dystopian fantasy about a future world of clones and drones that is now attended by two isolated humans doing “mop up” work on an abandoned and once-teeming and glorious planet called Earth. What happened, you see, is that some scavengers from outer space destroyed our moon in an act of war, causing earthquakes, tidal calamities, etc.
In the war of humans vs. scavengers (scavs, for short), nukes were used. Vast parts of Earth were made uninhabitable. Remaining humans piled into spaceships and hightailed it to Titan, a satellite of Saturn.
That’s our frame tale as they call it in the fancier quarters of narrative study. We follow Jack as he leaves his beautiful live-in communications officer Victoria (Andrea Riceborough) every morning on patrol to repair the drones protecting Earth. He wears a New York Yankees ball cap, makes complicated drone repairs with chewing gum, and comes back home at night to have idyllic space sex with Victoria in a future glass and Plexiglas space station that has apparently obviated the need for dusting and doing laundry.
Even though he and Victoria’s memories have been wiped clean by a machine, Jack is still nagged by flashes of remembrance and the feeling that “Earth, in spite of all that has happened, is still my home.” He plays hooky in a verdant garden spot he found in a hidden valley and listens to vinyl albums of the Stones and Led Zeppelin.
But then on patrol one day, he encounters a crashed spaceship full of humans in pods suspended in deep sleep. He rescues one of them from the evil human-hunting drones – a beautiful woman named Julia played by Olga Kurylenko who wastes no time calling him “Jack.” Triangles in a post-apocalyptic space station are no easier to negotiate than they are in bars at closing time. And that’s even before Morgan Freeman shows up chomping on a big cigar and wearing round blue shades that always seem to reflect Jack’s image on their surface.
Cruise is actually beginning to look 50 – not the way most of us look 50 when the age hits but, nevertheless, with some creases and bags under his eyes you might expect from a guy born in 1962. He’s wearing them well, I must say. It’s about bloody time.
So good is everything about the look of this movie in every way that I didn’t much care when some of the big dramatic moments went flat. (Recommendation to Kosinski: Watch the finale of Don Siegel’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” again.) So don’t waste time lamenting the dearth of drama; just relish one of the most authentic sci-fi movies in a long while.
Three and a half stars
Starring: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Running time: 126 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, strong language, nudity and sensuality.
The Lowdown: A veteran assigned to extract Earth’s remaining resources begins to question what he knows about his mission and himself.