I've been a fan of Tom Cruise ever since Top Gun in 1986. Perhaps my favorite performance of his is Born On the Fourth of July, where Cruise proved that he was more than just a good-looking hotshot as he convincingly played real-life anti-war activist Ron Kovic from his teenage years into middle age (see my review here). I saw it in junior high when I had mostly only seen action and kids movies, and it was perhaps the first drama for adults that really struck me powerfully. I sometimes wonder if it was the film that knocked the romance of war out of me, leading me to strongly question the motivations given for wars to this day.
While many have written Cruise off due to his belief in Scientology, I never held it against him. Maybe it's because I'm an atheist and find all religions to be similarly strange, or that Scientology is guiltier of far fewer crimes than many "mainstream" religions. But more importantly, Cruise has been in great movies, and he's an actor of almost unparalleled intensity who seems to throw every fiber of his being into his roles, and sometimes literally throwing himself off of buildings. While Cruise's beliefs may make him the butt of jokes for years, when he dies, my guess is it'll be a replay of what happened to Michael Jackson. All of those who insulted him for years will fall over themselves to sing his praises and celebrate his artistic contributions.
Cruise brings his intensity and megawatt star power to Oblivion, a sci-fi film by Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski that feels like a sampler plate of concepts taken from other well-regarded sci-fi films. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing. Watch my ReThink Review of Oblivion below (transcript following).
Despite all the flack he's taken over Scientology, Tom Cruise is still perhaps the world's biggest international movie star and one of the few actors whose name is listed above the title on a movie poster. In that sense, Cruise's new film Oblivion seems like a no-brainer, especially for the international market, if you watch the trailer full of action; neat sci-fi vehicles and gadgets; beautiful 4K cinematography and CG effects; perhaps some romance with attractive accented women; and, most importantly, Cruise's megawatt star presence. But audiences expecting a sci-fi shoot-'em-up may be in for a surprise since Oblivion is actually a fairly slow-paced, twisty film about memory, identity, and humanity that will leave a lot of sci-fi fans feeling they've seen all this before.
Oblivion takes place on an earth left devastated and abandoned after a war with an alien race known as Scavengers, or Scavs. Despite winning the war, humans have been forced to flee to one of Saturn's moons or are waiting to depart aboard a giant space station orbiting earth called the Tet (short for tetrahedron) which is powered by huge generators on earth fueled by ocean water. Cruise plays Jack, sort of a futuristic fix-it man whose job is to repair flying robots called drones that protect the generators from Scavs still running around on earth. Jack and his wife/support team Victoria (played by Andrea Riseborough) have had their memories erased to protect the secret nature of their mission, though Jack is haunted by dreams or flashbacks of a life before the war with a mysterious woman.
That woman turns out to be Julia (played by Olga Kurylenko), as the hottest astronaut in the history of space exploration and a dead ringer for a young Catherine Zeta-Jones. When Jack discovers Julia in a crashed spacecraft and she seems to know who he is, and Jack later learns that a band of humans (led by an underused Morgan Freeman) is still living on earth, he begins to wonder if everything he's been told by his commander on the Tet (played by Melissa Leo) about his job, the war, and himself are lies.
So let the sci-fi comparisons begin. The first part of Oblivion is actually a lot like Pixar's WALL•E, since both are about diligent yet unusually curious workers on a desolate and abandoned earth who begin to wonder if there might be more to life and themselves than just doing their jobs. The issues of identity and the unreliability of memory reminded me of Steven Soderbergh's 2002 film Solaris, and the last part of Oblivion (which goes about 20 minutes too long) gets very Matrix-y. But the strongest parallel is with a film I won't even mention since it'll give away Oblivion's biggest twist, so I'll just say that it's written and directed by Duncan Jones and came out in 2009.
But while Oblivion is derivative, that's not at all saying it's a bad movie. The 4K digital cinematography (especially in IMAX) looks fantastic, the CG effects are totally seamless, and the production design is top notch. The score by M83 is nice, though sometimes a bit loud, and the acting is mostly good, except for Freeman, who does a lot of explaining but seems out of place, like he never bothered to figure out what the story was about. And Cruise, as always, throws himself into the role 100%, does a lot of his own stunts, and still has that star quality that's hard to take your eyes off of.
However, this is also not to say that Oblivion is a great movie. It's...an interesting movie that doesn't bludgeon you with action, keeps you on your toes with some twists and surprises, and expects the audience to pay attention. But unlike most sci-fi stories, Oblivion doesn't have anything to say about society, humanity, or culture, nor does it provide any predictions or warnings about where mankind might be headed, nor does it have characters you really relate to. Oblivion is well made and will keep you engaged, but I doubt it'll elicit strong emotions in either direction.