Movie review: A big story to tell in 'Oblivion'

This film publicity image released by Universal Pictures shows Olga Kurylenko, left, and Tom Cruise in a scene from "Oblivion." (AP Photo/Universal Pictures)



Universal Pictures

2 hours, 4 minutes

I’m not sure why this is, but often times I find myself cast in the role of Tom Cruise apologist. I’m not sure a guy worth a billion dollars and with the whole Scientological empire at his beck and call needs an apologist, but there it is. He’s just a great actor, plain and simple. He never goes half-way on a performance — he totally commits, no matter whether the rest of the movie is worth it or not. I have no urge to meet him and I think his beliefs are loony, but I always like his movies. As a result, a movie like “Jack Reacher” or this week’s “Oblivion” can be riddled with flaws, but because they star Tom Cruise, I know they’ll at least be passable.

Actually, “Oblivion,” though not great, is much better than “Reacher,” if only because it’s got a big story to tell. Post-apocalypse sci-fi kind of feels done to death, but “Oblivion” offers a fairly unique take on it, ironic considering how liberally it borrows from other films of the genre.

Cruise is Jack, a repair technician and one of the last people left on the planet. As he explains in an opening voice-over, Earth was the victim of a terrible alien invasion and subsequent war some six decades prior. The invaders, nicknamed “Scavs,” destroyed the moon, causing major tidal changes in the planet. Essentially, all those killer tsunamis you saw in “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” and “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012” — this is what the Earth would look like 60 years later.

The humans won the war and beat back the aliens, but at a terrible cost. The majority of the planet is a nuclear wasteland and humanity has chosen to fall back to Titan, a moon of Saturn, to build a new world. Jack, and his partner Victoria remain on Earth only long enough to maintain giant water processors, sucking up the planet’s oceans for transport to Saturn. Jack flies around and does recon while Victoria monitors from their sleek and spare Jetsons ranch-style, perched high among the clouds. Victoria answers daily to Sally, her project supervisor aboard the Tet, a massive triangular vessel flying high above the atmosphere, where the last load of humanity awaits their final journey through the stars.

The project is almost done and then Jack and Victoria can leave their posts, board the Tet, and start a new life on Titan. Sounds great, but there’s a couple of problems. One, Jack’s been having these weird dreams, dreams about another woman and a romantic meeting at the Empire State Building — dreams he shouldn’t be having considering he’s had his memory wiped.

The memory wipe leads to problem number two: Jack and Victoria have had their memories wiped to protect the rest of humanity should they be captured by any of the remaining scattered Scavs left on the surface of the planet. There are lethal flying drones, controlled by the Tet, to help if Jack gets into trouble, but being captured by the Scavs would be bad news. Or would it? You can see where this is going, can’t you?

In the end, “Oblivion” asks all the major questions: What is true? Who are we, really? What is the price of loyalty? Even, where does the soul reside?

I’ll admit that I figured out “Oblivion’s” basic twist five minutes into the movie, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a movie that tries hard to tell a story. The problem with “Oblivion” isn’t its ambition, but it’s execution. Many of the intricate puzzle pieces just don’t fit, no matter how much writer/director Joseph Kosinski seems to want them to. Morgan Freeman shows up as the leader of a mysterious band of humans who show up solely to provide exposition. There’s no reason to believe, if the facts of the plot are taken as true, that these people would exist.

As well, the downing of a strange spacecraft makes no logical sense at all, other than as a plot device to introduce Olga Kurylenko as Julia, the subject of Jack’s dreams. By the end, the actions of the characters have begun to fragment too greatly to keep track of, and Jack’s climactic line is less rousing than a lazy f-bomb, though only one, so as to maintain the all important PG-13.

With all that, though, I still really enjoyed the movie. Cruise’s Jack is reliably good, and Andrea Riseborough is excellent as Victoria, a company woman on the edge who just wants to finish the mission, no questions asked.

Kosinski, who was responsible for the incoherent “Tron: Legacy,” provides some gorgeous visuals and a tasty, though half-baked, plot. Whether you like this film, ultimately, I think, comes down to whether you’d rather watch a smart movie that tries to be dumb, or a mediocre movie that really wants to be smart. For me, the effort goes a long way.

Grade: B-

“Oblivion” is rated PG-13 for brief nudity, brief language, brief sexual situations, and some violence.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.


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