Tom Cruise’s ‘Oblivion’ does a lot with so little

Tom Cruise in 'Oblivion' — Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures
Tom Cruise in ‘Oblivion’ — Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

There’s no denying that Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko and Andrea Riseborough are talented actors. This trio of talent is able to bring so much to the sparsely-plotted sci-fi tale that is Oblivion. For the majority of the two-hour feature, these three actors populate a barren earth where humanity has largely been obliterated. The few survivors are already in outer space aboard a giant vessel hovering above Earth’s boundaries.

Cruise plays Jack Harper, a man content with his lonely profession, helping to ensure the planet’s remaining resources are scooped up for what remains of the future. He’s a man haunted by memories he cannot explain, and he’s willing to take several risks to ensure the security of the equipment conducting the resource collection. His partner, professionally and personally, is Victoria (Riseborough). Both characters tow the company line, accepting orders from Sally (Melissa Leo), the apparent leader of the mission who speaks with a charming southern accent, even when making dangerous demands.

For those audience members looking for dazzling special effects where alien ships hunt down other alien ships, Oblivion will not satiate the palette. It’s methodical and thoughtful, much more in the vein of Philip K. Dick and Stanley Kubrick than, say, Michael Bay.

Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt’s screenplay cares about the character of Jack, to the point where we spend almost all of our time with him and his insecurities. We’re less interested in how Jack will emerge from seemingly insurmountable challenges, and much more drawn into his personal struggles to acclimate himself to the surroundings. He’s living a life of no questions, where actions are based on orders, devoid of thought and feeling. He’s obviously one spoke in a larger bureaucratic wheel.

Of course, what breaks the monotony is when the unexpected begins to occur. Morgan Freeman turns up in a supporting role, and it’s tough to explain his character of Beech without ruining the fun and surprises of Oblivion. Rest assured, Jack’s predicament is much larger than a mere security issue to ensure the successful collection and transportation of the planet’s water supply. Something is lurking behind the wizard’s curtain.

Joseph Kosinski, responsible for Tron: Legacy, obviously has a great admiration for the sci-fi genre. His love is so pure, in fact, that he’s unwilling to let the story and characters jump into genre traps. Oblivion is many things (creative, original, rhythmic), but it’s by no means catered to the mainstream. Its evolutionary plot feels anti-Hollywood, as if the director threw out all cookie cutters and began the narrative structure from scratch. Just think: They have arguably one of the biggest action stars of all time sitting down, thinking about his actions and pondering life’s questions. Thrilling! (at least for me)

Cruise holds the picture together with his everyman personality and well-trained line delivery. Riseborough is perhaps the best of the three main actors. She gives off a visage of calm, even though she’s running marathons on the inside. Kurylenko’s Julia (another character I hesitate to explain) connects many of the dots, solving head-scratching questions that linger beyond the final credits.

Oblivion doesn’t feel like perfect popcorn entertainment, but it’s far ahead of most other cinematic fare. Its strongest parts are those that feel oddly anti-climatic. This is not what I was expecting, and that’s perfectly fine by me.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Oblivion

  • 2013

  • Directed by Joseph Kosinski

  • Written by Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt; based on an original story by Kosinski

  • Starring Tom Cruise, Andrea Riseborough, Morgan Freeman and Olga Kurylenko

  • Running time: 124 minutes

  • Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, brief strong language and some sensuality/nudity

  • Rating: ★★★★

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications.

E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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