There’s a light behind Tom Cruise’s eyes that never quite goes out, no matter how downbeat his character is supposed to be. It’s as though there’s some internal fist-sized nuclear reactor powering him which will never run out of fuel. This is generally a positive attribute for an actor, and for much of Oblivion he brings some zip to its dreamy drift. But when the chips are down, and his character is faced with some existentially devastating developments, there is no sense from Cruise that there’s nothing here that can’t ultimately be handled. A furrowed brow, that high-register hitch he gets in his throat when things are getting desperate; that’s about all he registers. If his character was the last man on the planet, he’d fill the void with a whistle and a skip.
Oblivion – which comes out on DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday, August 6 – starts as some blissed-out spread in a post-apocalyptic edition of Architecture Digest before moving into Big Revelation science fiction. Cruise plays Jack, a happy-go-lucky tech who’s one of two humans left on the Earth’s surface in the year 2077. Jack and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough, lithe and ghostly) live in a gorgeously sleek pod of a place elevated hundreds of feet off the blasted landscape. It’s like one of those moderne postwar glass bungalows in the hills overlooking Los Angeles, only it floats above the clouds and is packed with all manner of gadgetry that would make an Apple fetishist’s heart beat dangerously fast.
From their gorgeous aerie, they oversee the defense and maintenance of a number of mountain-sized nuclear reactors sucking water out of the ocean to generate power. Jack’s voiceover informs us that, decades earlier, an alien race known as Scavengers destroyed Earth’s moon and invaded. Humanity’s pyrrhic tradeoff (use the nukes) won the war but destroyed the planet; the shattered moon still hangs in the sky in several of the film’s many gorgeous glowing vistas. So now, while humanity clusters on the moon of Titan, Vic sits at her glass screen of a computer terminal and manages the maverick Jack, who rips around in his motorcycle or disturbingly phallic-shaped vessel. He fixes up the giant beachball-like, gun-studded defense droids that defend the reactors against the left-behind “Scavs” still trying to wreak things for humanity.
It’s a dangerous life, but Maverick Jack makes the best of it. At night, he retires to dinner and loving with his Botticelli-like partner who likes to swim naked in their clear-bottomed pool; the ribbon windows gleaming in the glow of pink sunset cotton candy clouds. Jack occasionally goes off by himself to a valley left strangely green and fertile, where he has rebuilt an old cabin and filled it with ancient artifacts. If you don’t realize that it’s supposed to Mean Something when Jack carefully places his newest acquisition (a dusty hardcover of Macauley’s The Lays of Ancient Rome) reverently on the shelf, then you haven’t seen Zardoz or any of the other would-be science fiction brain scramblers that Oblivion liberally riffs on.
As long as it stays in this reverently shot idyll, the film maintains a hypnotic pull. It’s supposed to, of course, given what the real reason is for Jack and Vic’s mission. (Hint: his offhand reference to it being “five years since a mandatory memory wipe” should trigger alarms that not all is above board with their superior, a bossy Melissa Leo who barks orders down from an orbiting space station in a buttery Southern accent that does a bad job of hiding her authoritarian iron.) There’s something here that we haven’t seen much of in recent big-budget science-fiction: a dedication to bright visual motifs, for one, and a disinclination to jump right into the action. Jack takes a lot of time in the opening scenes just lazing around, reenacting the play-by-play of the last Super Bowl (2017) in the ruins of a football stadium or napping at his cabin while listening to Led Zeppelin.
But once Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski (whose inspiration for the film seems to have been primarily visual, with the story back-filling the pretty pictures) gets the wheels of plot turning, Oblivion moves into more familiar territory. It’s hard to say when the drama itself sours. That probably begins around the time that a black-robed and cigar-chomping Morgan Freeman (just here for the check) pops up as the leader of some underground-dwelling humans Jack is shocked to find himself trapped by. Strangely, as each revelation hits Jack with successive waves of Things Are Not What They Seem, the stakes seem to dwindle instead of increase. With all of Earth already annihilated — though enough easily identifiable landmarks like the Empire State Building remain sticking up from the black sands – there’s little of the sense of loss necessary for the tragedy of the post-apocalyptic narrative.
You could blame Cruise for part of this. He’s better when he’s on the move, mastering the territory with gymnastic mental and physical agility. He is not an actor who improves by hunkering his character down and trying to soldier through. But Oblivion layers too much on its star, throwing new twists at him one after the other (usually long after the audience has figured them out) and just waiting for his reaction.
A lot of science fiction starts out in cold reality and ends up in a hazy dream-state. Kosinski reverses that progression and his story never quite recovers from the pangs of waking up.