CINEMA: The Ends Of The Earth


OBLIVION (2013, directed by Joseph Kosinski, 124 minutes, U.S.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC The hype seemed a little underwhelming in trumpeting the release of the epic sci-fi flick Oblivion. Arriving pre-blockbuster season and directed by the newcomer behind the underwhelming Tron: The Legacy, I’d be kidding if I said optimism was in bloom. Yet with spring, all possibilities are possible: Oblivion is a minor triumph of lowered expectations, sporting a fairly fresh premise and gorgeous production design, while serving as a somewhat sturdy vehicle for its middle-aged star to fire laser guns and fly space cruisers like a he’s making a Sci-fi’s Greatest Hits covers album.

The lead character Jack establishes the premise in an opening voice-over; an alien race has attacked the Earth, destroying its moon and plunging the planet into a ravaged chaos. Space arks have taken many to Saturn’s moon Titan but Jack and his partner Victoria stay behind where they can help the resource extraction that powers the space arks. Jack spends the day patrolling the wasteland that was once NYC (we see the observation deck of the Empire State Building peeking out through the desert floor) and fighting “The Scavs,” the remaining aliens who wander in tribes across the desert landscape and occasionally make terrorist strikes at the power sites.

The film’s opening third is its most original, detailing the life of Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (English actress Andrea Riseborough) in their cloud-dwelling residence, like a skyscraper with only a 99th floor. Bathed in white light, there’s a gorgeous sterility to the couple’s living quarters (easy to imagine they just filmed in Cruise’s real-life digs) which includes a glass bottom swimming pool allows you to swim across the sky. The couple also work out of their place (telecommuters!), with Victoria donning a headset and directing missions from her hi-tech cubicle as Jack rockets around the landscape in his space speedster looking for adventure (shades of Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds puppetoon).

It was interesting that even as we’re taken to the fantasy year of 2077, Oblivion can’t imagine the work place as much different as it is today. At her work-station Victoria is in near-constant contact with her boss Sally (Melissa Leo), who ends most transmissions with the corporate-speak question, “Are you and Jack an ‘Effective Team’?” Victoria has to manufacture a spontaneous affirmation each time, “Yes, we’re as effective as ever.” Even in our wildest dreams, we can’t escape our boss’ inanities.

Oblivion hints at the existential soul-searching of Duncan Jones’ Moon, where despite the luxury, Jack finds something missing. He wants to know more about the memories both he and Victoria had wiped, and he maintains a secret lakeside getaway where he fires up this ancient turntable and listens to Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On.” For baseball fans: he unwinds with a Yankees cap on his head. For music fans: what records does space jock Tom Cruise have in his collection? Exile in Main St., Duran Duran’s “Rio,” Asia’s self-titled debut, Pink Floyd’s The Wall and an early record by country singer Conway Twitty. His favorite song: Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale.” Let me say, that’s a depressingly mundane collection of classics but then I would never have pegged fighter pilot Jack as being a “deep catalog” guy. Instead, at 50, T.C. is still the square-jawed Maverick from Top Gun, when his wife tells him to “be careful out there” he does everything but wink at the camera. It could be noted that the actress playing his wife was born the same year that Cruise burst out on screen in the military school drama, Taps.” How could Katie Holmes give this up?

But it is hard to jump on our aging matinée idol, he still brings that urgency, that comfort on screen and he looks like an old paperback sci-fi cover star in his resplendent white leather flight suit. If Kosinski’s script asked more of him, he would probably deliver that as well. We may all know that Cruise is a cult-crazed positive-thinking maniac, but he is not ready for The Expendables 3 just yet.

After laying the groundwork for a deeper psychological take in its opening, Oblivion returns to action film mode after a space craft arrives containing a beautiful young astronaut named Julia (Olga Kurylenko of A Quantum of Solace.) At the high rise love nest three makes a crowd, leading to a jealous rage and an escape into Scav-Land to find out what secrets Jack’s overlords might be hiding. Although the film touches on issues of identity, memory, colonization and revolution, Kosinski’s script fails to develop the ideas, they’re mainly the glue connecting the action sequences.

Morgan Freeman also shows up late as the game, looking like one of A New Hope‘s Sand People. More than Tom Cruise, Freeman’s iconic nature is distracting; his voice’s dulcet tones now draw connections to ads for Visa or nature documentaries as much as anything else. Movie stars earn their big bucks in those ubiquitous ad campaigns, our constant recognition of their voices drains something from an actor’s powers. If James Earl Jones is the voice of Darth Vader and AT&T, it is hard to just imagine him as your neighbor.

Cruise maneuvers his speedster like Luke in the first Star Wars trilogy, he quick draws his blaster like Han Solo, he fights his computer bosses like Ripley in Alien and has a spiritual moment like Keir Dullea in 2001. And he also still jumps away from encroaching fireballs like no other actor. The film’s original moments are decorated with so many moments of sci-fi past and it is a mildly embarrassing but not ineffective strategy for big screen success. Kosinski’s no fool when it comes to business, Oblivion’s finale might solve most of its mysteries but it also looks like the opening battle in an sequel-spanning war. Imagine a tomorrow where Tom Cruise spends a decade mopping up this dystopic mess in Oblivion II & III and you can decide for yourself if this future should be described as “hopeful” or “bleak.”