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Film Review: ‘Oblivion’

A moderately clever dystopian mindbender with a gratifying human pulse, despite some questionable narrative developments along the way

Although Universal’s publicity department has asked that journalists refrain from spilling the secrets of “Oblivion,” the major revelations, once they arrive, will hardly surprise anyone familiar with “Total Recall,” “The Matrix” and the countless other sci-fi touchstones hovering over this striking, visually resplendent adventure. Pitting the latest action-hero incarnation of Tom Cruise against an army of alien marauders, director Joseph Kosinski’s follow-up to “Tron: Legacy” is a moderately clever dystopian mindbender with a gratifying human pulse, despite some questionable narrative developments along the way. The less-than-airtight construction and conventional resolution may rankle genre devotees, though hardly to the detriment of robust overall B.O.

Getting the blockbuster season off to an early start on April 19, when it opens Stateside in wide release and in Imax theaters, “Oblivion” reps the latest test of Cruise’s bankability, coming mere months after he tried on a new ass-kicking persona with “Jack Reacher.” This time he’s Jack Harper, and without giving too much away, there’s an amusing, perhaps unintended existential subtext here about the somewhat interchangeable men of action Cruise has played over the course of his career. Still, the actor’s first foray into science fiction in eight years (if you don’t count “Rock of Ages”) comes with a more intriguing backstory than most.

It’s the year 2077, six decades after the people of Earth fought and vanquished an evil race of space invaders called Scavengers. But victory has come at a great cost. The planet is now an uninhabitable post-nuclear wasteland, and Jack (Cruise) is one of the last men still stationed on Earth, a fighter pilot/technician assigned to fend off stray Scavengers and repair the powerful drones overseeing a massive hydroelectric energy project necessary for the survival of the human species. It all looks and sounds a bit like a live-action remake of “Wall-E,” right down to the way the protagonist, spurred by natural curiosity and an unexpected love interest, finds himself on a dangerous unauthorized mission.

Until now, Jack has worked effectively enough with Vika (Andrea Riseborough), who guides his repair jobs with cool, formidable efficiency from the glassy confines of their high-tech home base (referred to as the Skytower, though it might as well be called the iPad). But unlike his partner, Jack is a dreamer and a bit of a poet, someone who can’t help reminiscing about the past or questioning everyone’s future. Haunted by pre-apocalyptic visions of a beautiful mystery woman (Olga Kurylenko), he can’t quite grasp why humanity, having won the war, has decided to permanently abandon its native planet for an uncertain future in space.

As he steers his sleek, pod-like aircraft over a landscape of eerie, desolate beauty, dotted with craters and radiation zones as well as lush, unspoiled lakes and valleys, Jack can’t quite shake the feeling that all is not as it appears to be, despite the chipper directives coming from the mothership (represented by a crackling TV image of Melissa Leo, boasting a deceptively sweet Southern drawl). Indeed, the audience will likely have a clear sense of what’s going on long before scribes Karl Gajdusek and Michael DeBruyn (working from a 2005 short story that Kosinski later developed into a graphic novel) get around to spelling things out; suffice to say the title refers to more than just the physical aftermath of Earth’s cataclysmic destruction.

Apart from an initial burst of neo-noir narration and a few moderately pulse-quickening action sequences, one of them set in the impressively imagined ruins of the New York Public Library, the first half of “Oblivion” adopts a spare, unhurried approach that conveys a powerfully enveloping sense of Jack’s isolation. Kosinski wastes no opportunity to linger — and you can’t blame him — on his alternately seductive and staggering visuals, richly conceived by production designer Darren Gilford and filmed with marvelous fluidity on the new Sony F65 digital camera by Claudio Miranda (following his Oscar-winning work on “Life of Pi” with another accomplished integration of cinematography and visual effects).

This patient narrative strategy works well enough until Jack’s big questions finally start to yield answers – many of them delivered, as answers so often are, by the sage presence of Morgan Freeman – and the story’s underlying thinness and predictability gradually become apparent. The superficial cleverness of the plotting, with its elements of amnesia, self-delusion and impossible yearning, at times gestures in the direction of a Christopher Nolan brainteaser (as does the surging score by French band M83, which sounds like electronified Hans Zimmer). But the lack of comparable rigor, ingenuity and procedural detail is naggingly evident, as is the almost feel-good manner in which the story explains away some of its morally troubling implications.

If “Tron: Legacy” offered up an eye-popping playground with more videogame potential than human interest, “Oblivion,” despite similarly immersive environs, provides greater moment-to-moment dramatic involvement. Cruise combines his usual physical agility and daredevil stuntwork with one of his more affable characters in a while, a high-flying dreamer trying to figure out mankind’s place in this brave new world. Although much of the picture is essentially a one-man show, Riseborough locates the blood and passion beneath Vika’s icy surface, while Kurylenko brings flickers of feeling to an underwritten role.

Kosinski’s architectural background is apparent in the picture’s suave, rounded design concepts and clean, coherent compositions, the effect of which is gloriously enveloping in Imax. Insofar as “Oblivion” is first and foremost a visual experience, a movie to be seen rather than a puzzle to be deciphered, its chief pleasures are essentially spoiler-proof.

Oblivion

Reviewed at AMC Century City 15, Los Angeles, April 8, 2013. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 125 MIN.

A Universal release presented in association with Relativity Media of a Chernin Entertainment/Monolith Pictures/Radical Studios production. Produced by Joseph Kosinski, Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Barry Levine, Duncan Henderson. Executive producers, Dave Morrison, Jesse Berger, Justin Springer. Co-producers, Steve Gaub, R.J. Mino, Bruce Franklin, Mike Larocca.

Directed by Joseph Kosinski. Screenplay, Karl Gajdusek, Michael DeBruyn, based on the graphic novel original story by Kosinski. Camera (Deluxe color, 4k, Imax), Claudio Miranda; editor, Richard Franchis-Bruce; music, M83; production designer, Darren Gilford; supervising art director, Kevin Ishioka; art director, Mark W. Mansbridge; set decorator, Ronald R. Reiss; costume designer, Marlene Stewart; sound (Datasat/SDDS/Dolby Digital), Paul Ledford; supervising sound designer, Ren Kylce; supervising sound editors, Gwendolyn Yates Whittle, Al Nelson; re-recording mixers, Gary A. Rizzo, Juan Peralta; special effects coordinator, Mike Meinardus; visual effects supervisors, Eric Barbra, Bjorn Mayer; visual effects, Digital Domain, Pixomondo; stunt coordinator, Robert Alonzo; associate producer, Emily Cheung; assistant director, Bruce Franklin; second unit director, Alonzo; second unit camera, Gary Waller; casting, Marcia Ross.

Cast: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo.

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