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Plot wobbly, but 'Oblivion' meticulously good-looking

By PIERS MARCHANT SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

This article was published April 19, 2013 at 2:43 a.m.

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Jack (Tom Cruise) is a humble drone repairman who discovers he’s not been told the whole truth in Joseph Kosinski’s sci-fi epic Oblivion.

There's a survivor ...

Drone repairman Tom Cruise is surprised to find a humanoid survivor (Olga Kurylenko) amid crash debris on a nearly deserted Earth in "Oblivion." The clip, courtesy of Universal Pictures. also features Andrea Riseborough.
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Beech (Morgan Freeman) is the leader of the (literally) underground resistance on Earth in Oblivion.

At this point, Tom Cruise has appeared in so many sci-fi movies in his career, it’s starting to feel as if he really is from the future. An impending time where honorable, hard-fighting men get spunky haircuts and spend the vast majority of their time in extreme close-up, grappling with futuristic gizmos and laser blasters and driving expensive looking multi-wheeled vehicles.

In his latest futuristic foray, the year is 2077, and the Earth has been largely laid to waste as a result of a catastrophic war between humans and an unseen alien invader. As his character, Jack Harper (in the future, action heroes are all still called “Jack”) proclaims, we “won the war, but lost the planet.” Jack is one of only a few remaining Earth-bound technicians, along with his wife, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who acts as the communication liaison between their tiny station and their commander, Sally (Melissa Leo), based within a giant space station floating far off in the distance, known as TET. Jack jets off in the morning from the small landing pad outside their beautiful, floating condominium (replete with wraparound swimming pool), and descends down to the barren wastes of the planet, restoring broken down attack drones, so they can continue the work of eradicating the remaining alien “scavs” that still poke around the nooks and crannies of the rock and sand, trying to eke out an existence.

Jack still has fantasies about Earth, and living there permanently in the secluded lakeside cabin he built somewhere in the mountains where the land is still lush, but the plan is for he and Victoria to finish up the last couple weeks of their duty and head off to the permanent human colony now set up on one of Saturn’s moons.

Things start going south for him when he begins to have a recurring dream about walking with a beautiful, dark-haired woman in old New York, and looking out over the city from the Empire State Building. When he tracks down the smoldering remains of an ancient, Earth sent ship and discovers the still functioning life-pods of the crew, he manages to save the very same dark-haired woman of his dreams (Olga Kurylenko), to the consternation of Victoria, who feels she needs to report this incident to Sally.

Naturally, it turns out, things are not quite what they seem, and with some prodding from an Earth survivor known as Beech (Morgan Freeman), the leader of a rag-tag colony operating underground, Jack begins to get a better sense of the true reality of his situation.

Director Joseph Kosinski, working from a screenplay he adapted from his own as-yet-unpublished graphic novel, shows a deft touch with the visual poetry of good science fiction. Things appear ultra high-tech, but remain extremely functional, and the mood of some of his scenes - particularly an eerily lighted evening setting in which Jack and Victoria go swimming under the twinkling stars in their pool - are beautiful enough to become practically transcendent. There are moments when the film, shot by cinematographer Claudio Miranda (the Oscar winner for last year’s Life of Pi) is so breathtakingly gorgeous, you’ll find yourself virtually overcome.

Unfortunately, that welcome devotion to atmospheric detail and high art production does not really extend to the plot line, which feels like a nonsensical mishmash of many things you’ve already seen, including Total Recall, Wall-E, Moon and Cruise’s own Minority Report. There are enormous plot holes and inconsistencies (let’s just say this vastly superior alien race has allowed a great many fail-safes to go entirely by the board), and the ending, as picturesque as it might be, is damn close to ludicrous. But the sheer physical beauty of the production, and the precise attention to the day-today details of Jack and Victoria’s existence successfully glosses over a fair amount of the film’s more otherwise prominent shortcomings.

Of greater concern is the amount of Tom Cruise you are subjected to throughout the film’s two-hour running time. Not only is his (admittedly well-preserved) face practically in every frame - a Cruise staple throughout the years - he has even found a plot device that enables him to achieve a perfect harmony with his considerable vanity. Without getting into spoiler-rific specifics, let us just say the movie allows him to fulfill what we can only imagine to be one of his most deep-seated fantasies.

As for his two competing love interests in the film, with Kurylenko, 33, and Riseborough, 31, both nearly 20 years Cruise’s junior, one is reminded of the most famous quote of David Wooderson, the aging Lothario played by Matthew McConaughey, still hustling after high school girls in Richard Linklater’s Dazed & Confused: “I get older, they stay the same age.”

Still, you have to give him this much: Cruise has clearly bested most of his male-lead contemporaries. Two of his earliest films were stocked with would-be fellow A-list stars: Taps featured Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton; The Outsiders had Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon and Patrick Swayze. Cruise has far outclassed all but Penn in terms of the length and otherworldly success of his career. All the while, the 50-year-old has maintained his boyish good looks while only adding to his bankability.

One thing you can say about the man is he knows how to choose projects. We might certainly wish his films weren’t all such grandiose vehicles for himself (when is the last time you’ve seen him in an ensemble piece, outside of his brief comic foray in Tropic Thunder?), but the man is relentlessly on point with his brand and knows how to sell it to maximum effect. If it turns out he really is a future human, or a space alien from some distant cosmos, we can be assured that it’s a race that has uncanny powers of self-marketing.

Oblivion 85 Cast: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Melissa Leo Director: Joseph Kosinski Rating: PG-13, for sci-fi action violence, brief strong language, and some sensuality/nudity Running time: 126 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 04/19/2013

Print Headline: Cruise control/The plot is wobbly but, like its lead actor, Oblivion is meticulously good-looking

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