1 and 1/2 stars out of 4 stars
Although he, his agent, a few studios and his loyal fan base haven't quite figured it out yet, the 50-year-old Tom Cruise has long passed his action star prime and, possibly, his status as a bankable leading man. Thanks to a talented personal trainer, expert hair and makeup personnel and flattering lighting, Cruise still has something resembling those boyish, All-American good looks that propelled him into superstardom three decades ago, but the spark and verve are gone.
Essentially a $120 million art film, "Oblivion" -- adapted from the director Joseph Kosinski's unpublished graphic novel -- would have seemed groundbreaking had it come out when the sci-fi genre was in its infancy stage -- say, 1955. Today it plays out like a sci-fi greatest hits album performed by a single cover artist who was never good enough to record his or her own material. Every single sound, image, thought, scenario and word of dialogue is lifted from another far-better movie and most of it is beyond blatant.
Set in the year 2077, "Oblivion" takes place in what used to be New York City. We know this because we can identify bits of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty ("Planet of the Apes") strewn across the gun-metal gray landscape. All of the humans that survived the 2017 apocalypse are housed at an unseen weigh station ("WALL*E") awaiting transport to their new home -- one of Saturn's moons.
Jack (Cruise) is one of the few who remains and works as a drone repairman in tandem with Victoria (Andrea Riseborough, much better in this week's "Disconnect"), a communications expert who never leaves their shared posh above-the-clouds glass home. It is suggested that the two were paired together for both their professional and biological compatibility -- so in addition to maintaining killing machines, they are also charged with procreating their species.
With their one red lens and ominous presence, the drones bear more than a passing resemblance to HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey." While not looking like HAL, Melissa Leo as Sally speaks in a faux southern draw with the same condescending, genteel tone and Big Brother autocratic air. Sally -- seen only on a small black and white screen throughout -- is Jack and Victoria's supervisor and her true purpose provides the movie's sole interesting twist late in the third act.
After seeing a space ship crash while chilling at his lakeside cabin and listening to Led Zeppelin (on vinyl), Jack ignores orders and heads to the fiery site, where he is able to save one of the passengers. She is Julia (former model and Bond girl Olga Kurylenko), an astronaut of some sort who has been in a forced sleep/hibernation for some 60 years (again "2001" and "Apes"). The runway-ready Julia becomes an instant threat to Victoria, whose steely professional demeanor starts to unravel and she pulls a HAL in retaliation.
Breaking more rules, Jack decides to take Julia to the not-so-secret hideout of the Scavs (short for scavengers), the aliens that waged war on Earth and ultimately destroyed its moon. Scav leader Beech (an underused Morgan Freeman) wears some funky shades and sports a wardrobe that would be right at home in any Terry Gilliam movie, in particular "12 Monkeys."
At this point we're about an hour into the 125-minute film and it becomes clear Kosinski ("Tron: Legacy") and his three writing collaborators have painted themselves into a narrative corner with no exit strategy. Making just a tiny bit sense thus far, the story completely collapses and caves in on itself. Don't try to figure out what's going because it will only frustrate -- or worse, -- bore you to tears.
If you wish to stick it out through the end, you can occupy the rest of the time by looking for the remaining bits of sci-fi pilfering. There's "The Matrix," "Blade Runner," "Prometheus," "Moon," "Dune," "Mad Max," "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," "Total Recall" and a non-sci-fi wild card: "The English Patient."
As is generally the case, the box-office take for an action movie like "Oblivion" will likely be higher overseas than in the U.S. (it was released in most of the rest of the world on April 10) where not understanding English is an actual plus. If it does make good coin, it will unfortunately lead some to believe that there is still a demand for Cruise movies and recycled sci-fi in general and we'll get a bunch more of this same old song and dance down the road. (Universal)