Oblivion (2013): Sci-Fi Actioner, Starring Tom Cruise

Oblivion, the new dystopian sci-fi actioner starring Tom Cruise, displays a huge discrepancy between the polished production values and the cloned, second-rate ideas of the tale.

Trailer: www.emanuellevy.com/?attachment_id=63283

The text feels like an aggregate of concepts and characters that are lifted or borrowed from such sci-fi features as “Silent Running,” “The Omega Man,” “The Matrix” trilogy, and “TRON: Legacy,” to mention just a few examples.

Some of the links are easy to explain: The film’s producer-director, Joseph Kosinski, has also made “TRON: Legacy,” and two of this picture’s producers were also behind “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”

Banking on the gorgeous look of this conceptual sci-fi-adventure, if not on the appeal of star Tom Cruise, who has been consistently losing ground domestically, Universal has high hopes for its movie, which is opening in several foreign territories (including the U.K.) before being released in the U.S., on April 19.

“Oblivion” begins on an extremely strong and absorbing note, and if I had to review the picture based only on its first reel, I would have given it high marks (A-). But, alas, the tale loses energy in its second reel in a trend that continues almost to the end, except for several climactic scenes and thrilling set-pieces that are interspersed throughout the story.

According to the production notes, in 2005, years before he made his directing debut with “TRON: Legacy,” Kosinski wrote a short story titled “Oblivion,” a sci-fi adventure set in 2077, six decades after an alien invasion. The graphic tale depicts the mission of one repairman on a destroyed planet who is uncertain of his place in the universe.

Cruise now plays that tale’s hero, who bears the generic name of Jack Harper. Forced to confront his past, the solitary Harper embarks on a dangerous journey that results in self-discovery and redemption. Like many other sci-fi stories (“Omega Man”), the future of mankind rests entirely on the solid shoulders of Harper–the last man standing–who’s positioned on a future Earth that has devolved beyond any rational or scientific understanding.

The saga begins in 2077, when Harper is employed as a security repairman on an Earth that’s been largely evacuated. Harper is part of an operation whose goal is to extract resources after decades of war with alien threats to scavenge what’s left of the planet.

With his mission nearly complete, Harper is eager to join the remaining survivors on a lunar colony, far from the troubled world in which he had lived for too long. However, while patrolling the skies on a Bubbleship that rests 3,000 feet in the air, Harper rescues a beautiful femme from a downed spacecraft named Julia Rusakova (Olga Kurylenko), a traveler who has crossed time and space in search of true love. Drawn to Harper through some mysterious connection, the stranger Rusakova triggers an existential crisis that forces him to question every element of his life.

The journey upon which he embarks leads to the discovery of some shocking truths, which connect him to the past, putting to test his mettle and values.

Cruise is a decent and reliable (though seldom great) actor, but he is even smarter as a producer and in choosing projects that are suitable to his limited range, populated by great supporting actors who elevate the stature of his work.

This trend was clear early on in Cruise’s career, when he co-starred opposite Paul Newman in Scorsese’s “The Color of Money,” Dustin Hoffman in Barry Levinson’s “Rain Man,” Robert Duvall in Tony Scott’s “Days of Thunder,” Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men,” and so on.

In “Oblivion,” that position is occupied by Morgan Freeman, arguably the most accomplished and gifted actor working in American cinema today. Freeman plays the crucial part of Beech, the leader of a survivors band who are initially suspicious of Harper’s true motives.

Also among Jack’s nemeses is Sykes (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the revolution’s second-in-command whose goal is to eliminate Jack quickly and efficiently.

Kosinski deserves credits for including more women, and in stronger parts, than are usually the norms in such mainstream fare. Julia, the femme fatale, is also well cast by the beautiful Ukrainian actress Olga Kurylenko, Hollywood’s IT girl, and the next big thing. Kurylenko made a strong impression in the James Bond picture, “Quantum of Solace,” and currently can be seen as ben Affleck’s love interest in Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder.”

There are two other crucial female characters. The young and gifted Andrea Riseborough plays Victoria “Vika” Olsen, Harper’s straight-laced navigator, a by-the-book bureaucrat who’s ready to give it all up and depart Earth forever. (It’s the kind of role that in most Hollywood adventures used to be played by men).

Melissa Leo, who may be overexposed after winning the 2010 Supporting Actress Oscar for “The Fighter,” plays Sally, the commanding officer overseeing the evacuation, who, it turns out, has ulterior motives and agenda of her own.

The film’s main shortcomings reside in the writing department: The narrative contains too many “holes,” too many contrived incidents. Moreover, the text fails to provide the kind of precision and logic that are now expected from the sci-fi genre. Over the past two or three decades (Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” in 1982, may have begun the trend), there have been so many dystopian and apocalyptic sci-fi actioners that narrative and dramatic comparisons are inevitable–and not in favor of “Oblivion.”

For example, at one point, Commander Harper says: “Is it possible to miss a place you’ve never been? To mourn a time you’ve never known?” But “Oblivion” never really explains adequately its protagonist’s psychological composition and/or motivation for taking action and risking his life, other than suggesting that he is a daredevil pilot, the last drone repairman who tends to question authority and is drawn to preserving the world as it used to be.

In transforming his graphic novel original story into an epic-scale movie, Kosinski has the good sense to rely heavily on the brilliant imagery of cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who has just won the Oscar for Ang Lee’s stunningly looking “The Life of Pi.”

In its good moments, Oblivion” delivers the thrills and frills expected of postmodern sci-fi adventures, though several of the set-pieces are not well integrated into the tale and do not serve any narrative function. They are stand-alone sequences that could be enjoyed the way we enjoy elements of video games, as is clear from the trailer.