Oblivion comes tantalizingly close to being a serious science-fiction movie.
But by the film's concluding explosion, it turns out to be just another Tom Cruise action movie.
That's not a bad thing. Tom Cruise makes lots of good action movies. Oblivion just held the promise of being something more meaty.
Jack Harper is a typical Cruise character: brave, capable, a little haunted. He is a caretaker of a post-apocalyptic Earth. The planet has been devastated in a Pyrrhic victory with an alien enemy. So-called "Scavengers" took the novel step of blowing up the moon to play havoc with Earth's tides, causing widespread destruction and starvation.
So Jack patrols the skies, maintaining killer drones still seeking out any surviving "scavs" and keeping watch over huge machines that are transforming the planet's oceans into fusion energy to be transported to one of Saturn's moons, where the rest of humanity has taken up residence.
At the end of his work day, he returns to an elegant glass-tower residence he shares with his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), where they can unwind from the rigours of reporting to the icy commander Sally (Melissa Leo) of the space station Tet orbiting overhead. Their life among the clouds resembles a painstakingly elegant perfume commercial.
But Jack is a little haunted by the memories of a beautiful woman whom he knew before the war. The memories come despite the fact he supposedly had his memory erased after the war for security purposes.
One day, Jack disobeys orders to protect a quartet of humans packed in hyper-sleep pods, inexplicably targeted by the nasty spherical attack drones Jack maintains. He saves only one. Its occupant happens to be the woman of his dreams, a similarly haunted scientist named Julia (Olga Kurylenko).
Investigating further, Jack discovers a whole contingent of human survivors led by a cigar-smoking leader, Beech (Morgan Freeman), who bears the bad news: Everything Jack believes is a lie.
Fortunately, the movie has more surprises in store, because everything up to this point has already been revealed in the movie trailers.
Writer-director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) delivers a certain bleak spectacle that runs counter to the tendency of filling the screen with layers upon layers of action and atmosphere, a la Star Wars.
But the film doesn't register as serious science fiction because it is, first and foremost, a Tom Cruise vehicle. The action is like a Tom Cruise's Greatest Hits retrospective. See Tom dangling from a cable (Mission Impossible), racing a motorcycle (Days of Thunder) and expertly piloting a tricked-out, death-dealing aircraft (Top Gun).
It's not bad. But Kosinski could stand to be reminded the best science-fiction films put their intellectual energy into ideas as opposed to gratifying the audience's expectations of their star.
Excerpts of select reviews of Oblivion:
Oblivion is imperfect but some of its imperfections result from being overly ambitious.
-- James Berardinelli, ReelViews
Starting with Cruise's opening slab of narration, Oblivion pauses every 15 minutes or so for someone to speak a couple of paragraphs that tell us what's going on without ever letting us discover anything for ourselves.
-- Chris Hewitt, St. Paul Pioneer Press
All the eye candy in the world can't mask the sensation that you've seen this all before... and done better. Too bad the movie's script wasn't given the same attention as its sleek, brave-new-world look.
-- Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly
As its palpable sense of dread -- well-sustained in a gently cascading first hour -- gives way to dead ends, this Omega Movie shoots itself in the foot.
-- Joe Neumaier, New York Daily News
You start wondering whether director Joseph Kosinski and screenwriters Karl Gajdusek and Michael DeBruyn have any original ideas of their own. And then you realize they don't.
-- Soren Anderson, Seattle Times
Oblivion may not live up fully to its grand ambitions, but it isn't for lack of trying.
-- Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic
The mix of gee-whiz gadgetry and the day-to-day routineness of Jack and Victoria's lives is interesting enough, but the film is too glacially paced for it to work.
-- Randy Myers, San Jose Mercury News
Exactly the sort of sci-fi film one would expect in April -- epic and often exciting, but too familiar and too bland to cut it as a summer release.
-- Roger Moore, Movie Nation
An unsettling sense of not-quite-right coats all of the film's steely surfaces, and Kosinski and his co-writers give audiences plenty of time to absorb the unease and gear up for the action.
-- Tasha Robinson, AV Club