There's a weirdly mesmerizing scene in Oblivion, Tom Cruise's new dystopian sci-fi flick.
000It involves Tom Cruise battling Tom Cruise. Now, when Tom Cruise fights, he wins -- because he's Tom Cruise. So what happens when they're both Tom Cruise?
Somewhere in the middle of this sequence, as TC expertly punches himself and just as expertly parries himself, it's clear that Cruise can deliver a take-charge, world-saving performance (or two) with streamlined efficiency and scary intensity.
But maybe Cruise's action-man mastery has reached a kind of stalemate. As the Tom vs. Tom fisticuffs suggest, Cruise's worst enemy might not be aliens or monsters or evil-doers. It might be Tom Cruise.
Love him or hate him, TC is a Hollywood star. He has screen-grabbing presence, and he embodies larger-than-life qualities that he carries from movie to movie. For some time now, his default setting has been laser-like intensity.
Oblivion, which is set after a devastating interplanetary war, showcases the best and the worst of that intensity. Playing a man who has been left behind to stave off alien marauders and clean up Earth, Cruise is really good at Doing Stuff. He applies his insanely focused competence to running, jumping, flying and motorcycling -- especially motorcycling, an activity that appears to be written into his film contracts at this point.
Put him on a bike, and he's pure kinetic energy, all speed and direction. (And his goggles conveniently bypass the need for facial expression.) Off the bike, and that trademark TC intensity has nowhere to go. In the slow-downy parts of Oblivion, you can see Cruise dutifully putting on his Thinking Face -- furrowed brow, set mouth. He resembles a pod-person trying to accurately replicate human behaviour.
The more Cruise works his movie-stardom, the less he's able to play human beings who have human-being problems. In Oblivion, he has scenes in which he wears a Yankees cap and a plaid shirt and shoots hoops and grins. But his Regular Joe is clearly just Tom Cruise slumming it, pretending to be "average" before he embraces his Hollywood destiny as world-saving, alien-blasting jumpsuit guy.
At this point in his filmography, Cruise seems more comfortable working on an apocalyptic scale. Oblivion certainly plays into that impulse, with stunning, empty landscapes that offer vast vistas in which the only person who exists is Tom Cruise. At the beginning of the movie, he's a maintenance guy doing solitary mop-up -- kind of like WALL-E with less self-awareness -- and he appears to be the only man on Earth.
You get the feeling he wouldn't mind keeping it that way. In recent Tom Cruise vehicles, people who aren't Tom Cruise tend to be treated like support staff, necessary to the smooth running of the storyline but expected to quietly fade into the background when the boss arrives. In Oblivion, even Morgan Freeman -- Mr. Gravitas himself, a man who's played the American president, a man who's played God! -- has to scooch over whenever Tom is on screen.
It's just as bad with female characters. In Oblivion, TC's character ends up in an astronaut love triangle. An astronaut love triangle! That should be sexy, shouldn't it? But, no, there's something strangely virginal about Cruise. At age 50, he wears his formfitting jumpsuit well, but it appears to be permanently zipped up. Remember Jerry Maguire, way back in 1996, when Cruise memorably said to Renée Zellweger: "You complete me." For some time now, TC has been self-completing. Female co-stars can't dent his cool, self-sufficient superstardom.
Cruise's career has been a little wonky in recent years, with solid successes like the Mission: Impossible franchise dragged down by duds like Jack Reacher, Rock of Ages and Knight and Day. It doesn't help that the worst aspects of Cruise's trademark intensity -- the self-seriousness, the unblinking stare, the Bond-villain laugh -- have been increasingly showing up in real life, in miscalculated TV interviews and leaked Scientology videos. But audiences still appreciate his teeth-baring determination to do his own stunts and his relentless on-screen drive.
Even while many critics were speculating that Oblivion might be a dangerous title for a new Tom Cruise vehicle, possibly reflecting the state of his career, the movie was doing good box-office, grossing $37 million on its opening weekend. Cruise can still carry movies, but he seems to be heading for that tipping point where movies will exist to carry him and his superstar persona. The perfectionism that built his career could end up being self-defeating -- and more than a bit dull.
Somehow it seems fitting that in his next film, We Are Mortals, Cruise plays a futuristic soldier caught in a time loop that condemns him to relive the same battle again and again in a last-ditch attempt to save the world.
That's basically Cruise's career now.