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Oblivion Trailer Screengrab - H 2013
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Oblivion: Film Review

8:00 AM PDT 4/10/2013 by Todd McCarthy

The Bottom Line

A terrific-looking sci-fier that loses steam in the second half.

Universal's sci-fi thriller, from "Tron: Legacy" director Joseph Kosinski, opens April 19.

A sort of The Eternal Return played out in the ruins of a post-apocalyptic planet Earth, Joseph Kosinski's Oblivion is an absolutely gorgeous film dramatically caught between its aspirations for poetic romanticism and the demands of heavy sci-fi action. After a captivating beginning brimming with mystery and evident ambition, the air gradually seeps out of the balloon that keeps this thinly populated tale aloft, leaving the ultimate impression of a nice try that falls somewhat short of the mark. There's enough futuristic eye candy and battle scenes to lure the genre boys, while the presence of three important female characters, as well as Tom Cruise in good form, could attract more women than usual for this sort of fare, resulting in mostly robust, but not great, returns worldwide. The Universal release opens this week in most international territories, while the domestic bow comes April 19.

To those who might wish to avoid a film by the maker of Tron: Legacy, it should be stressed that Oblivion is a more interesting work by a good distance, an imaginative speculative piece set some six decades hence that always engages serious attention, even if it doesn't convincingly jell. In mood, a certain delicacy and the sense of isolation both on a depopulated Earth and somewhere above it, the recent film that this most strongly recalls is WALL-E, except with violence and without the humor and charm of the Pixar classic.

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There have been many films set on an Earth depleted of humans, but few as visually enthralling as this one. Shot by Claudio Miranda of Life of Pi, Oblivion shares that film's lovely light, nuanced coloration and virtually seamless meshing of live photography and effects. In neither film is it always possible to be entirely sure of what is real and what's computer generated, but the result is beautiful however it breaks down.

After what appear to be memory flashes of a previous life back in an early 21st century New York City on the part of Cruise's Jack Harper, he and his partner Vika (Andrea Riseborough) wake up in what can only take the prize as the ultimate loft space, circa 2077, a perch that's the last word in minimalist chic. It also affords unobstructed views of what's been left behind after the catastrophe that saw the moon blown into pieces, which in turn resulted in earthly ruin and a subsequent evacuation of survivors to Saturn's planet Titan.

Jack (Cruise's second use of the name in a row, after Jack Reacher) takes daily spins down to Earth in a bladeless, mosquito-like helicopter, while the British Vika tracks his movements and coordinates with headquarters, personified on a screen by the friendly, Southern-accented Sally (Melissa Leo). The self-described “mop-up crew,” Jack and Sally, who get on well, have only two weeks to go before they finish up and head for Titan.

On the ground, Jack looks for any signs of Scavengers, or Scavs, who, apparently, were defeated in the great war but still provoke worries with their desperate ambushes. He also must avoid the radioactive zones, which remain hot. Everywhere he goes, however, Jack is protected by drones, fast-flying globe-like hi-tech wonders that are armed to the teeth and can reliably detect friend or foe.

Jack seems to relish being haunted by the past. He wears a Yankees cap, nostalgically wallows in lore surrounding the final Super Bowl, played in 2017, while surrounded by the ruins of the stadium where it took place and uses the upper part of the Empire State Building, which sticks out of the ground that has swallowed the rest of the structure, as a sort of home base and control tower.

Jack also is inordinately fond of a collection of highfalutin Victorian-era verse by Thomas Macaulay titled The Lays of Ancient Rome, especially the line that reads, “And how can man die better than facing fearful odds.” Given that Jack seems to be the last man responsible for tidying up affairs on Earth, he'd better not die prematurely, though there is someone or something down there that seems bent on catching him.

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The film's delightful sense of apartness in the early going and the industrious way that Vika, especially, approaches her task of administering to the final business of Earth are things that can't last, especially not after Jack brings home the one survivor of a mysterious crash of a spaceship carrying several hibernating humans. Once she wakes up and recovers, Julia (Olga Kurylenko) throws a monkey wrench into life in the loft, not only because she is so beautiful (Riseborough's alarmed reactions to her are indelibly registered) but because she is an arrival from the past, when she was Jack's wife.

Revelations of what follows are best not detailed, except to say that Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, respectively, play the intelligent and impulsive members of a rebel band that soon captures Jack and Julia. As much as Jack aspires to recapture the past, however, and regardless of Julia's evident purity of intent, the renewed relationship doesn't click as intended, mostly because it's tough to buy the conceit of the couple reunited after so long.

Further twists and betrayals lie in store, but they feel more like obligatory plot complications than organic to the overall story. As a result, viewer engagement gradually lessens, leading to a climax that makes for thematic sense but dramatic head-scratching.

There's a bit too much manly stunt stuff, the better likes of which we've seen in the Mission: Impossible extravaganzas and elsewhere, but generally Cruise plays it naturalistic and low-key here, likable and to solid effect. Riseborough, who was the one person worth watching in Madonna's wretched W.E., is an inspired bit of casting as she brings prim, snappy delivery to many routine lines and irrepressible emotion to her later behavior. Kurylenko is more than plausible as a woman who would inspire recurring dreams in Jack, while Leo has so much personality that she can burst right through the limitations of her video screen-only appearances and still register strongly.

Technically, the film is a dream; if Tron: Legacy showed that Kosinski was right at home in an imaginary, effects-created world, then Oblivion reveals him as well along the road toward applying effects to even grander ends, in this case to a story he originally conceived years ago as a graphic novel that was adapted as a script by Karl Gajdusek and Michael DeBruyn.

The unconventional electronic score by M83 is terrifically effective for the first hour and maybe more until it starts becoming a bit repetitive.

Opens: April 10-12 (international), April 19 (U.S.) (Universal)

Production: Chernin Entertainment, Monolith Pictures, Radical Studios

Cast: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo, Zoe Bell

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Screenwriters: Karl Gajdusek, Michael DeBruyn, based on the graphic novel original story by Joseph Kosinski

Producers: Joseph Kosinski, Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Barry Levine, Duncan Henderson

Executive producers: Dave Morrison, Jesse Berger, Justin Springer

Director of photography: Claudio Miranda

Production designer: Darren Gilford

Costume designer: Marlene Stewart

Editor: Richard Francis-Bruce

Music: M83

Visual effects supervisors: Eric Barba, Bjorn Mayer

PG-13 rating, 124 minutes