Tom Cruise does something during the first half of Oblivion I don’t ever remember him doing for any extended period of time. It’s 2077 and Cruise plays Jack Harper, a man living on a planet Earth that has been almost completely evacuated. Earth has been invaded by aliens and even though we won the war, nuclear weapons were launched and the planet was pretty much destroyed. Survivors are housed on a giant space station called the Tet that hovers over the planet and waiting to be moved to Titan, Jupiter’s largest moon. Jack Harper repairs drones that search out and destroy alien scavengers that remain while giant rigs drain the ocean in order provide fuel for the colony on Titan. And Tom Cruise… is calm. He’s perfectly happy roaming the desolate landscape and fixing stuff.
In the history of cinema, I can’t think of a major action star as high strung as Tom Cruise. If you think of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, et al, you think laconic and cool. Men who may sweat if they’re sitting in a sauna. Definitely not men who would jump up and down on a couch. But Cruise is different. He’s always jittery. When he raises his voice, which is often, it goes up several octaves. Tom Cruise seems forever young because, even at 50, he seems like some overachieving boy scout who’s never outgrown the need to so obviously prove something. But in Oblivion, at least for the first 75 minutes of the movie, he’s content and, well, oblivious (sorry…) to what’s really going on. And watching Tom Cruise happy and content is a chore to sit through.
Oblivion has 50 fantastic minutes which are unfortunately preceded by 75 minutes that are slow and without action or character or much of a point. Director Joseph Kosinski and his production team create some stunning visuals (the image of a decimated moon still in orbit over the war-ravaged Earth is particularly stunning.) There is a sleekness and simplicity to the design of the drones and the living quarters and the Tet; they look like they could have been designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Dieter Rams. But we go to the movies for more than beautiful design, and for the first part of the movie, that’s all we get. That, and a happy and clueless Tom Cruise.
But once Morgan Freeman and his band of scraggly outsiders living in secret on the planet start to pull back the veil and Cruise’s character begins to see what’s really going on, and that little vein in Cruise’s forehead starts throbbing and becoming more pronounced, that’s when Oblivion becomes enthralling. Ideas begin to kick in, and actions begin to have consequences, and emotions become engaged. And yes, those ideas that kick Oblivion to life are lifted from many other, better movies (and I’m going to refrain from mentioning any of them in an effort to remain spoiler-free.) But those “borrowed” ideas still manage to create an entertaining and moving final act.
This is Joseph Kosinski’s second movie as director. His first was Tron: Legacy, the 2010 sequel to the 1982 landmark of my childhood, Tron. And while Tron: Legacy is far from perfect (and, frankly, so is Tron) it showcases Kosinski’s strength, which is his command of visuals. He has talent, and I look forward to what he does in the future. But he needs a strong script. Or at least a script that doesn’t take so long for the action to begin. And if he works with Cruise again, don’t make him so serene for such a long period of time. Let his nervous energy flow. Don’t force Tom Cruise to sit on his fidgety mojo.Follow @filmbyfelix