Movie review in the Friday, April 19 Oregonian....
In a lot of ways, "Oblivion" plays like a vastly superior second draft of director Joseph Kosinski's previous film, "Tron: Legacy."
(This sounds like faint praise -- given that "Tron: Legacy" was a gorgeous but uninvolving mess full of dangling glow-in-the-dark plot threads * -- but bear with me a sec.)
Both "Oblivion" and "Tron: Legacy" feature polished surfaces, Kubrick-aping compositions, terrific soundtracks by French electronic bands, and digital threats in abandoned worlds where characters question the very definition of "life." But "Oblivion" has a cleaner concept, a (mostly) stronger story, subtler performances, better-shot action, and, as a bonus, actually makes some sort of vague logical sense. It ends quite a bit doofier than it starts, but it's entertaining enough, and it is very, very pretty.
"Oblivion" is cowritten by Kosinski from an as-yet-unpublished illustrated novella the director conceived a few years back for Radical Studios. It's set on a future Earth devastated by an alien invasion that destroyed the moon and buried the human race in the resulting earthquakes and tsunamis.
The only humans around seem to be a two-person maintenance crew (Tom Cruise, Andrea Riseborough). They have a sexy magazine-spread version of WALL•E's job. Cruise goes out in the field to repair lethal robot drones that guard massive factories. The factories pump the water out of Earth's oceans; apparently this will somehow fuel a mass off-planet migration by humanity's survivors.
The postapocalyptic world is stark, gorgeous and crisply designed, and easily the best thing about the movie. Cruise and Riseborough survey a largely buried New York City from a gorgeous Apple Store of an apartment 3,000 feet in the sky, and make love in its glass-bottomed swimming pool in the movie's most beautiful sequence. I desperately want to vacation there; it's like the apocalypse happened except that they somehow saved IKEA.
But then a NASA spaceship crashes nearby. It contains a woman (Olga Kurylenko) who wakes up, barfs, and seems to know Cruise's character by name. Cruise had been having dreams about this woman. The robot drones want to kill her. Riseborough is jealous of her. Notions of history and self suddenly get a little fluid.
From here, "Oblivion" gets all plotty and revelatory and tries for a love story, and it loses much of the haunting quality that made its first half so cool and evocative. The film doesn't completely un-man itself like, say, "Tron: Legacy" did -- but it does go from creating a unique world to riffing, in solid B-movie style, on ideas and images from other, better sci-fi films. Cruise and the rest of the cast (which comes to include Morgan Freeman rocking sunglasses and a cigar) do solid work here, deploying more nuanced facial expressions than are strictly necessary in a popcorn flick, which is nice.
Kosinski has an advertising background and a knack for the clinical frame composition -- though I'm beginning to wonder if he's a really high-end version of Roland Emmerich, who proved with "Independence Day" that you can make an entire entertainment out of nothing but shameless references to past sci-fi hits. I'm wondering this because Kosinski's visual nods to Kubrick get sort of hilariously on-the-nose toward the end -- up to and including making the drones look like armed versions of the "2001" space pod and having one character literally float around in the Star Child pose for a second.
But man, "Oblivion" sure is Moebius-comic gorgeous and it sounds great, especially the loud nervewracking honks the drones make when they're weighing whether or not to shoot you. I suppose that's a surface appeal. But it's a nice surface.
* "Tron: Legacy" is actually a pretty great viewing experience if you just leave it on in the background with the volume turned all the way down while playing the Daft Punk soundtrack CD on repeat -- conveniently removing the expository dialogue that makes the movie so exasperating. "Legacy"'s ideal presentation may be playing silently on TVs mounted in the backs of modernist bars, basically.
(124 min.; rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, brief strong language, and some sensuality/nudity) Grade: B-minus
'Oblivion' (The Oregonian, Friday, April 19, 2013)