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Movie review: ‘Oblivion’ looks cool but is oblivious to narrative

Dennis King Published: April 19, 2013

Leave it to architecture student turned filmmaker Joseph Kosinski to conjure up a post-apocalyptic planet Earth that’s so Spartan and au courant, so beautifully desolate and elegantly shabby, that you half expect hipster haute couture models to come traipsing across its ruined landscape. Call it dystopian chic.

Tom Cruise
Tom Cruise

That’s the oh-so-vogue scenario that Kosinski (maker of the visually lush but narratively sterile “Tron Legacy”) has designed for his sophomore film, “Oblivion,” Tom Cruise’s second outing in the past six months as a blandly brooding loner named Jack.

Following up his turn as a nourish knight errant in “Jack Reacher,” Cruise now dons a New York Yankees cap and steps into a silvery leather jumpsuit as Jack Harper, a former marine who patrols the devastated, radiation-poisoned precincts of Earth, circa 2077, after it was laid waste by marauding aliens.

Surviving humans were evacuated to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, leaving Harper and his partner Vika (Andrea Riseborough) ensconced in a stylishly minimalist, hermetically sealed aerie above New York City to patrol around in a mosquito-like helicopter and mop up any rebellious human Scavengers, or Scavs.

Jack is a broody fellow, haunted by images of a world before the apocalypse, He reminisces about the final Super Bowl (in 2017), listens to scratchy old vinyl albums (Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”) and is partial to the Victorian verse of Thomas Macaulay (“And how can man die better than facing fearful odds?”).

Under the watchful computer eye of headquarters – personified by the chirpy digital image of Sally (Melissa Leo, wasted in a phoned-in performance) – Harper and Vika are about to finish their tour and return to Titan when events conspire to … well, push the plot into some very convoluted territory.

First, Harper happens upon a wrecked spacecraft containing several hibernating humans, and manages to bring back the sole survivor. She’s Julia (Olga Kurylenko, recently seen in “To the Wonder”), and as it turns out she just happens to be Harper’s long-lost former wife. Then, Harper and Julia are kidnapped by the rebel Scavs, who are commanded by the brainy Morgan Freeman and the hot-headed Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and that leads to an unlikely series of twists, turns and betrayals that seem stale and contrived at best and that defy all logic at worst.

Not surprisingly, the screenplay by Kosinski and Karl Gajdusek and a couple of other writers is based on an unpublished comic book, and that’s part of the problem. The story feels half thought-out, like a bunch of guys brainstorming cool ideas without any truly unifying narrative.

It helps that Kosinski has a first-rate cast that elevates even the most sophomoric writing and that Cruise, though aging, is still cruising along at the top of his game with his cocky, movie-star mojo.

And it helps that Kosinski is a visual artist par excellence. His movie looks devastatingly exquisite. But he lavishes so much attention on surface, texture, fashion and architecture that he forgets to attend to the essential details of storytelling. “Oblivion” is a lavishly wrapped package that contains only tatty, shopworn goods.

- Dennis King





2 ½  stars

Starring: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Melissa Leo

(Sci-fi action violence, brief strong language and some sensuality/nudity)