Only a few years ago, big sci-fi action spectacles were confined pretty much to the summer months. But now, the season has crept out to the extent that it essentially lasts from the middle of February (see the release of "A Good Day To Die Hard" this year) to... pretty much the rest of the year, with barely a few weeks going by without a major tent-pole arriving. Even the once-barren month of April isn't safe anymore, with the arrival of "Oblivion," an expensive, visually lavish sci-fi picture top-lined by megastar Tom Cruise.
Now, Cruise isn't the safe bet he once was -- for every "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol," there's a "Rock Of Ages" -- and as an original sci-fi movie, not based on an established property (though director Joseph Kosinski actually turned it into a graphic novel in advance of the film's release), the film's not a sure thing either, box office wise. But it is a $100 million Tom Cruise movie nevertheless, so the summer movie season is certainly underway. And as it turns out, it marks a pretty good kick-off point, even if it has its share of flaws .
Set in 2077, we learn (via some particularly inelegant voice-over exposition) that we're in a world where, in 2017, an alien race known as the Scavs attacked Earth, blowing up the moon. Humanity fought back with nuclear weapons, and won, but at the cost of the planet, which is now an uninhabited ruin, with the survivors mostly aboard a huge space station called the Tet, awaiting relocation to Titan, one of Saturn's moons. The last pair left are Jack (Cruise) and his professional and romantic partner Vika (Andrea Riseborough).
Living in a tower suspended above the Earth's surface, he repairs the drones that protect the machines that are draining the ocean to power the mission to Titan, while she watches as his communications officer, liaising with the Tet's mission control (Melissa Leo) and warning him of any attacks from the Tusken Raider-like Scavs. They've got two weeks before their mission is over, but Jack is still curious about Earth and is dreaming about a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko)... that he ends up pulling from the wreckage of a crashed spaceship just before she can be killed by the drones. Who is she? And what secrets will she reveal about the world and the people that Jack and Vika are working for?
The trailer has already given away a good deal of what follows (we'd recommend avoiding it, if you haven't watched it already), and you may be able to guess where the film's going. Director/writer Joseph Kosinski's story (the script is credited to Karl Gadjusek and Michael DeBruyn, with William Monahan and Michael Arndt among those who worked on the film too) cribs liberally from other more familiar sci-fi tales, including one recent cult hit which mentioning the name of would likely tip you off to the film's big secrets. So it's a familiar tale, but one elevated here by some strong execution.
Kosinski's first film, "Tron: Legacy," was pretty dreadful, but "Oblivion" makes clear that, with a less confused script, the director has real talent. An architecture professor on the side (yes, really), the same immaculate sense of design is in place in the film, with the world of "Oblivion" an ordered, geometric one, full of circles, squares and triangles, sitting atop chaos and ruin. It's a strong and distinctive aesthetic, clean and bright in a way that's reminiscent of '70s sci-fi fare (like some of the ones we highlighted here), and with "Avatar" and "Life Of Pi" Oscar-winner Claudio Miranda serving as DoP, it's mostly spectacular to look at, not least in IMAX.
But Kosinski has improved as a storyteller, too. The screenplay can drift towards the expository sometimes, but is well-structured and twisty enough to keep you involved for much of the running time (though at over two hours long, it's a touch bloated and starts to drag in the last few reels). There's a crispness to his direction which makes the action coherent and exciting and gives a real sense of awe to the devastated landscapes.
He's not quite there when it comes to the human beings yet, though it does mark an improvement on "Tron: Legacy," at least. While your view of the film may end up depending on your level of tolerance for Cruise, we found him relatively sturdy in the lead role, even if it's something of a cypher by necessity (again, plot reasons). The script occasionally smacks of having being rewritten to show that Cruise is an Ordinary Human Man Who Loves Sport Like You And Me, but the star gets some strong material in the second half of the film that makes it one of his more impressive recent performances. Still, it would have been much more interesting if the actor had let his freak flag fly a bit more, rather than putting his focus on being relatable.
The supporting cast don't fare so well, with one exception. Olga Kurylenko gets stuck with a fairly thankless part and hardly elevates it, though the way she looks like she's about to throw up every time she gets in a spaceship is sort of funny. Melissa Leo is mostly behind a computer screen, while "Game Of Thrones" actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Morgan Freeman (playing Morpheus from "The Matrix") turn up some way into the film, but don't have time to make much of an impact. But the clear standout, and pretty much the best thing in the film, is Andrea Riseborough. The British actress has had her share of questionable roles ("W.E," "Disconnect"), but has the most interesting part here, bringing real vulnerability and ambivalence to the part of Vika.
There are a few gaping plot holes that grate as time goes on (it's the kind of film where people don't tell the whole truth for the sole reason that it'll drive the plot along). It is overlong, and familiar, and never quite hits top gear -- it's never especially bad, but neither is it especially excellent, beyond the visual wow factor. But there's still a lot to admire in the film, not least that it's engaging from the first moment to the last. And we suspect that in the season of blockbusters to come, there won't be all that many films we'll be able to say that about. [B-]