By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood April 19, 2013 at 2:25PM
With a looming summer season packed with post-apocalyptic sci-fi--from "After Earth" (May 31) and "World War Z" (June 21) to "Elysium" (August 9) -- it's a good thing that director Joseph Kosinski's "Oblivion" is first out of the gate. This Tom Cruise-starrer about a blue collar drone repairman haunted by dreams of a woman he's never met stands apart from the competition, mainly because architect and video game designer Kosinski's follow-up to "Tron: Legacy" is a passion project he's been developing for eight years that allows him to strut his visual stuff.
The philosophical "Oblivion" mines the depths of the genre with elements of thriller, mystery, action, and romance, wrapped around a prevailing sense of melancholy countered by a brighter watercolor design aesthetic that recalls the works of illustrators Chris Foss and Peter Elson. While "Oblivion" also can't escape riffing on such sci-fi faves as "La Jetee," "Planet of the Apes," "2001," "The Omega Man," "Silent Running," and "Blade Runner," it also offers a more vulnerable Cruise, which adds gravitas to his usual hot-shot heroics -- along with pitting him against powerful antagonist Morgan Freeman.
"I loved the idea of fundamentally taking a small cast of characters and a drama that is very personal but then raising the stakes much, much larger than that," Kosinski explains. "And asking really big questions about what is that makes us who we are and why are we here? For me, the greatest movies are the ones that ask those questions even if they don't answer them all. I wanted the audience to walk away from this film and have something to discuss afterward."
Shot in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Iceland, "Oblivion" is the antithesis of "Tron: Legacy." After being confined inside a computer, Kosinski wanted to step out into the real world and shoot a sci-fi "Lawrence of Arabia" as much as possible in camera with its own desolate beauty. At the same time, he went up in the clouds in a gorgeous glass Sky Tower where Cruise lives with his seductive communications partner Andrea Riseborough, awaiting instructions from the Tet space station (a monolithic inverted pyramid) when they can join the rest of the survivors on Saturn's Titan moon.
Unlike the "Tron" sequel, though, Kosinski cut down the use of CG and did something rather noteworthy in shooting the Sky Tower sequence totally in camera, which alleviated a reflective light problem with all the glass. Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda ("Life of Pi") developed an ultra high-resolution front projection system (500-foot wide and 42-foot tall with 21 projectors) that was overseen by PRG.