By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood April 19, 2013 at 1:43PM
Tom Cruise went overboard praising Universal execs at the premiere for Joseph Kosinski's "Oblivion" (April 19). "I've been doing this a few years now," he told the Dolby Theater crowd. "Making films today, it takes a village, as artists it's about problem solving." You need the studio behind you, is what he meant: they need Universal to do a good job selling this movie, which started to open April 10 around the world and has already earned $70 million overseas. (A sampling of reviews is below the jump.)
An unbranded movie is a risk for the studios--they hate going into this territory. But Universal picked this one up in turnaround from Disney, where video-game-pioneer-turned-filmmaker Kosinski owed the studio a post-"Tron: Legacy" picture. "Oblivion," which he developed from his own graphic novel for eight years, didn't quite belong under the Disney label. While Kosinski still delivered a PG-13 film to Universal, this smart and twisty dystopian movie starring Cruise as maverick astronaut Jack Harper on a drone-fixing mission on post-apocalyptic planet earth has an adult edge--and that's the audience segment most likely to appreciate the movie.
It's a relief to see something that comes out of a filmmaker's own head--even if it's derivative as hell (references abound, from "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Coma," and "Planet of the Apes" to "Total Recall," "The English Patient" and "Wall-E"). Speaking of Pixar, uncredited screenwriter Michael Arndt ("Toy Story 3") was brought in, as he was on "Tron," to do a script polish, and helped devise the opening narration and romantic arc of the story.
Kosinski is a gifted visual filmmaker and trained architect with a strong design aesthetic who managed to deliver this gleaming digital vision shot by "Life of Pi" Oscar-winner Claudio Miranda for only $125 million. There were just 800 VFX shots supervised by Digital Domain (as opposed to 1500 on "Tron," Kosinski says), the fabulous spire of the buried empire State Building, for example, was shot in camera.
Cruise effortlessly inhabits a persona that recalls many others, most notably "Top Gun," "Mission: Impossible" and "Minority Report." He's yet another resourceful but rebellious hotshot who doesn't want to play by the rules. In this case, his brain has been wiped, but his erased memories, full of the mysterious Olga Kurylenko ("To the Wonder"), are fighting to reach the surface. It's 2077; after aliens blew up the moon, tsunamis and quakes destroyed the world before an invading army finished the job. Huge hydro rigs running on fusion energy are siphoning up Earth's water; attack drones protect them, and Harper in turn is tasked with keeping those drones running; both are under attack from "scavengers."
Our hero is partnered with coolly seductive Brit communications officer Victoria ("W.E."'s unrecognizable Andrea Riseborough, improbably wearing form-fitting dresses and spiked heels) in a moderne glass aerie high above the clouds. They eat, hang, swim naked in the glass pool and sleep together at night; she kisses him good-bye every morning like a 50s housewife as takes off in his spiffy white hovercraft to check on drones. She takes her orders via computer from faraway Melissa Leo, as both attempt to control the frisky aviator, who likes to wear a Yankee cap, chew gum, nurture plants and explore out of range. "Are you an effective team?" Leo asks every day. Eventually the answer is "no."
There's plenty of enjoyable high-pace dog fights in canyons involving drones and various cool guns, gadgets and Cruise-mobiles. Producer Peter Chernin was the one who insisted that Universal cough up the $2 million or so to nab Morgan Freeman in a role that could easily have devolved into silliness without his trademark gravitas. "Game of Thrones" hunk Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is stalwart but wasted in a supporting role. Unfortunately, this well-cast movie's set-up is a lot better than its resolution; that said the movie has more visual talent and brain cells than most of the crap the studios serve up these days. Kosinski is only going to get better.
Arndt of course is working on three "Star Wars" prequels for Lucasfilm's Kathy Kennedy and director J.J. Abrams. He's not working alone; there's a brain trust including Lawrence Kasdan. While pre-production and designing is already under way on "Star Wars VII," script changes are still being made.
"Oblivion" reviews are below.