‘Oblivion’ is how much you don’t know

April 21, 2013

TRON: Legacy felt like it was a film that existed solely because fans liked the time in which the era was created, not necessarily the film itself. Looking back, “TRON” was no doubt groundbreaking in its effects and bounced along at a satisfying clip, but it was nowhere near as good as your memory would have you believe.

But as support swelled for a sequel, so was born “Legacy,” which was really no better or worse than its source, which is to say, it was again visually stunning but mediocre. Its director, Joseph Kosinski, deserved much credit for glossing and stylizing what little he had to work with.

With his second effort, “Oblivion,” he is given a far bigger sandbox in which to play, as it is based on his own (unpublished) graphic novel. The result is something that is at once familiar and divergent, as though he’s inching ever closer to the next stratosphere of filmmaking.

Set six decades in the future, “Oblivion” imagines an Earth that has been savaged by aliens, and its moon destroyed. No longer hospitable to human life, the population catapulted to Saturn’s moons, leaving behind a few “security” officers tasked with protecting the remaining fuel sources left on the planet. Jack Harper (played by Tom Cruise) is one such officer. His days are spent traveling between Earth and his home station in the sky, shared with partner Victoria (played by Andrea Risenborough).

While all security personnel are supposed to undergo a mental reboot, Jack is still haunted by pre-war visions, which seem impossible given his age. On one particular reconnaissance mission, Jack encounters a crash with a crew of human cargo, including one that has guest starred in Jack’s memory. The security team for which he works is immediately hostile toward the survivors, and Jack encounters a band of underground human freedom fighters (led by Morgan Freeman) who inform him that all is not as it appears.

In what is seemingly rare for movie marketing today, one of the surprises of “Oblivion” is how much you - as an audience member - don’t know. Sure, we are familiar with a number of the science fiction elements presented within (a little “2001” here, a little “Moon” there), but Kosinski develops a visually mesmerizing template all his own, allowing you to look beyond all that until the film’s third act, which accelerates to a mostly satisfactory explanation to all the twists and turns.

For a good share of “Oblivion,” the director lets us simmer in his special effects hot tub, bubbling with visuals and set at just the right narrative temperature. It does not hurt one bit that our guide is Mr. Maverick himself, who has been around the sci-fi block a time or two (“Minority Report,” “War of the Worlds”). It's a dialed-down, compassionate approach that is one of the most humanistic the star has provided in quite some time.

Riseborough elevates what could be considered a throwaway role as the doting partner into something more as well. When Jack resists protocol, you can feel her conflict, torn between duty and compassion for her partner.

When the film begins to sag in the second act, it's easy to focus on the lavish visuals. Yet it's still ponderous as to what purpose the C.H.U.D.-like human cave-dwellers truly serve. Were it not for Freeman as their leader, "Oblivion" may have felt even longer than its already-heavy two-plus-hour runtime.

The film is also buoyed by M83, a French electronica group that received orchestrated backup, that finds just the right times to creep in with its “Inception”-like overtones. And while the film does not have goals as lofty as Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi brain-twister, it satisfies in ways that, unlike “TRON,” will give audiences reason to recall it fondly for more than just rosy reminiscence of their youth.

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