Review: Tom Cruise tones it down in visually stunning 'Oblivion'

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“Oblivion” is a spectacular science fiction movie... until it isn’t.

Writer-director Joseph Kosinski (“Tron: Legacy”) has created a post-apocalyptic world so rich in detail and gorgeous design, that from the get-go it’s easy to assume this film will become a sci-fi classic. But as “Oblivion” crosses the threshold from the unknown to the all-too-obvious, the Tom Cruise alien adventure falls into familiar territory.

Cruise is Jack Harper, a drone maintenance technician who surveys the desolate Earth after an alien invasion destroyed the moon and radically altered the state of the planet. While the survivors relocated to the moon Titan, Harper and his partner-lover Victoria are tasked with monitoring the drones and giant machines that will carry water from Earth to Titan.  When a drone goes missing, Jack goes on the hunt. In turn, Jack is hunted by the remnants of the alien invaders. The mystery deepens when Jack comes across jettisoned escape pods carrying a mysterious woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko), whom Jack had been dreaming about all along. As Jack tries to find out who this mystery person is, he in turn learns the truth about himself.

As Jack travels further into the unknown, Kosinski creates a sense of unease and tension, not unlike Franklin J. Schaffner’s suspenseful pre-ape scenes in “Planet of the Apes.”  Even though the film eventually enters into very familiar territory, “Oblivion” never loses its momentum, sprinting all the way to the finish line.

Cruise surprisingly takes a back-seat to the spectacle, not letting his performance be the focal point. He delivers a chill performance rather than the typical amplifying of his every sentence. The story lends itself to Cruise toning it down and being a little more introspective as he spends the majority of the film alone, either exploring the surface of the planet or hiding out in a lakeside shack listening to LPs, but always in thought about his own purpose.

Melissa Leo delivers the easiest role of her life as Sally, the mission control supervisor whose face is only seen on Jack and Victoria’s monitor. Morgan Freeman shows up as the leader of a shadowy group of misfits, wearing a cape and goggles as if he just stepped out of a superhero comic book. Only Freeman could pull this off as badass instead of ridiculous.

Despite a derivative second half, credit is due to the extent of detail and identity Kosinski designed for this film. As far as sci-fi adventures go, not much in recent years comes anywhere close to how cool this film looks. Kosinski creates two vastly different, but equally, fascinating worlds. There’s the ashen-gray Earth and then the sleek, Apple-white station above the clouds which acts like Cruise’s giant dorm room in the sky. Even the drones and Cruise’s ship have a fresh and unique design. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda captures both locations with such vibrancy and fluidity, part of the reason it will be so easy to get sucked into this world. Testing the limit of the theater’s sound system, yet still complementing Miranda’s visuals, are M.8.3 and Joseph Trapanese’s searing and pounding synth score.

After “Tron: Legacy” and now “Oblivion,” Kosinski has proven he has a most-welcome and unique cinematic vision, a visual style that greatly boosts an exhausted genre. Despite the ho-hum story, there are many reasons to see “Oblivion,” and revisit “Oblivion” again.

MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 2 hours and 5 minutes.