When it comes to his movie career, Tom Cruise is like a shark: if he stops for a moment he'd die. And, by now, you can see the strain in that high-wattage smile even if his jawline remains firm and his deltoids work harder than most in the business. So here Cruise is, in a big summer movie clocking in at just over two hours, that couldn't even wait for May to open. He just had to get the jump on the competition.
Cruise plays Jack, a futuristic fix-it man repairing drones on Earth in 2077. The setting is 60 years after a war that half-destroyed the planet and made the moon disappear. "We're the mop-up crew," Jack explains.
Who are "we"? Jack, his brain wiped from all previous memories, shares his home base with his work-and-sex partner, Victoria (veddy English Andrea Riseborough of Madonna's "W.E."). In typical one-last-mission fashion, the pair toils away in their last two weeks before their scheduled retirement to the moon of Saturn — fixing drones, reporting to mission control, and taking erotic midnight swims.
But once asleep, Jack dreams of the past that was supposedly wiped from his mind with mental Windex. Arty black-and-white images of the Empire State Building and a beautiful dark-haired woman (Bond girl Olga Kurylenko) haunt him. When that very same woman falls to Earth in a space travel sleep pod straight out of a "Star Trek" episode, Jack begins to learn the many, many ways his existence is a lie –— and his notions of "good guys" and "bad guys" are upended.
Meet the Jetsons
Jack and Victoria live in a small moderne home/space station perched on a platform above the Earth's surface. With its short landing strip for Jack's spacemobile, it's a dead-ringer for "The Jetsons" house from the Hanna-Barbera cartoon. You almost expect Astro to enter barking.
Directed by Joseph Kosinski (responsible for that painful remake "Tron: Legacy"), the movie is a mashup of familiar storylines from sci-fi and space Westerns. You'll be thinking "Total Recall" in the opening scene where Jack awakens beside Victoria, but there's a sense that their relationship is as much a mission as a love match — and that she is as much his jailer as his partner.
During the long opening voiceover, during which Cruise runs through the exposition like a book on tape, we long for Morgan Freeman. Surprise: Halfway through the film, Freeman makes an entrance as a crusty freedom fighter in an outtake from "Mad Max." It's nearly laughable. Look, it's a "Star Wars" dogfight in a valley! Oh, that's so "I Am Legend." That's "2001: A Space Odyssey," Hal.
Not all the references are big budget. A huge plot twist mirrors the underseen Sam Rockwell tour de force "Moon," about a space worker who realizes he is (spoiler) a clone. And, of course, the love story is straight out of "An Affair to Remember."
There could easily be a drinking game when the movie comes out on DVD, in which home viewers down a shot every time they recognize another famous movie embedded in "Oblivion."
Women, please note: Even in the distant freaky future of 2077, sex roles have not advanced all that much. Victoria may be a working woman, but she dresses to the nines daily in high heels, architectural designer frocks, and enough mascara to make one's eyes stick together just looking at her. In addition to liaising with the outside world — Sally (Melisa Leo) — she arranges dinner, tends wounds both physical and emotional, and initiates intercourse. While Jack goes to work in his space coupe, Victoria refuses to leave the base.
Sure, in 2077 there's no longer a moon, and the Earth looks like an apple with a bite out of it, but some things haven't changed all that much.
So what works? If you love Cruise, this is a movie that lets him shower not once but twice to show off his awesome midlife upper body. There are so many close-ups, there's time to count his eyebrow hairs (he doesn't pluck).
Cruise takes it slow for the most part, walking across his "Jetsons" love nest with a dancer's controlled footfalls as if on the verge of a jeté. He worries with total concentration, he looks confused with total concentration, and he makes love in a space-suspended transparent swimming pool with total concentration. I find him exhausting to watch, but that's not the common reaction to a star that has made billions for the studios.
If you want "Top Gun" in space, this one's for you. Or feel free to join me in that drinking game — just make sure you have a designated driver for that spacemobile.
Check out this featurette from 'Oblivion':