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Oblivion (2013)

Head Trip-up

Oblivion is as difficult to review as it is to describe. The rarest of gorgeous sci-fi spectacles, Joseph Kosinski's post-apocalypse head-scratcher kept me curious from start to finish, even as it gave my eyes plenty of neat, shiny objects to follow around the screen. Stepping back, it's easy to see this as an expertly stitched patchwork of Wall-E, The Matrix, and another film whose very mention will give everything else away--but the strong performances and legitimately awe-inspiring visuals at least made the movie feel unique.

In the year 2073, Earth is a radioactive wasteland. Mankind used nukes in fending off an alien invasion, and was forced to evacuate the planet after winning the war. All that's left is a "mop-up crew" comprised of Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). Their mission is to oversee a network of processing stations that converts water into energy for use on the Titan moon colony. They make daily reports to a Mission Control operator named Sally (Melissa Leo), and do their best to avoid alien troops still lurking about the desert formerly known as Manhattan.

Though Jack and Victoria are a couple, Jack has visions of a life before the war--before, ostensibly, his own birth. His dreams are haunted by a woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko), whom he later discovers in the real-life wreckage of a NASA escape pod. Her arrival slowly turns the key on a delicious conspiracy that I won't spoil. Suffice it to say, Oblivion tackles issues of identity, trust, and the cinematic omnipresence of Morgan Freeman in ways that may surprise you--even if you've seen many of its elements in other films.

The principal actors are all terrific. It's hard to say if Cruise has matured as an actor, but he's become adept at playing brooding, haunted characters. He exudes leading-man charisma; makes a convincing action star; and can do furrowed-brow-intensity like few others. The Jack he plays here (as opposed to the Jack from Jack Reacher or Rock of Ages' Stacee Jaxx) is also sentimental and inquisitive, which doesn't bode well for his superiors' plan for abandoning Earth; few other performers could have kept me invested as his quest grew twistier and headier.

For their part Kurylenko and Riseborough bring more to Julia and Victoria than what I imagine was on the page. Their characters are mysteries and obstacles, respectively, and serve primarily to push Jack along on his quest to learn the truth about himself, the war, and the ominous Mission Control station orbiting Earth. These actresses create strong, memorable characters from comic-book heroines in the same way that Cruise elevates Jack just slightly above the prototypical sci-fi loner/hero.

I'd love to tell you exactly how Julia and Victoria stand out as characters, but that would involve cutting past several layers of the delectable Bloomin' Onion of a narrative Kosinski and co-writers Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt (adapting Kosinski and Arvid Nelson's unpublished graphic novel of the same name) have served up. Much like Trance, there are a few rough patches, story-wise, that I had a hard time getting through; unlike that movie, I doubt these stretches will be as challenging the second time around. Kosinski and company keep the switched-on audience members guessing and second-guessing and re-evaluating for the whole two hours. With the exception of the movie's final reveal, I appreciated every new development the filmmakers threw at me. And, believe me, Oblivion is like movie dodgeball.

I will say that all the head games made it difficult for me to build a strong emotional connection to the story. Oblivion is a great brain teaser, but it's a bit cold in the heart department. The characters are obviously damaged and looking for deeper connections, but so, I'd argue, is the screenplay. Everyone invests heavily in their roles, but in the end, I think all the desert-hopping, revelation pile-ons, and gunplay clutter the emotional landscape Kosinski so desperately wants us to explore.

As for his actual If you only manage to see one big-budget movie in theatres this season, you must make it Oblivion. That may sound like a cheesy poster-blurb, but I mean it sincerely. I caught this last night at Chicago's Navy Pier IMAX and was transported to a thoroughly well-conceived and exquisitely realized war-torn Earth. This is a masterwork of production design, costuming, and digital effects that stirred my long-dormant, child-like wonder. Turning off your brain at Oblivion would be a crime, but if you're interested in seeing it strictly for the visuals, I completely understand.

It's hard to believe this is only Kosinski's second feature (and that his first was the pretty-but-execrable TRON: Legacy). This is fun, thrilling, grown-up sci-fi that may bore fans looking for a non-stop, futuristic shoot-'em-up. But by leaving expectations at the ticket counter, you may just find one of your favorite movies of the year waiting inside. I did, and were it not for a couple of narrative pitfalls, I'd likely proclaim my love for Oblivion. For now, let's just say we're dating and things are looking up.