Tom Cruise in Oblivion: Drones and Clones on Planet Earth

One of Hollywood's last stars wins battles against enemy spacecraft, but he can't infuse this artsy sci-fi film with emotional vitality

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David James / Universal Studios

Earth, 2077. Sixty years earlier, alien invaders had blown up our moon, and an intergalactic battle ensued. “We won the war but lost the planet,” says Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), a kind of grease-monkey pilot whose job is to repair the drones that monitor desolate Earth while the rest of humanity lives in a remote space station. His coworker and assigned girlfriend Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) directs Jack’s flying sorties over the wreckage of Manhattan, which may literally be a no-man’s land. Yet as he lies in bed with Victoria, Jack has visions of another, mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko), from his fantasies or his past. “I know you, but we’ve never met. I’m with you and I don’t know your name. I know I’m dreaming, but it feels like more that. It feels like a memory. How can that be?”

And how is it that science-fiction films imagine the worst for our future while steeped in love-loss for our past? Perhaps because the genre blossomed, as literature and then cinema, in the late 1940s — the time of the Cold War and the first nuclear age — when our world’s two great powers played a deadly game of mutually assured destruction, and when fearing the prospect of human extinction was not paranoia, just common sense. It’s no wonder that any time before the Bomb seemed Edenic to sci-fi writers, readers and movigoers; any time after might spell The End.

(SEE: TIME’s Top 10 Sci-Fi Movies of the 1950s)

The same warm ache of nostalgia envelops the Jack of 2077, the hero of Joseph Kosinski’s oh-so-serious Oblivion, for the pre-invasion Earth of 2017. He stands at the top of the Empire State Building, most of it covered in sand and rubble, wanders through the caverns of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street (only eight blocks away from King Kong’s final perch but miraculously not buried) and patrols Yankee Stadium, scene of the very last World Series. He saves old books, a catcher’s mitt and baseball and some LPs from the 1960s and ’70s; Procol Harum keeps playing on his internal iTunes. Fixating on the 1948 Andrew Wyeth painting Christina’s World, and on his dream girl, Jack finds a verdant interior life in this wasteland by mixing memory and desire. His poetic guide, though, is not Eliot but Macaulay, whose famous couplet in The Lays of Ancient Rome — “And how can man die better than facing fearful odds, / For the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods…” — haunts Jack like a long-ago pop tune or a distant battle cry.

Oblivion must be the only science-fiction film that borrows substantially from I Am Legend, WALL-E and Sleepless in Seattle — itself a remake of 1957’s An Affair to Remember, which was a remake of 1939’s Love Affair. In fact, everything in this movie keeps looking backward. Victoria warns Jack that “Our job is to not remember. Remember?” That’s the cue for this company man with a rebellious streak to find his future in the past, to decide if he’s fishing for  memory or waking up inside of a dream. Jack must attend to the dual meaning of “oblivion”: “nothing” and “forgetfulness.” If we’ve misplaced our memories, we’ve lost ourselves.

(READ: Corliss’ review of the Will Smith I Am Legend)

The movie’s trailer and poster have alerted viewers that Jack and Victoria are not alone on Earth. Morgan Freeman briefly emerges from the underworld as a Zeus-Hades insurgent, sporting sunglasses and chomping on a cigar. (Where’d he find that — in a subterranean smoke shop?) Melissa Leo, with a fake-syrupy Southern accent, is seen on Riseborough’s screen as a mid-level operative back at Mission Control. And Kurylenko, also in theaters now as Ben Affleck’s whirling wife in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, eventually shows up in person when Jack rescues her from a shot-down spaceship on which she had taken a long cryogenic nap. (No surprise: she looks great.) But Oblivion is still so underpopulated that. when Jack requires a suitable rival for a bare-knuckles fight, it’s a clone of himself.

(READ: Corliss’s review of To the Wonder)

Kosinski, the 3-D graphics whiz who has a Master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University, made his feature-film debut with the 2010 Tron: Legacy (a sequel-remake that also hopscotches through time). Oblivion shows that Kosinski certainly has an eye for spiffy shapes — the sleek watchtower, the collapsible metallic grandeur of Jack’s aircraft, the platoon of drones with one glowering red eye and the frowny face of a Pac-man goblin— amid a ravishingly barren landscape. Indeed, the juggling of opposites is this director’s game: to make an artistic statement while indulging his star’s need to be a Top Gun aerial ace, a moto-bike demon and an old-fashioned romantic swain.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Tron: Legacy)

Cruise nearly carries it off. At 50, with a few becoming facial creases but also looking cryogenically preserved, he is still the boyish action star, a perpetual-motion machine who’s been told No so many times he’s stopped listening and leaped into the enthralling unknown. The extreme closeups that find only generic worry in Riseborough’s face are kind to Cruise; he instinctively knows how to communicate to an audience through a possibly thoughtful stare. (We haven’t seen the old-young smiling Tom on the big screen for ages; he’s taken Will Smith’s lead and traded in his trademark grin for a world-weary grimace.) After playing the dessicated Stacee Jaxx in Rock of Ages, and the hobo sleuth in Jack Reacher, Cruise completes his Jack trilogy as Harper, spelunking inside the crevices of his memory or fantasy.

(READ: Corliss on Tom Cruise in Rock of Ages and Jack Reacher)

The exigencies of Cruise’s participation demand fights and flights. We get one pretty cool space dogfight, as Jack plays bumper cars with a flotilla of enemy aircraft, and one lame one that’s way too reminiscent of, and less thrilling than, the climactic chase in the original Star Wars. Rule for sci-fi directors: No more aerial Indy 500-style battles in narrow canyons.

But the biggest collision in Oblivion — one Kosinski may not have intended — is between the feverish action scenes and the slowness, we might say torpor, of the rest of the film. For all the shouting and swooning, characters don’t connect; and by the end, when all the clones and drones are accounted for, science-fiction entropy has given way to audience ennui. Six minutes or 60 years after seeing the movie, viewers are unlikely to remember it.

In space, Jack hopes, someone may hear you dream. But in a movie theater, no one will see you yawn.