TERRY GROSS, HOST:
In December, Tom Cruise starred as the title character in the film "Jack Reacher." In "Oblivion," which opened on Friday, he plays another Jack, one of few humans left on an Earth devastated by an alien invasion. "Oblivion" is based on a graphic novel co-written by Joseph Kosinski, who went on to direct the film, and it costars Morgan Freeman and Melissa Leo. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: As I suffered through the Tom Cruise vehicle "Oblivion" I wondered if Cruise was trying to beat out fellow Scientologist John Travolta for the worst plotted sci-fi movie ever. Thank heavens, he lost. Nothing will ever be as shatteringly inane as Travolta's L. Ron Hubbard movie "Battlefield Earth."
But making a film with Joseph Kosinski - director of "Tron: Legacy" - is like taking a multiple choice survey that says: I want my space movies more, A, incoherent, B, plotting; or, C, migraine-inducing and checking E, all of the above. Yet "Oblivion's" early scenes do exert a strange fascination. They're so conscientiously neutral, so droningly dull, that they almost pass for Stanley Kubrick (technical difficulties) big.
Big, white impersonal settings on a big barren landscape under a big fractured moon, for one big segment broken off and simply hanging, suspended, or (technical difficulties). Cruise's character, Jack, explains in voiceover that that's how aliens, called Scavengers, obliterated humankind. They blew up the moon and nature did the rest. We beat the invaders back, he goes on, and took off en masse to colonize a moon of Saturn, Titan.
But a few people stayed behind to take what resources they could and watch out for leftover bands of Scavs. Jack and his lovely Victoria, played by Andrea Riseborough, are a team. She sits in a giant mushroom-like flight tower with readouts from hydro rigs while Jack flies around repairing equipment and summing lethal drones whenever he finds signs of alien saboteurs.
The first half-hour is Jack narrating, Jack talking to Victoria on his headset, and Jack zooming around. Victoria talks to an administrator on a screen called Sally, played by Melissa Leo. Jack and Victoria talk about their imminent departure for Titan and have sex. It's amazing how fast the novelty of all those nifty sets wears off. Everything, including the actors, looks computer generated, 100 percent inauthentic.
But, ah, is that the point? Is anything what it seems? Jack feels dislocated. He has visions of himself atop the Empire State Building with another woman - someone more compelling than his vaguely robotic partner. When Jack finds a crashed spaceship with human passengers in suspended animation and a drone flies in and starts blasting them, he's flummoxed. (technical difficulties) The woman in his dreams, played by Olga Kurylenko.
Later in "Oblivion," Jack is captured by beings who look like humans, led by Morgan Freeman, who puffs happily on a cigar - and you would, too, if you had to do as little for a paycheck this size.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OBLIVION")
MORGAN FREEMAN: (as Beech) I've been watching you, Jack. What are you looking for in those books? Do they bring back old memories?
TOM CRUISE: (as Jack) You won't get anything from me. My memory has been wiped to protect against this.
FREEMAN: (as character) To secure your mission. Yes. You can't have your precious memory falling into the wrong hands, now, can you? You just repair drones. Don't go into the radiation zone or ask too many questions. All part of the job description.
EDELSTEIN: Confused? Everything will be made clear. Not in the movie itself, which is the most incoherent piece of storytelling in years, and had me crying what, what over the din of the explosions. It was Wikipedia's "Oblivion" entry that spelled out what was going on in the final flashback. And a few, but not all my complaints, were answered on an IMDB board in which posters argued over whether the problem was our lack of attention spans or atrocious screenwriting.
I can't speak for others, but I've sat through many three-hour Romanian pictures. (technical difficulties) Scientology earlier. It wasn't just a cheap shot at Cruise. "Oblivion" spins the same kind of fantasy as Hubbard's "Battlefield Earth," in which a man must learn the true nature of his being before he can take on an evil empire of plundering anti-individualists from a planet that sounds like Hubbard's "Xenu."
In this case, Jack learns that his body is but a temporary vessel, his soul immortal and transcendent. What Cruise hasn't learned is not to wrinkle his brow and squint real hard to indicate he's thinking. It makes him look like a caveman puzzling over fire while it's burning his finger to a crisp.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download podcasts of our shows at our website freshair.npr.org and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.