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"Oblivion" mini-review

No specifics or spoilers, but if you plan to see the new Tom Cruise film "Oblivion" and don't want to know anything about it, stop reading...

... Oh, who am I trying to fool here?  You've already seen "Oblivion."  Every sci-fi movie from the past 20 years is referenced in the plot and visuals, from "Independence Day" to - as you can tell from the ad campaign - "Wall-E."  Drain all the humor and humanity from "Wall-E," swap in Tom Cruise for the lovable janitor robot, and you've got the first third of "Oblivion."

Later another sci-fi movie from the past decade is more strongly referenced, to the point of being completely ripped off.  I gather the producers of "Oblivion" looked at the box-office receipts and concluded no one saw this earlier movie, so they could appropriate its plot wholesale.  There's a drinking game to be made out of spotting all of the plot and visual organs this Frankenstein's Monster of a film swipes from its predecessors.

As with many other epic films that paint themselves into a corner, the final act of "Oblivion" depends on antagonists previously depicted as supremely intelligent behaving with mind-boggling idiocy.  It would be great if Hollywood could give us an ending in which smart adversaries are outsmarted, rather than contracting a terminal case of the stupids.

Far too much of the film's plot payload is ruined by its advertising and early scenes.  That seems to be the nature of movie advertising these days - it's very difficult to sell a mystery without yelling "Everything the hero has been told is wrong!" in the audience's face during the trailers.  But even within the movie itself, the mystery is given no time to develop.  Much is ruined with an opening info-dump voiceover from Tom Cruise, sketching out a situation that no rational person would accept at face value.  We are left tapping our feet and wondering why Cruise and his partner would be willing to swallow certain details of their janitorial duty without question, for years on end; we're too far ahead of the hero when he starts getting the idea that All Is Not Right With the World. 

On the plus side, the visuals are both clever and gorgeous.  If you like special effects, "Oblivion" is worth seeing just to see it.  Cruise's home base / condominium in the clouds is one of the coolest movie sets to come along in ages.  (It takes the concept of an "infinity pool" to a whole new level.)  It's interesting to see a big-budget film that truly loves its gadgets, the way moviemakers of previous eras lavished attention on the far-out props they were able to construct, using more limited effects technology and budgets.  

And say what you will about Tom Cruise, but not many actors can carry a film in which there really aren't any other starring roles, just a small handful of supporting characters.  In "Oblivion," he does what Denzel Washington did for "The Book of Eli," and that's not easy.  (Come to think of it, "Oblivion" would have been intriguingly different if Denzel Washington had taken the lead role.)  One genuinely admirable thing about the script and direction of "Oblivion" is that it makes a wide-open world filled with stunning high-altitude vistas seem claustrophobic, because there are hardly any people in it.  I assume that's a deliberate component of the director's vision, and he deserves applause for realizing it so effectively.  Now if only he could bring that vision to an original script...


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