Somehow, Tom Cruise can rise to unexpected heights, if not of dramatic intensity and depth, then of character suitability in the realm of sci-fi. He fit the bill beautifully in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report and does so again in the trippy, fine film Oblivion, based on Joseph Kosinski’s unpublished graphic novel and brought sharply to the screen by its creator in cowriter/director mode. It has something to do with the fact that there’s a certain alien quality to Cruise, who resembles a sort of generically handsome and fit overgrown adolescent archetype, a facsimile of the Homo sapiens sort. You always wonder if he might have a circuit board embedded somewhere in his chiseled body.
That suspicion becomes paramount in Oblivion. As a lingering security agent and drone repairman on a ruined, ravaged post-Apocalyptic planet Earth, Cruise heats up the screen even while sparking questions about his very DNA. Our hero, who caroms about in cool white gizmos and confides in his bobblehead mascot on the dashboard of his flying machine, has been subjected to a “mandatory memory wipe.” He falls into a rabbit hole with the arrival of his remotely remembered wife (the beguiling Olga Kurylenko).
The year is 2077 and terra firma has been nuked to “oblivion,” even though, as the recurring ironic statement goes, “We did win the war.” Remaining creatures called scavs (as in scavengers) are presumably the enemy of a plan to relocate the human race off-planet, and high-efficiency drones patrol the land in search of scavs to destroy. But wait, isn’t that Morgan Freeman as a sagely scav, thickening the plot and awakening the sense of our hero? As a kind of dream of a more idyllic past earthly life, Cruise’s character and his lady lover repair to a secret lakeside hideaway, where they crank “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and imagine a life before nukeage spoiled the human comedy plot.
What makes Oblivion work is the crafty, clean, and convincing visualization and realization of the alternate universe it has cooked up. Such is the inherent challenge of science-fiction films (or books or graphic novels or other storytelling modes), and Cruise is the right man for the job.