The good news: Here’s a lavish, serious science-fiction picture, one that on occasion transcends big-budget hit-making convention to glance against grandeur. Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion, based on his own graphic novel, is one of those futuristic puzzlers whose dramatic energies are most invested not in the characters or their fates, exactly, but in the slow revelation of its own premise. You’ll begin to doubt the story’s initial setup — it’s 2077, and the Earth is mostly uninhabitable after humanity defeated an invading alien force — the second that its hero mentions having recently had his memory wiped and that his wife has been “assigned” to him.
Which brings us to Tom Cruise, the not-necessarily-good news. However engaging its end-times mysteries, Oblivion is still a Tom Cruise movie. He's rarely credible these days playing specific humans, but he is without peer as Mr. Charge-Ahead Movie Hero, the guy who feels only one thing at a time, always exactly what the scene demands. (His default mode: relentless determination.) He's like some premium plot-moving app producers can download for their blockbusters — but he comes with the usual bugs. To witness Oblivion's marvels, you'll have to watch him do all he does in movie after movie: modeling jump suits and sunglasses; racing about on a dirt bike; getting tied to a chair; running in that stiff and measured way that makes him look like an animated .gif titled "Tom Cruise Running."
Here, as in Minority Report, he's excellent when he's in motion but risible when he slows down to ache over the normal life his characters are always denied — are we truly meant to believe these engineered-to-move Cruise supermen would prefer the idyllic family life?
Still, in the first act, Cruise proves ideally suited to the role. He's his usual everyman/automaton, a man who's just like any of us except that he's the absolute best at everything he tries, ever. Here, in a Yankees cap that reminds us he's still all-American even a generation after America, he's a technician charged with monitoring a large swath of what's left of the abandoned Eastern Seaboard as the rest of humanity, on a towering space station, preps to be shipped off to Titan. He's called Jack Harper — is there a spigot in Hollywood that dispenses action hero names? — and each day he zips down to Earth from his home in the clouds, a Frank Lloyd Wright casserole dish speared atop a Jetsons pole. Down here, in his flying machine, he traverses the canyons of a ruined U.S. to monitor and repair the patrol drones that a space station dispatches to protect — well, just what they're protecting is a third-act revelation you'll have to wonder about until Harper finally does. (The Cruise app never thinks more than required.)
Those drones look like Luke Skywalker's helmet tricked out with guns and the eye of HAL; they're wicked, next-tech marvels with the weight and presence of old-fashioned special effects — you never doubt that they're really there, somehow, on the set with Cruise. Cruise's early adventures with them in what's left of New York unfold with a suspenseful patience rare in movies this expensive. At its best, as Cruise explores a ruined stadium or a cratered library, Oblivion takes on the immersiveness of the greatest video games — with apologies to the late Mr. Ebert, that's a compliment. Here's your cypher/avatar, picking through a wide-open alien environment, with time given for you to savor the world around you. Director Kosinski proves himself talented in ways his Tron: Legacy didn't suggest. You might wish he'd been allowed to indulge in longer, prouder shots of his wonders, à la the Kubrick he seems to admire.
But Cruise is contractually required to sprint, and drones tend to get turned on the drone-keeper. So the stately opening gives way to explosions and plot: There's an invasive alien species to deal with, as well as the usual tattered squad of post-apocalyptic refugees. Plus, the mission-control overseers Harper reports to (they're on that space station) seem to have interests other than his own in mind.
Andrea Riseborough is officious and funny in a role that should be less familiar than it is, the hive-minded beauty chosen to be Tom Cruise's wife. Morgan Freeman, featured prominently in the advertising, only has a couple of scenes, which also echo video games, but in the bad way. Like a cut-scene character, he doles out exposition and seems programmed to do what he does no matter how our hero responds. The third act bogs down with twists and answers, many of which you'll see coming before Harper pauses even to consider them, but the ending — which involves another patient immersion in another strange world — inspires awe. The hard choices Harper makes are ones characters have faced since we first started telling stories, but Oblivion does achieve an inhuman majesty.