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Elegant if familiar, 'Oblivion' mesmerizes

The Associated Press
Published:   |   Updated: April 18, 2013 at 09:12 AM

Early in the sleek sci-fi thriller 'Oblivion,' Tom Cruise, as a flyboy repairman living a removed, Jetsons-like existence above an invaded and deserted Earth, intones his home sickness.

"I can't shake the feeling that despite all that's happened, Earth is still my home," he narrates.

In 'Oblivion,' the second film from 'Tron: Legacy' director Joseph Kosinski, he plays Jack Harper, a patroller of the drone-controlled skies over Earth. From a sparse dock where he lives with his supervisor and girlfriend, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), Jack makes daily flights in his spacecraft to the Earth's barren surface. "We're the mop-up crew," he says.

He tells us that it's been 60 years since aliens invaded, first knocking out the moon and then leading to a devastating nuclear war. Though humans, he says, won out, they had to abandon the planet's surface, taking refuge on a moon of Saturn. On a desolate Earth, the only beings remaining are hiding bands of Scavengers.

Monitoring the land are white, round drones that appear like giant, floating cue balls from afar, but menacing robot killers up close. Occasionally, they need servicing from Jack.

His faith is greater with Victoria, who guides his movements from her computerized desk. Her superior (played with a folksy Southern accent by Melissa Leo) is seen only in scratchy video communiqués.

So we are back in a post-apocalyptic world, a place to which movies lately can't help returning, all with images of wrecked ironic monuments and unpeopled landscapes.

Kosinski, who based the film on the ideas of his unpublished graphic novel, is an expert in 3-D modeling and computer graphics.

He filmed 'Oblivion' with cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who also shot 'Tron: Legacy' and since did the gorgeous filmography of Ang Lee's 'Life of Pi.'

This carefully organized world is thrown when a NASA shuttle crashes with an astronaut, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), who seems to recognize Jack. His own memory has been scrubbed but flickers with images from his past.

As the film builds, it plays with familiar sci-fi themes of identity, memory, faith in institutions and human nature. Little can be said about Morgan Freeman's character without giving much away, but suffice to say that he enters the film in shades, lighting a cigar and wearing a cape. Yes, a cape. Kosinski could have chucked all his visual effects and just gone with a cape-clad Freeman.

Analyzing the substance of 'Oblivion,' which declines - as so many science-fiction films do - as the puzzles are solved, inevitably diminishes the film. But for those who enjoy the simple thrill of handsomely stylized image-making, 'Oblivion' is mostly mesmerizing.

The severe artificiality of the film's universe begins cracking with Jack's curiosity for earthly, analog things. It started with a found book, and grows in his secret mountain hideaway of old records, a baseball cap and literature.

It's a familiar trope in sci-fi that humanity breathes eternally through art. But if films such as 'Oblivion' are so preoccupied by the detritus of our civilization, perhaps we ought to aim a little higher than Tom Cruise blockbusters. After all, our future fate depends on it.

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