There are any number of roles Tom Cruise has taken over the years that have been risky but didn’t manage to damage his status as one of the last genuine movie stars available. While he carried Rock of Ages to respectability with his sheer presence it wasn’t the sort of massive hit studios are used to with Cruise starring and producing. Jack Reacher wasn’t a stretch for this thespian abilities but relied on international money to make back its budget. Outside of a Mission Impossible sequel Cruise hasn’t headlined a film that crossed over $100 million on its own since 2006. Domestic audiences don’t pack it in for him automatically these days and he’s slowly becoming more of an international star than a domestic one. Which is why Oblivion is such an interesting pick for him; it’s a star vehicle masquerading as serious science fiction.
Jack (Cruise) is a technician working on drones in post apocalyptic Earth. Humanity has long since left the planet, charred after nuclear war with aliens made the planet barely inhabitable, and Jack’s on repair duty. He and his partner Victoria (Andra Riseborough) have two weeks left before they get to join the rest of humanity in their new home in space; they are there to take care of drone duty and handle the remaining aliens (Scavs) that pester them. All is not what it seems, though, and while to go into detail would spoil the film it does lead to Jack changing his worldview to a significant degree.
The most interesting thing about the film is Cruise; this is him establishing a more everyman persona that carried him through a good chunk of his career as opposed to the various forms of Ethan Hunt he’s taken on over the years. It’s what made Cruise into one of the biggest movie stars on the planet and it serves him well here; Jack’s a technician with professional military experience but he’s not a Jason Bourne type to any degree.
It makes the film significantly stronger because if Cruise was this badass superhero type we really couldn’t care about his journey. Seeing the invincible one man super spy version of Cruise in this film ruins the effect because it’d be too much for the part. Making him just a guy doing his job with what is presumed to be his wife, repairing drones and engaging with the Scavs while having marital problems, gives us sympathy. This isn’t Cruise with the great life doing the impossible; he’s a guy with a beautiful tasked to do a job that most couldn’t fathom. There’s sympathy and when his world changes it makes him compelling as a character.
This is a character-based film and any actor would have a rough time playing Jack, much less Cruise. Cruise’s sheer presence and charisma have to be downplayed for this kind of role and Cruise is note perfect for a genre film. We can feel it when he yearns for more and when he wants to stay on Earth after his two weeks are up. Jack is such an interesting role because he has to turn down the things that normally make him so compelling in a film; he subdues it all and winds up crafting a character we can sympathize with.
We can identify with him and it makes the film significantly better; he’s a guy doing a crappy job and wanting more. We can sympathize with his little cabin on a lake no one knows about where he goes to think and other things. This isn’t a film trying to get us to redefine how we see Cruise; this is us bringing back the Cruise that many people genuinely enjoyed for more than two decades.
It’s akin to bringing back the smoldering Al Pacino from the 1970s instead of the “I don’t care” Pacino we see in most films nowadays or the “I DON’T KNOW WHY BUT I HAVE TO YELL ALL THE TIME” Pacino that he adopted after winning an Oscar in Scent of a Woman.
The film itself is the combination of other strong sci-fi films and meshed into a more violent form of Wall-E. Throw in Morgan Freeman as a Deus Ex Machina device and Joseph Kosinski has taken a fairly familiar concept and crafted a solid sci-fi film into a strong character based drama doubling as a star vehicle. Oblivion is a good film made better because it has a lead actor able to take everything that makes him a star and turn it on itself.
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Writer: Joseph Kosinski, William Monahan, Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt on Joseph Kosinski’s unpublished graphic novel “Oblivion”
Notable Cast: Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Morgan Freeman, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo