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updated: 4/19/2013 5:16 PM

Sharp sci-fi thriller about memories forgets characters, not action

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  • Julia (Olga Kurylenko) and Jack (Tom Cruise) recreate a memory atop a post-apocalyptic Empire State Building in Joseph Kosinski's science-fiction thriller "Oblivion."

      Julia (Olga Kurylenko) and Jack (Tom Cruise) recreate a memory atop a post-apocalyptic Empire State Building in Joseph Kosinski's science-fiction thriller "Oblivion."

  • Jack (Tom Cruise) goes into action mode -- again -- in the futuristic thriller "Oblivion."

      Jack (Tom Cruise) goes into action mode -- again -- in the futuristic thriller "Oblivion."

  • Video: "Oblivion" trailer

 
 

I knew nothing about Joseph Kosinski's science fiction thriller "Oblivion" when I sat down for a press screening Tuesday at the Navy Pier IMAX Theater in Chicago.

I just quietly hoped it would not be another one of those futuristic capers in which the hero discovers that the evil rebels/subversives/terrorists he's fighting against are really the good guys, and the hero's seemingly beneficent employers/government/peers are revealed to be the baddies.

That, and Morgan Freeman doesn't pop up again as a wise old sage spouting philosophical nuggets of inspiration.

But it was. And he does.

(At least it's not another one of those futuristic capers in which the hero searches for a mystical safe place called Sanctuary/Haven/Utopia.)

These revelations won't ruin "Oblivion" for anyone. First, seasoned sci-fi buffs will see this plot coming light years away. Second, the plot is thicker than that.

The screenplay, by Karl Gajdusek and Michael DeBruyn (based on Kosinski's graphic novel, in turn based on a 2005 short story), serves up a hodgepodge of references to other science-fiction works ("Planet of the Apes," "WALL-E," "Total Recall") and even the sentimental romance "An Affair to Remember" starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr as lovers reuniting atop the Empire State Building.

That's where Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) constantly dreams of meeting a slinky woman ("Quantum of Solace" star Olga Kurylenko) next to one of those pay-per-view binoculars.

But let's start at the beginning, shall we?

The lazy screenplay uses Jack's voice-over narration to lecture us about what's happened before the year 2077.

1. Aliens attacked Earth, first by destroying our moon, thereby throwing our environment into apocalyptic chaos.

2. We nuked the poop out of the aliens (presumably with North Korea's help) and saved humanity, but we rendered our planet uninhabitable, so we shipped off most of Earth's population to Titan, a moon near Saturn.

Those who remain get their memories wiped. For security.

3. Now renegade aliens called scavengers (or "scavs") roam the Earth, trying to kill Jack as he repairs a fleet of security drones designed to keep the scavs at bay (i.e. shoot them to literal pieces).

This is a really dumb, superfluous chunk of exposition because later in the movie, Jack has to repeat it all to slinky Julia (Kurylenko) after she awakens from a 60-year nap in suspended animation.

The arrival of Julia disturbs Jack's partner and lover, the luscious, British-accented Vika (Andrea Riseborough). She lives with Jack in a posh, suspended-in-the-sky Hollywood penthouse home with a transparent swimming pool where they can swim naked.

Why does Julia's arrival panic Vika? Why does Jack see Julia in his dreams? The answers are worth waiting for, despite that the movie's over-fueled action sequences and flamboyant sets get more attention than the characters.

Kosinski, director of the technically impressive but dramatically flaccid sequel "Tron: Legacy," directs a technically impressive but dramatically diminishing thriller in "Oblivion."

Photographed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio "Life of Pi" Miranda, "Oblivion" comes out of the starting stargate on full warp speed with astonishing visual effects (flawlessly integrated with live action footage), superb sound effects editing and a pulsating, electronic score by M83 that explodes with energy and drive before slowly succumbing to bombastic repetition.

Two effects deserve technical kudos: Jack's transport craft, apparently inspired by the movements of a wasp; and the deadly drones -- mechanical versions of those malicious organic bubbles from the cult TV series "The Prisoner." Nasty pieces of work.

The role of Jack requires Cruise to do little more than recycle his "Mission: Impossible" agent Ethan Hunt, and he acquits himself nicely.

Riseborough, armed with killer lips and silver-dollar eyes, turns in a radiant performance as Vika, pumping the character with surprising and welcome amounts of sex appeal and raw emotions.

Yet, the best performance in "Oblivion" belongs to the amazing Melissa Leo as the Southern-drawlin' Sally, Jack and Vika's artificially peppy supervisor crammed with so much personality that she threatens to bust right out of her tiny TV screen.

Note: The huge IMAX images work well for the 4-K digital effects sequences in "Oblivion." Not so much for close-ups that are really close.

The tight shot of Cruise's bleeding nose? Way too close.

You've been warned.

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