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(2013) (Tom Cruise, Andrea Riseborough) (PG-13)

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Sci-Fi: A drone repairman must contend with confusing dreams and unexpected discoveries in his last two weeks on a post-apocalyptic Earth.
It's the year 2073 and Earth is a vast wasteland, the result of aliens destroying the moon and then attacking those down below. Humans may have won that war sixty years earlier, but they lost the planet that was ravaged by earthquakes, tsunamis and the nuclear force needed to destroy the invaders known as the Scavengers.

The only people left are those like Jack Harper (TOM CRUISE) and his coworker/lover Vika (ANDREA RISEBOROUGH). They live thousands of feet above the surface working for Sally (MELISSA LEO) with whom they only have contact via video conferencing. Their job -- which has just two weeks left before they join the rest of humanity on Saturn's moon Titan -- is to maintain the last bit of extraction of the planet's resources. Jack flies down to the surface and repairs the heavily armed drone pods that roam Earth and protect the heavy machinery from what few Scavengers still exist, and Vika serves as his eyes in the sky to alert him of any potential danger.

Despite a human-wide memory wipe five years ago, Jack can't shake dreams and apparent flashbacks he has of him and a mysterious woman, Julia (OLGA KURYLENKO), being atop the Empire State Building before the war, despite never experiencing that world. He tries to get a feeling of what Earth was once like by spending time in a small, lakeside cabin that survived the apocalypse and where he stores various artifacts he's recovered.

While there, he spots a spacecraft crash-land nearby and discovers a number of sleep capsules containing humans, one of whom he recognizes as Julia. He manages to rescue her before a drone kills the rest, but the two end up captured by the "Scavs." It's then that Jack learns they're not aliens but humans like himself, led by Malcolm Beach (MORGAN FREEMAN) and his right-hand man, Sykes (NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU), who claim there's something far more nefarious going on than Jack realizes. As he tries to get to the bottom of the truth, he discovers things about himself, his mission and his world that he never could have imagined.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Considering that humankind has more than once stood near or on the precipice of partial or total annihilation (be that from contagious diseases like the plague or world wars including the post WWII threat of nuclear Armageddon), it isn't surprising that writers and filmmakers have often turned to apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction to express their concerns and worries. The former revolves around life before and during the calamitous event, while the latter is set years, decades or even centuries after most people have been wiped off the planet and some form of dystopian society has taken over.

Despite their dire elements, such films are usually quite popular with the masses who seem to be drawn to the "what if" scenario of how such things might play out or ultimately end up. From all of the zombie flicks to disaster movies like "The Day After Tomorrow," "Planet of the Apes," "I Am Legend" and even Pixar's "Wall-E," audiences usually line up in droves to see the filmed version of REM's well-known lyric, "It's the end of the world as we know it."

The latest such pic is "Oblivion," 2013's first big-budget "summer" movie of the year (yes, I know that doesn't officially meteorologically start until the third week in June in the Northern Hemisphere, but Hollywood keeps creeping up its movie tent pole season earlier and earlier to the point that one day "summer" will start in January). With a budget north of nine figures and starring Tom Cruise, it should continue the pattern of people flocking to the cinema to see if they'll feel fine with this latest version of the end.

Interestingly enough, much like "Wall-E," the film starts off impressively strong on somewhat similar story ground and then loses a bit of steam as the plot unfolds in the second half. Thankfully, it's not enough to derail the offering, and I realize that a story has to develop, but the beginning is so mesmerizing that you end up hating seeing anything come along to impact that.

Rather than a trash robot operating by himself on an abandoned world (as was the start of Pixar's film), we have Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough playing cohabitating coworkers who live in and operate from a fairly swanky sky loft hovering thousands of feet above Earth's surface. As detailed to us at the onset by Cruise's voice-over narration, it's been more than half a century since Earth was attacked by alien scavengers. Humans won the resultant war, but lost the now decimated planet, so everyone has been moved to Saturn's moon Titan, with just our two characters left to oversee the mining of Earth's last resources.

Jack repairs broken security drones (that look like large, heavily armed balls of metal) down on terra firma, while Vika serves as his "eyes in the sky" surveillance. Their only outside contact with another human is Sally (Melissa Leo), seen only via video conferencing, who gives them orders or sends in reinforcement drones if any remaining scavengers (or "scavs" as they're nicknamed) are encountered. And when the two humans -- who only have two weeks left on the job -- aren't doing that, they're expressing their "camaraderie" in their sky loft's swimming pool.

But like many a couple, Vika would rather Jack not spend so much time away from home, especially when he's known to take unnecessary risks. He also collects human artifacts (like Wall-E did in his film) from happier times, and even has a peaceful little cabin down in the woods that managed to avoid the uber-destruction that ravaged the rest of the planet. And despite a humanity-wide memory wipe five years earlier, he's been having dreams about life in the Big Apple before the war, and they feature a beautiful woman (Olga Kurylenko).

So, when that very lass ends up unexpectedly arriving on the planet in a crash-landing, Vika is more than a little concerned and jealous. To avoid any further spoilers, let's just say Jack learns a thing or two about himself, the world in which he lives, and his place and role in that. It's somewhat heady stuff that might have some viewers scratching their heads regarding what's what, while others might bemoan such developments somewhat (or perhaps greatly, depending on one's view) marginalizing the mesmerizing aspects of the early goings-on.

There's no denying that director Joseph Kosinski has vastly matured as a storyteller following his debut with 2010's "Tron: Legacy." While both are special effects extravaganzas best seen on the big screen, this one feels more polished and assured in its storytelling and handling of its mixture of spectacle and more intimate human elements. The action scenes throughout are terrific, no doubt helped by cinematographer Claudio Miranda (who recently shot "Life of Pi") and his use of Sony's relatively new F65 4K camera to enhance his visual prowess. The techo-score by M.8.3 also helps in creating the dreamy aura, although it might come off a bit too similar to Daft Punk's work in Kosinski's "Tron" reboot.

Cruise is in his element here and delivers what one has come to expect from him in such environs, while Riseborough nicely underplays her more internal performance (including when she sets sight on Kurylenko, and her gaze shows she knows this isn't a good development any way she looks at it). As shown in the trailers and commercials, Morgan Freeman is also present, but he can't do much with his underdeveloped character (although the veteran performer brings his usual dignified aura to the role).

While it's better in the first half than in the second when the mysteries are further explored and then explained, "Oblivion" nicely mixes sci-fi headiness, action and even heart into its post-apocalyptic setting. Aside from its bursts of action, the pacing might be a bit slow for some, but beyond the plot development reservations I had, I mostly found the film mesmerizing from start to finish. It rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed April 16, 2013 / Posted April 19, 2013

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