OK, I'll admit it. I'm a Tom Cruise fan.
Say what you want about the guy, but he has been making solid, entertaining and occasionally great films for more than 30 years.
From 1981's "Taps" to 2012's "Jack Reacher," Cruise has played both heroes and heels (often at the same time) convincingly and generally with great intensity. Few of his 36 films could be called "unsuccessful," and I maintain that you can't count "Rock of Ages" against him because A) he was part of a large ensemble cast, not the leading man, and B) his comedic turn as faded rock mega star Stacee Jaxx was actually pretty great. The musical might well have been more popular had Cruise gotten more screen time.
Having performed in almost every cinematic genre, Cruise has excelled particularly in science fiction. Of course it hasn't hurt that Steven Spielberg was at the helm for his two previous forays.
As Chief John Anderton in "Minority Report," Cruise brought his intense, driven persona to a character who was a gung-ho true-believer in his job as commander of the experimental pre-crime unit that, with help from telepaths, apprehended would-be murderers before they could commit their crimes.
But Anderton also was crippled with grief and guilt over the loss of his son to a never-apprehended kidnapper. When the telepaths ultimately finger Anderton as a would-be murderer himself, Cruise brings a formidable combination of physicality, intelligence and desperation to his portrayal of a flawed hero's journey to clear himself against a fully-realized Spielbergian future landscape.
If Max von Sydow hadn't been cast as the paternal good guy who was really the bad guy (No kidding! It's Max von Sydow!) the climax might have been a bit more of a surprise, but all-in-all, "Minority Report" is a fast-paced, thought-provoking, expertly crafted sci-fi thriller, thanks in no small part to Cruise's performance.
In Spielberg's "War of the Worlds," a contemporary retelling of the classic H.G. Wells story of an alien invasion, Cruise stars as harbor crane operator Ray Ferrier. Divorced and somewhat estranged from his teenaged son and younger daughter, he nevertheless takes care of them for the weekend while his ex-wife and her husband are out-of-town. Spielberg wastes little time getting the massive and terrifying alien attack rolling, and Cruise's Ferrier is soon on the run with his children.
The three embark on a harrowing journey from New Jersey to Boston as Ferrier struggles to keep them alive and to (hopefully) reunite the children with their mother. Once again, Cruise's fierce intensity in the face of a truly frightening threat anchors this massive production on a very personal level. Somehow, one of the world's most famous actors disappears inside an everyman fighting desperately for his family.
Which brings us to Cruise's latest film, "Oblivion."
This time, his character's arc is in the hands of a relative directing newcomer, Joseph Kosinski. ("Tron: Legacy") Kosinski first created "Oblivion" as a graphic novel, (unpublished) and then rewrote it as a screenplay. It follows the story of Jack Harper, one of the last few people on an Earth that was rendered all but uninhabitable during a war decades earlier with alien invaders.
Harper's job is to maintain the drones that protect a massive natural-resource mining operation in support of a transplanted human colony on Titan, one of Saturn's moons. Haunted by dreams and displaced memories of Earth before the invasion, Harper struggles to comprehend all that has happened since. When a spaceship crashes nearby, he investigates, and discovers that it carries a woman who has appeared in his dreams. He is gradually drawn into a deepening mystery and ultimately into a battle to save the human race.
Kosinski has said that "Oblivion" is an homage to 1970s sci-fi films. Images in the previews certainly harken back to movies like the original "Planet of the Apes," and "2001: A Space Odyssey." (Classic sci-fi films of 1968, but let's not be picky!)
The critical rap on Kosinski's directorial debut, "Tron: Legacy," was that it was visually stunning, if not mind-blowing, but that it came up short in terms of character and plot development. Early reviews of "Oblivion" hint at similar flaws.
Similar criticism is generally leveled at director Zac Snyder ("The 300," "Watchmen," "Sucker Punch" and the upcoming Superman reboot, "Man of Steel.") Which leaves me wondering why I loved (and continue to love) "Tron: Legacy" and the three Snyder films so much.
Wait! I know! Because all four are awesome! Science-fiction movies are as much about spectacle as subtext, if not more (or they should be.) While it is true that you can't have a great film without a great story, every story doesn't have to be Shakespeare. The original "Star Wars" had a strong plot and terrific characters, but let's not forget that it was a visually groundbreaking film that immediately raised the bar for movie special-effects. It basically ignited a special-effects "war" that continues to this day.
The problem with many critics, (and audiences too, perhaps) I think, is that they have become increasingly jaded regarding the visual elements of a film. They make snide comments about computer-generated imagery, knowing all-the-while that CGI is what makes anything a visual possibility. If you tell them you built the once-destroyed and now overrun-by-nature city of New York out of plywood, they will marvel at your ingenuity. Tell them you built it all on a computer, and they'll turn-up their noses, no matter how wonderful it looks on screen.
So excuse me if I'm a bit wary of reviews that say, "This movie is visually stunning, but..." Certainly stunning visuals will not be served by a terrible or boring story, (see "Jack, the Giant Slayer) or by lousy performances from the actors. But since I can't recall Cruise or co-star Morgan Freeman, delivering a bad performance, and since I'm not expecting Shakespeare, and since I really love stunning visuals, I'm eager to see this movie.
If you enjoy Tom Cruise's forays into science fiction as much as I do, you'll be happy to know that his next film, "All You Need is Kill," (2014) is also a sci-fi war movie. And he is reportedly attached to a film version of "Yukikaze," a Japanese series of novels about — you guessed it! — an alien invasion.
"Oblivion" is rated PG-13. It has a running time of 126 minutes, and opens Friday at area theaters.