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‘Oblivion’: Sci-fi eye candy doesn’t deliver
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies

Tom Cruise turns 51 this year, but the movie star seems very insistent on continuing to play 35-year-olds who are somehow obliged to save the world. He also has a substantial investment in having his world-saving 35-year-olds do their duty in a very big, if not ridiculously hyperbolic way. Sometimes this pays off: "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" was, while essentially inane, exhilaratingly overstuffed with stunning action sequences. Now Cruise returns to the sci-fi genre after an over half-decade long hiatus--as you may recall, his collaborations with Steven Spielberg, 2005's "War of the Worlds" and 2002's "Minority Report" were both better than decent exercises in the fantastic — with "Oblivion." Which is a mind-numbingly overstuffed disaster.

Co-written and directed by Joseph Kosinski (of "Tron: Legacy," um, fame), who's also here adapting a graphic novel he co-created (I don't want this to be the case but this sort of thing is starting to become a pretty sure indicator of major wankage), "Oblivion" stars Cruise as, like the song says, some guy in the sky. No, really. His character, Jack, lives in a very deluxe albeit kinda sterile house on a platform in the clouds. Because Earth is no longer habitable, on account of the moon having been blown up by alien, which caused massive flooding so that the entire United States looks like a continuation of the punchline of "Planet of The Apes." Jack is in charge of repairing drones, incredible malevolent robots that patrol the surface wasteland wiping out stray aliens who are trying to demolish the giant machines storing water to be transported to humanity's new home on a moon of Saturn.

Bing: More on 'Oblivion' | See pics of Tom Cruise

Catch all that? It's pretty complicated, but wait, there's more: Jack is haunted by dreams of a past he's too young to have lived through, and of a woman who is not his platform-home helpmeet Victoria, with whom he has an intriguingly formal relationship. (Andrea Riseborough, who's probably capable of more than the evocation of Emily Blunt this movie calls for, plays this role.) Victoria's very by-the-book with respect to Jack's surface missions, while Jack himself is beginning to suspect that the chipper mission commander on the other end of Victoria's console isn't being entirely up front. Soon he finds out the ostensibly alien "scavengers" are possibly ... human. (Not just human, it transpires; these sentient beings are led by Morgan Freeman!) And around the same time the woman of Jack's dreams, played by Olga Kurylenko, literally materializes. And Jack brings her up to the house.

The opportunity for Noel-Coward-in-outer-space sex comedy afforded by this awkward situation is of course completely ignored by this colossally humorless movie. "Oblivion" has amazing state-of-the-art special effects, remarkable natural landscapes (large parts of it were shot in majestic Iceland), and bigger-than-bigger-than life action. It also has this weird compulsion to be something more than a big science-fiction movie. It wants to be EVERY big science-fiction movie. You'll recognize tropes and plot points and visual cues from "2001: A Space Odyssey," "The Matrix," "Star Wars" and many more. What's missing, however, is any sense of joy, of awe, of playfulness. It's not interested in telling a story, and it's transparently bored by its own end-of-the-world trollings. No, all "Oblivion" wants is one long "Whoa" from the viewer; it doesn't demand engagement, merely the most abject of surrender. It's like a body builder flexing his muscles non-stop. A couple of poses and turns are pretty impressive, sure. But a half-hour's worth might have you asking, "That all you got?"

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Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.
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