I have long suspected that Tom Cruise was grown in a vat, and the evidence accumulates every day. There is the fact that he does not appear to have aged since roughly 1998. There is his magically thick head of hair, and his face full of laser-cut stubble, laid out with graph-paper precision. And then there is his new movie, "Oblivion," in which, well, I won't spoil anything.
Suffice it to say that "Oblivion" presents Tom Cruise at his, well, Tom-Cruiseiest — not as a real human being, but as a wholly manufactured product who exists in a wholly manufactured world, built to satisfy the needs of mysterious and powerful forces, including, but not necessarily limited to, the audience.
That manufactured world is a small tower home that sits above the clouds of a futuristic Earth.
The planet has been ravaged by an eco-apocalypse that followed the destruction of the moon in a war with an alien invader. Mr. Cruise plays Jack, the repairman left behind to maintain the drones that protect mountain-sized water-extraction facilities from a handful of remaining enemy combatants. Jack lives and works with Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who manages his drone-repair expeditions. Both have had their memories wiped for the mission.
In exchange, the pair get to cohabit in a gorgeous high-altitude home. With its lacquered pearl and black color scheme, and its high-tech minimalist design, their perch — held aloft on a thin metal arm — looks as if it has been designed by Apple as a sort of all-in-one living solution for some sort of software zillionaire. Call it an iHome — the perfect storage facility for Tom Cruise, the product.
The weaponized drone units that Jack must repair look about how you would expect a Volkswagen-sized attack orb to look if designed by the people who created the iPod. The drones may evoke the cute little robot from "Wall•E," but these aggressive killers hunt down enemies with a surprising ferocity. Indeed, they are mean-spirited enough that I wondered whether they, along with the rest of the movie's aesthetic, weren't intended as some subtle dig at the totalitarian nature of Apple's design mindset.
Still, the approach makes for some truly awesome visuals, especially in contrast with the desolate Earth below. Director Joseph Kosinski, who helmed the beautiful but empty 2011 "Tron" sequel, delivers one of the most visually striking science fiction films in recent memory. It's worth seeing just to see it, especially for the glorious first hour, which whisks viewers across the spectacularly destructed planet. The movie works best as a sci-fi slide show — with a Tom Cruise action figure posed in every shot.
Mr. Cruise offers only a little more than a lifelike plastic figure would in the same role, but he gives the movie a center of gravity. Late-film encounters with mysterious figures played by Morgan Freeman and Olga Kurylenko knock the muddled story off track; it's only when the movie returns to Mr. Cruise that it works.
That the star comes across not as a person but a product is part of what makes Mr. Cruise so consistently enjoyable to watch, especially in an overdesigned spectacle like "Oblivion." Like the movie's shiny tower home, he has been carefully designed as a sort of all-in-one movie star solution — the iActor, precision-crafted to suit the audience's every need and desire. And what do you know? In "Oblivion," it just about works.
CREDITS: Directed by Joseph Kosinski; screenplay by Mr. Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt
RUNNING TIME: 126 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for sexuality, violence
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS