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Respect the Architect

Oblivion (2013)

David James/Universal Pictures

If you filleted out all the bits drawn from other science-fiction stories and post-apocalypse fables, there wouldn't be much left of "Oblivion" except a hollow shell of pure design theory and a vague hint of new-car smell. But at least its design has some theories worth gazing at. In a plot teeming with so many familiar threads that it eventually short-circuits rather than untangle itself, the vividly antiseptic living-pods and sky-castles and bubble-ships that Joseph Kosinski and his design wizards concoct have a stronger identity than the flesh-and-blood individuals inside them. So too does the soundscape, an aural soup of machine language and data traffic that isn't the only echo on offer of young George Lucas and "THX 1138." Watching "Oblivion" with your fingers in your ears gets more tempting as the film goes on, but you'd miss some of the best bits.

"TRON: Legacy" hinted at all this in 2010, but "Oblivion" confirms that Mr. Kosinski's visual style — Apple-store tendencies and all — makes for a starker and less frantic flavor of spectacle than the average hyperkinetic rumpus. Lots of "Oblivion" takes place in the sky, either on board the nifty flying car piloted by maintenance-man Jack (Tom Cruise) going about his droid-fixing business, or in the fantastical penthouse he shares with partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough, pupils permanently dilated to striking effect). Perched above the cloud base via a single strut with an alarming kink in it, Jack and Victoria's wonder-pad is a fortress of solitude fit for the sky gods and speaks volumes about them on several levels, thus saving the script the bother.

So in love with the sky is "Oblivion" that the inevitable tumble into earthly muck marks the point at which all the fun peters out. A bunch of sketchy renegades led by Morgan Freeman abduct Jack and set about teaching him The Truth, which turns out to involve aliens and flashbacks and coincidences and nuclear devices — the usual suspects. Olga Kurylenko arrives with The Answers, wearing a similarly bemused expression to the one Terrence Malick asked for in "To the Wonder." (And Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World" turns up again here too, in its new role as The Painting.) This whole last hour is even more familiar than the first; the renegades in their prole duster coats are given so little personality that you'd rather spend more quality time with those nice clean droids, and the score gives up resisting the magnetic pull of Hans Zimmer. Jack's face falls when confronted with The Horror, but he foolishly opts to save the world, rather than shimmying back up a two-mile pole for a quiet life spent checking that Ms. Riseborough's eyes were still as majestic as he remembered.


Opens on April 12 in Britain and on April 19 in the United States.

Directed by Joseph Kosinski; written by Karl Gajdusek and Michael deBruyn, based on the graphic novel by Mr. Kosinski; director of photography, Claudio Miranda; edited by Richard France-Bruce; music by M83; production design by Darren Gilford; costumes by Marlene Stewart; produced by Mr. Kosinski, Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Barry Levine and Duncan Henderson; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes. This film is rated 12 by B.B.F.C. and PG-13 by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Tom Cruise (Jack Harper), Morgan Freeman (Beech), Olga Kurylenko (Julia Rusakova), Andrea Riseborough (Victoria Olsen), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Sykes) and Melissa Leo (Sally).


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