Early in the sleek sci-fi thriller "Oblivion," Tom Cruise, as a flyboy repairman living a removed, Jetsons-like existence above an invaded and deserted Earth, intones his home sickness.
"I can't shake the feeling that despite all that's happened, Earth is still my home," he narrates.
One can't help but chortle and wonder if Cruise is speaking for himself. The chiseled blockbuster star carries so much baggage nowadays that an audience's relationship to him often feels downright alien.
But Cruise, that unrelenting bullet of headlong momentum, is undaunted. He keeps coming back with even bigger films, most of which, despite it all, he reliably propels - even if it's become harder to see Cruise as anything other than himself.
In "Oblivion," the second film from "Tron: Legacy" director Joseph Kosinski, he plays Jack Harper, a patroller of the drone-controlled skies over Earth. From a sparse dock where he lives with his supervisor and girlfriend, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), Jack makes daily flights in his spacecraft to the Earth's barren surface. "We're the mop-up crew," he says.
He tells us that it's been 60 years since aliens invaded, first knocking out the moon (goodnight moon, indeed) and then leading to a devastating nuclear war. Though humans, he says, won out, they had to abandon the planet's surface (New York is buried up to the Empire State Building's needle), taking refuge on a moon of Saturn. On a desolate Earth, the only beings remaining are hiding bands of Scavengers ("Scavs") that look something like a cross between the Tusken Raiders of "Star Wars" and Milli Vanilli.
Monitoring the land are white, round drones that appear like giant, floating cue balls from afar, but menacing robot killers up close. Occasionally, they need servicing from Jack (Cruise as WALL-E). He avoids their blasters by authenticating himself, but as they bleep and blork, he cowers anxiously - not entirely certain they're on the same team.
His faith is greater with Victoria, who guides his movements from her computerized desk. Her superior (played with a folksy Southern accent by Melissa Leo) is seen only in scratchy video communiques.
So we are back in a post-apocalyptic world, a place to which movies lately can't help returning, all with various images of wrecked ironic monuments and unpeopled landscapes. We have seen many of the elements of "Oblivion" in countless science fiction tales before. But we've seldom seen them more beautifully rendered.
Kosinski, who based the film on the ideas of his unpublished graphic novel, is an expert in 3-D modeling and computer graphics. His "Tron: Legacy" was a critical flop for its muddled story but was nevertheless remarkable for its elegant digital architecture (including the more natural but no less exquisitely structured face of Olivia Wilde). His two movies now seem to owe as much to the iPod as anything: glossy clean surfaces with throbbing electronic scores (Daft Punk for "Tron," M83 for "Oblivion").
He filmed "Oblivion" with cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who also shot "Tron: Legacy" and since did the gorgeous filmography of Ang Lee's "Life of Pi." In "Oblivion," they achieve a symphony of otherworldly sleekness when Victoria disrobes and dives into a pool on their space station, her dark silhouette outlined on the sunset stratosphere. We, too, bath in the imagery.
This carefully organized world is thrown when a NASA shuttle crashes with an astronaut, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), who seems to recognize Jack. His own memory has been scrubbed but flickers with images from his past.
As the film builds, it plays with familiar sci-fi themes of identity, memory, faith in institutions and human nature. Little can be said about Morgan Freeman's character without giving much away, but suffice to say that he enters the film in shades, lighting a cigar and wearing a cape. Yes, a cape. Kosinski could have chucked all his visual effects and just gone with a cape-clad Freeman.
Analyzing the substance of "Oblivion," which declines - as so many science-fiction films do - as the puzzles are solved, inevitably diminishes the film. But for those who enjoy the simple thrill of handsomely stylized image-making, "Oblivion" is mostly mesmerizing.
The severe artificiality of the film's universe begins cracking with Jack's curiosity for earthly, analog things. It started with a found book, and grows in his secret mountain hideaway of old records, a baseball cap and literature.
It's a familiar trope in sci-fi that humanity breathes eternally through art. But if films like "Oblivion" are so preoccupied by the detritus of our civilization, perhaps we ought to aim a little higher than Tom Cruise blockbusters. After all, our future fate depends on it.