Seeing the names of Tom Cruise and "Oblivion" in the same sentence inspires wishful thinking in some, but that didn't deter this new sci-fi thriller from topping the week's box-office charts.
This slightly confusing visit to a foreboding future stars the Scientology poster boy as a heavily armed security agent on a barren, war-ravaged Earth where the top of the Empire State Building is a wind-blasted monolith, and the way of life we take for granted is a distant memory.
Directed and co-scripted from his unpublished graphic novel by Joseph Kozinski, this is Cruise's latest exploration of what it means to be human in worlds that keep becoming increasingly robotic. The interface between humans and technological imposters was the crude theme of the original "Mission Impossible," when it was a black-and-white TV series in the '60s, before Cruise and company updated the concept and turned it into a multibillion-dollar movie franchise.
In "Oblivion's" visually arresting visit to future Earth, Cruise plays a drone repairman, maintaining a fleet of aging bizarre gunships that keep the entire planet under control. They're a little like R2D2 gone rogue - like giant, heavily armed flying bowling balls with video cameras for eyes and circuit boards programmed to go for the kill.
Kozinski, who previously directed "Tron," is a dazzling visual stylist. His array of sleek machines - Cruise's helicopter is a work of art - are characters in the unfolding story as much as the human actors. Along with Cruise, co-stars Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Melissa Leo and Morgan Freeman seem to have been cast for their striking, comic-book facial features as much as their acting abilities.
It's not their fault. How much soul can you pack into the frames of a graphic novel in the first place?
Before the end of this two-hour sci-fi odyssey, the audience keeps having to readjust its perceptions, just trying to follow the story, much less keep track of who's human and who's not, in a sterile world in need of a whole lot of love.
While "Oblivion" isn't quite as disappointing as the title would suggest, and while it does end on a fragile, hopeful note, it's hard not to compare it to the surreal events playing out for real on TV screens these days.
The story, quickly branded with words like "Terror in Boston," complete with ominous theme music, is already being recognized as a media game-changer. News outlets descended on the beloved, historic city with their vast powers to cover the story - except no one knew what the story was. It unfolded in real-time news feeds, piecing together fragments of information, wild speculation and technologically fueled conspiracy theories that not only paralyzed the city, but put an entire nation into paranoid alert mode.
Ironically, as conventional media rushed black-jacketed anchormen to the scene, they were resigned to playing catch-up with Twitter and Facebook. Now anyone with a smartphone is a potential journalist, and the new concepts of "crowd mining" or "mob sourcing" are suddenly invaluable crime-fighting tools, despite their potential for recklessly jumping to conclusions or spawning cyber lynch mobs.
The individual tragedies and moments of pure terror in Boston were awful - but the media coverage felt equally dangerous, like a quantum leap to unknown territory of too much information, radically in need of editing and understanding before its release leads to a sort of techno-vigilantism that can go global instantly in real time.
We're a long way from knowing the truth of what happened in Boston as I write these words. Legal challenges, not to mention conspiracy theories are circling the control tower, waiting their turn to land in minds suddenly emboldened by all the new technology that is taking the place of rational thinking in today's world.
Even Cruise would have his hands full, trying to sort it all out.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org