Olga Kurylenko, left, and Tom Cruise star in the film "Oblivion." (Universal Pictures via AP)
Rated PG-13 for mostly nonbloody violence.
Snarky types may be compelled to joke about the title of Tom Cruise's new flick as a potential metaphor for a career that's going a bit wobbly in late middle age.
But the joke would be on them, because “Oblivion” is a sleek, thunderous, stripped-down blast of post-apocalyptic sci-fi action.
And while Cruise is the focal point, he doesn't bigfoot this one as he has many of his other films. It's the kind of vehicle that reminds us he can be a pretty good actor (“Jerry Maguire”) when he's not consumed with being a “star” (any “Mission Impossible” film).
“Oblivion” opens with some expository voiceover from Jack Harper (Cruise), who informs us that it's March 14, 2077, some 60 years after aliens known only as the “Scavengers” arrived in Earth's orbit, intent on plundering our resources. First they blew a huge chunk out of our moon, which destabilized Earth and caused cataclysmic, global disasters. Then they invaded.
Humanity won the war, but only after unleashing the nukes — yes, we had to destroy Earth in order to save it. Now, most of the surviving humans have fled to the stars, setting up a colony on Saturn's moon, Titan.
Jack and co-worker/lover Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are part of a rear-guard mop-up crew assigned to one of a series of remote outposts spread around the planet to oversee the last stages of a decades-long effort to extract whatever remaining resources might be useful to the colony on Titan.
Mainly, this involves repairing and maintaining the many heavily armed airborne drones that protect the automated resource-stripping machinery from attack by “Scav” remnants still scuttling around the planet.
(As a native New Yorker, I had to do a Derek Jeter fist pump when Jack pulled on a battered Yankees cap to do this field work; it's a comfort to know that even after the apocalypse, it will still be a Yankees Universe.)
Then one day, an unidentified spacecraft crashes in Jack's sector. When he investigates, he finds some human survivors — and is shocked when some of the very drones he repairs show up and quickly kill most of them. He manages to save one and is shocked again to find that she's the woman he's been dreaming about.
When she wakes from hypersleep, she says her name is Julia (Olga Kurylenko). Oh, and she claims to be Jack's wife.
Suddenly, everything Jack thinks he knows — about his life, his job, Victoria, the war, the colony on Titan — starts slipping sideways in a big, fat hurry.
That's all the plot details you'll get here; the way the mystery is peeled back is too good to spoil. But since he appears in some of the trailers, it's no sin to say that Morgan Freeman shows up for the second half.
That's always good news; Freeman has become a less-weird version of national treasure Christopher Walken — a welcome addition to any film he feels like appearing in. (Also on hand: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Sir Jaime Lannister on HBO's “Game of Thrones.”)
Writer-director Joseph Kosinski, adapting the graphic novel he co-created with Arvid Nelson, has dreamed up a bold and beautiful canvas that's gorgeous to look at (and well worth seeing in IMAX if you can).
Kosinski clearly “gets” the fascination of movie audiences with seeing some of our most familiar landmarks ruined and charred, and the film is stuffed with some indelible images.
The opening scenes skim over what was once Washington, D.C., showing the Washington Monument listing to starboard in a vast, shallow tidal pool and the rubble of the Pentagon with a huge bomb crater where its center courtyard once stood.
But most of the story is set in what was the greater New York City area, and Kosinski makes fine use of Big Apple landmarks.
Most of these scenes are built to contrast Jack's smallness with the vast desolation in which he lives. In one, he's a small speck riding a motorcycle through what was once New York Harbor, past rusting, half-buried hulks of huge ships, including a Navy warship.
The observation deck and spire of the Empire State Building — all that's left above ground — also figure heavily in the story, as do the buried remnants of the New York Public Library.
And don't blink during Jack's high-speed air-to-air combat duel with three droids while zooming through a narrow canyon, or you'll miss a glimpse of Lady Liberty's arm and torch.
But the most startling visual is off-world — the blasted shards of the eviscerated moon, strewn like small jewels across the night sky.
The tech touches are a mix of new and old. Jack's duty aircraft is a cool two-seat, twin-engine VTOL number, a cross between an Apache and an Osprey.
But some tech elements clearly lean heavily on earlier influences. The droids, for example, are quite “Star Wars”-ish, their roving scanner eye evoking R2D2 if that benign little fella had come equipped with eight gatling lasers and a really bad attitude.
Similarly, Jack's plasticine long-range rifle would look right at home in the hands of an imperial stormtrooper.
And as usual in such films, a few logic nits show up in the late going that are ripe for picking by continuity purists.
Still, “Oblivion” is a big, sweeping story wrapped around an elegantly simple and emotionally powerful core: the tough-to-define but undeniable pull that the idea of “home” exerts on us.
There's a good reason that has been the theme of about a million songs and stories throughout recorded history.