Review: ‘Oblivion’ is cerebral sci-fi

Yes, there is more going on than meets the eye in “Oblivion,” the new sci-fi hit starring Tom Cruise.

And no, it doesn’t matter that I told you this because you’ll know right away that the fairly straightforward story has something up its sleeve; but I doubt you’ll figure out what it is.

Indeed, “Oblivion” keeps you guessing for a very long time, maybe too long.

Not that the actual ending is a problem.

On the contrary: That was my favorite part – its unexpected resolution propelling me to a solid three-star review when I’d been hovering at two-and-a-half.

Yet the film’s writers seem convinced they have little to offer besides their central mystery and so the script keeps us waiting and waiting; at 126 minutes, this otherwise entertaining film is too long.

The first sign of trouble is its laborious voiceover exposition; given the tale’s eventual intricacy, I’m willing to spot “Oblivion” a little obviousness at the outset – except that this exposition is later repeated for a new character.

Surely there must have been another way to unveil the set-up, which involves a post-apocalyptic Earth from which survivors have fled to Jupiter’s largest moon.

Two humans remain to harvest the planet’s water supply for the exiles and to keep tabs on a few pesky aliens whose invasion set off nuclear war six decades earlier.

These workers are played by Cruise and newcomer Andrea Riseborough; they are later joined by a crash survivor (Olga Kurylenko, from “Quantum of Solace”) who calls into question everything they believe about their existence.

While “Oblivion” has a couple of decent shoot-outs, on the whole it’s more cerebral sci-fi – on the order of “2001” and “Blade Runner.”

The film is both helped and hampered by its nifty effects and production design.

The sleek, stylish aircraft is a lot of fun, and the futuristic, mid-air swimming pool – with glass bottom exposed to terrain far below – will have some viewers thinking, “I want that!”

“Oblivion” also peppers its end-of-the-world setting with the usual fallen landmarks and ruined vistas (Empire State Building, a football stadium, George Washington Bridge, a desolate shipyard); but this sometimes feels gratuitous – big boys playing with big toys – and far too often it involves New York City, which seems spread out over an impossibly vast area here.

Yet the eye candy and the puzzling plot do hold one’s attention; and then, just as you think you’ve got it figured out, the script gets even smarter in the rousing and satisfactory climax.

“Oblivion” scored a cool $38 million at the box office last weekend, deservedly proving that Cruise – and cerebral sci-fi – can still draw crowds.

That’s an auspicious start for a year that holds several other tasty-looking Sci-fi projects – “Star Trek into Darkness,” “Elysium,” “Ender’s Game” and especially Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity,” starring Bullock and Clooney – and no one else.

Beam me up.

*** (out of four)

The film is rated PG-13 for language, sexuality and violence.