The James Clayton Column: If Tom Cruise were consigned to oblivion

The release of Oblivion leaves James pondering the hole left in cinema had Tom Cruise never existed...

Sci-fi thriller Oblivion has arrived in cinemas, and that means that audiences have a fresh sci-fi blockbuster to enjoy. Sometimes snubbed, misunderstood and casually dismissed to sulk in its own tech-interfaced ghetto, the genre has got a bit of a (micro)chip on its shoulder. It’s therefore always nice to see original science fiction stories making waves on the movie scene and reaching wider cinema audiences.

I’m hoping that Oblivion is embraced and receives a positive reception to follow in the footsteps of District 9, Source Code and Looper, to name a trio of recent critical and commercial smashes.

Of course, the crucial draw of Oblivion for many isn’t its vision of a future Earth ravaged by alien warfare, overseen by survivors who inhabit floating towns and only visit the surface to extract remaining resources. The unique selling point on a mainstream global level is Tom Cruise, who’s fronting the film and playing the lead, ex-Marine turned drone repairman Jack Harper. (Not Jack Reacher. That was December 2012 and we’re in 2073 now.)

I like the idea of casual cinemagoers following a star to find themselves stumbling upon stimulating speculative fiction concepts. That’ll possibly be the case with Oblivion as people check in to check out the Cruiser – something that may have happened a decade ago when Minority Report filed into theatres.

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This has also undoubtedly occurred with numerous other striking sci-fi films of recent vintage. Justin Timberlake was the bait to get people thinking about a dystopian society where time is currency in In Time, for instance, and Will Smith arguably encouraged people to contemplate the ethics of artificial intelligence with I, Robot.

Source Code and Looper are other exemplary big name-backed blockbusters that function as brainfood and you can go back even further to see how cerebral sci-fi was sold in Arnold Schwarzenegger and Charlton Heston packaging. Audiences can appreciate all of these features as action star vehicles or as intellectual nourishment (or both simultaneously). Either way, people engage with the movie and buy into it and it becomes a success.

“Success” is a word the sticks to the main man of this moment (and the moment we’re witnessing in 2073). The Tom Cruise name commands attention and guarantees box office takings. The Tom Cruise name gets films greenlit and generates tremendous hype. Such is the nature of star power, and Mr Mapother IV has a higher concentration of star power packed into his person than most people in the film industry.

He also has a dazzling set of dentures, excellent acting ability and a zealous hard-work ethic that ensures he’s always been prolific to the point of being ubiquitous. He’s pretty much the modern Hollywood A-list male action lead archetype. Those making the movies can bank on that, and those watching the movies will constantly flock to him, like moths to the flame, except the luminous lure is pristine pearly teeth radiating that enigmatic element of star power.

Nevertheless, not everyone’s enthused when they see that Cruise is attached to an upcoming title. In fact – and this was definitely the case for Jack Reacher – hearing that the Mission: Impossible hero is involved upsets people and may put them off entirely.

In an ideal world this wouldn’t impact upon Oblivion, but realistically, I’m aware that there’s antipathy towards Tom Cruise out there. Genre fans – frequently frustrated by the feeling that rich sci-fi material is undermined by A-list presences – may not be impressed. Beyond that niche, cinemagoers sick of the sight of Cruise won’t be eager to buying the ticket and take the ride. I consider this to be a great shame for everyone – TC, the cast and crew behind Oblivion and potential audiences the universe over.

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It’s a problem that’s inextricably part of showbiz, I suppose. (Collateral damage in a Risky Business you might say if you wanted to make Tom Cruise film-based puns, but I won’t because I intend to only make All The Right Moves in my column writing.) Megastar wattage can have a dazzling, distracting effect and make the essential separation of actor and protagonist problematic. There are times when viewers are stuck, for instance, feeling like they’re watching Tom Cruise rather than a character called Jack Reacher. It’s hard to concentrate on the conspiracy to kill Hitler in Valkyrie when all you can think is, “What in the blue blazing blitzkrieg? Tom Cruise is wearing an eyepatch and a Nazi uniform!”

Aside from the off-putting interference that’s a by-product of superstardom, there’s the simple fact that some people don’t care for Cruise or just straight-up dislike him. Off-screen controversies, private life peculiarities and his association with the Church of Scientology combine to make a toxic Cocktail (okay, I’m sorry and I’ll stop now). Others may simply just not rate him as an actor.

Hate, though, is the path to the Dark Side, and I think the distinction between real life and artistic output needs emphasising. I would also always argue that Cruise is a convincing, highly committed performer who’s excelled in a range of challenging roles crossing multiple tones.

The Cruiser and his weirdly supernatural certain charisma is something to cherish. As a strong actor and a human being who seems to always be happy and hyper-energised to make movie magic happen, I think we need to appreciate him.

Here’s a science fiction scenario for you: what if Tom Cruise was consigned to oblivion? What if Cruise was written right out of the universe? Erased from existence, removed from history and all trace of him wiped from this reality – I’m guessing that some plot along the lines of Looper or The Terminator is taking him out – what would the world be like?

The answer is worse. If Thomas Cruise Mapother IV had never been born to grace the big screen and occasionally do slightly eccentric things like surf sofas on chat show TV, Earth would be a slightly sadder place. Thinking on it you find that Tom’s Midas Touch has, erm, touched so much of the movie landscape over the past three decades, and had such a significant role in the unrolling of cultural history, that it’s slightly disturbing to dwell on the idea that, Sliding Doors-style, it could have been so different.

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To prove this, I’m going to go through the It’s A Wonderful Life scenario with Tom Cruise playing Tom Cruise instead of Jimmy Stewart playing good ol’ George Bailey. It feels wrong to raise this tale when it isn’t Christmas but, then again, so much is wrong and weird in the contemplation of a Cruise-free reality.

To recap, in Frank Capra’s classic fable, decent everyman George Bailey drops into overwhelming depression and comes to the breaking point of wishing that he’d never been born. Luckily, his chirpy guardian angel Clarence is on hand to show suicidal George that his life has been worth living by giving him a whistlestop tour through a nightmarish alternate vision of a Bedford Falls in which Bailey never existed.

George soon sees that he’s touched so many people’s lives and made a positive difference to the town. He subsequently returns to reality with an upbeat spirit, confident in the knowledge that he’s not a failure but is in fact the richest man in Bedford Falls because he has so many loving friends. Angels get their wings, Christmas is magical and everyone realises that, yes, It’s A Wonderful Life after all.

I reckon that if we do the same thing with Cruise we’ll arrive at a similar conclusion. Let me be your guardian angel and guide you through a dream of a movie landscape untouched by Tomu Kurûzu. (He’s big in Japan but hasn’t been asked to battle Godzilla yet.)

In this altered Cruise-deficient, world so many cult films are strangely lacking when it comes to a smidge of sublime star power. Ridley Scott’s Legend is missing the perfect fantasy pixie-boy to play Jack O’ the Green. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia there is no outstanding alpha male actor who can effectively embody all the aggressive misogyny of self-help sex guru Frank T.J. Mackey.

Who’s acting as the cocky paragon poster boy of brash 80s youth – a zeitgeisty feature that that provides essential flavour to flicks like Top Gun and The Color Of Money? There’s a hole in the essential identity of a whole decade, and all young arrogant males have to look to Eddie Murphy as a role model instead.

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Tragically, more 21st Centurians are ignorant of Philip K Dick and the Bushido code without Minority Report and The Last Samurai, respectively. Tropic Thunder is far less outrageous without the grotesque Les Grossman cameo and Rock Of Ages is far less rockin’ and resonant without Cruise as metal god Stacee Jaxx. Whoever is sat in Jamie Foxx’s taxi in Collateral probably isn’t as intimidating as the silver-haired hitman played by Our Erased Hero.

The authentic romantic chemistry and sexual tension that comes from real life relationships with Penélope Cruz and Nicole Kidman in Vanilla Sky and Eyes Wide Shut? It’s absent and Kubrick’s final film is so effective because it’s the shiny self-sure picture of the American Dream that’s being cracked by a mystery cult. Without the archetypal A-lister’s involvement the erotic thriller is less potent.

As for the action cinema genre, without the Mission: Impossible franchise, the bar for stunts and audacious spectacle is far lower. What’s more, no one trusts untested TV showrunner JJ Abrams to direct a film, and animation legend Brad Bird is still struggling to get support for his wish to try live-action moviemaking.

It’s also true that without Top Gun, Jerry Bruckheimer doesn’t become the Blockbuster Godfather and the US Air Force doesn’t experience a mass influx of eager recruits. The USSR wins the Cold War and Hollywood makes far less money, so altogether the California Dream is killed and possibly turned Communist.

I’ve not even touched on iconic Cruise performances that I’m personally unfamiliar with such as those of Rain Man, Born On The Fourth Of July and Jerry Maguire. I think you get my point – the Cruiser has had a considerable impact upon the movie industry and upon audiences thanks to his generous and determined nature, his can-do attitude and his impressively flexible acting acumen. It’d be a bit sad if this star was extinguished.

On reflection, then, I don’t think I want to see Tom Cruise consigned to oblivion. Hopefully that sad ‘It’s A Wonderful Sci-Fi Life’ scenario won’t just suddenly occur and tear him right out of the spacetime continuum, because I’m really looking forward to seeing Tom Cruise in Oblivion.

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