The Tom Cruise sci-fi “Oblivion” came out almost a year ago now, but somehow it came up on our DVR viewing this past weekend. It’s a post-apocalyptic action movie about two scientists responsible for securing Earth’s surface and repairing drones and resource harvesting equipment after a war between the humans and aliens left the planet inhospitable. The humans won the war, as Cruise helpfully reminds us a number of times. His existence and his mission is called into question when he discovers humans in hypersleep being attacked by the drones he felt were intended to protect them.
It’s a gorgeous film, with just as strong of an aesthetic appeal as Joseph Kosinski’s first film “Tron: Legacy,” and yet it never resembles that film at all. It’s a distinctly modern vision of the future that’s also of its own creation, amplified by the sharp costuming and M83 score.
And yet I see no more point in writing an actual review than you do in reading one at this point. But while this film is not uninteresting on its own, it becomes problematically uninteresting by relying on a number of sci-fi cliches, plot lapses and reliance on visuals rather than substance.
So here are some spoiler-riffic thoughts on “Oblivion.” Spoilers ahead…obviously.
There are three primary twists in “Oblivion.” One is that Jack Harper (Cruise) is actually one of many clones assigned to a particular region of the Earth for cleanup. His partner Victoria, or Vica (Andrea Riseborough) is also a clone, we discover, and presumably they all share floating pools and geometrically pretty spaceships.
The second is a combination of the knowledge that the alien Scavs still living on Earth are actually surviving humans, the war is technically not over, nor won by the humans, and that Jack is working for the aliens to harvest the remaining resources from Earth. This leads us to the conclusion that Sally (Melissa Leo) is not human either but is really just HAL 9000 with a Southern accent.
The third twist is Jack’s humanizing factor, that a real Jack Harper did exist and that the woman he discovers in a hyper sleep tube (Olga Kurylenko) is actually his wife from before the war.
Got all that? It sounds more complicated on paper than it plays in the movie, and that’s not particularly a good thing. None of these truly land with the groundbreaking revelation they should, but the appearance of a second Tom Cruise gets the biggest reaction. But not only does it leave gaps, it leaves questions unanswered that would amount to “Oblivion” being about more, to it having some psychology and emotional resonance beyond its prettified vision of a doom and gloom apocalypse.
The first problem is that the clone twist plays like a direct ripoff of Duncan Jones’ “Moon”. That movie at least gave us multiple sides to the same character, posing questions about existence and personalities that “Oblivion” never does. Either Cruise is too colorless an action star in the role to notice any distinctions between the different Jack Harpers or Kosinski chooses to gloss over them like he does everything else.
But seeing a Jack Harper clone for the first time hardly phases Cruise in the slightest, so why should we care? Does it bother him that he’s a clone or a pawn in some big game? Perhaps not. I also wonder why Vica being a clone is never a bigger deal. Didn’t she have some sort of backstory as a real human as well? Was their connection as fabricated as we’re made to believe, or is there something real and human to their chemistry? Wouldn’t both of these things have dramatic emotional impact?
It also seems as though we get a lot of detail about the war between the humans and aliens, but it’s not as much as you might think. All we know about the aliens is that they’re bad and stealing Earth’s resources and killing humans. Perhaps that backstory on its own is not critical, but think of the possibilities if Jack or even Vica learned the truth and had a moral decision to make as a result, to follow their human instincts or align with the aliens and a better life on a planet that may or may not exist.
Speaking of which, how do they know nothing about the Earth retreat Titan? How are they so cloistered in their bubble that so many basic questions escape them? “Moon” provided us at least an illusion of a life back home. Kosinski has a bad habit of doing this; he shows us tons and tons of details, but they’re all within their own miniature ecosystem and never give us a greater sense of how the aliens live or how the humans live. Naturally that ends up being a result of the plot, but Kosinski never truly plays up isolation as a theme either; being alone in the forest, shooting hoops and listening to Led Zeppelin is probably all we need to know about the good life.
But getting back to the aliens, it’s also unclear why the aliens felt they needed a human with fully functioning memories and cognitive thoughts to simply serve as a clean-up crew. It seems to just be to stick a thorn in the existing human’s side, but it’s clearly more trouble than what it’s worth. Again, this could be saved if Kosinski had more prominent ideas about humans versus automatons or virtual versus reality ala “Blade Runner.” It could also be salvaged if Sally was more developed as a character. “Oblivion” lacks a truly compelling villain, and the drones are not the iconic beacons of death the movie hopes they are.
My last point of confusion is with the humans themselves. They serve mostly as background characters to the action and the plot exposition; Morgan Freeman’s character is Morpheus in every way but the humor and the philosophy. Kurylenko’s character is guarded and never fully shows her emotions at her real husband’s death or her harsh wake up to planet Earth being ravished by war. If “Oblivion” is about humanity, why are all these people so forgettable?
I don’t usually get wrapped up in these debates over semantics, because the inconsistencies that are found within any movie aren’t usually enough to outweigh either the technical achievements of the film or the ideas presented therein. “Oblivion” however is all surface level sheen, and if story is what we’re all here for, it stands to reason to poke a few holes into it.