Oblivion (2013) Starring Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko, Morgan Freeman, Andrea Riseborough Directed by: Joseph Kosinski
This movie exemplifies the horrible paradox about science fiction in the movies. There are great movies that use story, imagery, music, and technology to tell amazing adventures that go on to become classics. Then there are movies that get two or three elements really well and fall down so dramatically on one that its difficult to appreciate what is left.
If you hadn’t guessed, Oblivion is one of those movies.
I’ve split this review into two parts. The first will deal with the story/plot failure. The second with the role of women in this version of post-apocalyptic Earth.
1. The Hero’s Journey
Jack Harper is presented as an Everyman. He has a blue collar job. It is a task that requires self-sacrifice on the part of himself and his fellow team member Vika (Victoria). Despite their fantastic glass-walled house high above the Earth, they are a dispatch-repair team charged with supporting the Tet and the colonists to Titan.
That’s fine and a nice momentary subversion of the super-gifted, superhuman role that is usually assigned to the hero of a piece. Along his journey he discovers that his true purpose is support of the aliens who are still exterminating the humans on Earth (Scavs). Jack has been lied to, but his real value to the resistance is his job, he is a repairman who can reconfigure the alien drones.
The premise of this story is great.
Then the shuttle crashes down with the obligatory mysterious woman, Julia, who conveniently turns out to be his wife. The journey skews sideways at this point to address the marital infidelity with Vika and his reunion with Julia. I’ll deal with this later, but the Journey fails when we discover, not the truth of his existence as a clone, but the fact that Jack was always special. He was a Space Shuttle Commander sent to make first contact.
It is an epic fail. Instead of this being an ennobling journey of the everyman, we learn that Jack was always exceptional, and thus needed no journey if the inherent nature of his clone meant that he had the qualities of the original. The subversion of expectation was pointless.
2. Alien Purpose
Sometimes we don’t need to know. The aliens, via Sally, have created a fictional Earth populated by cloned pairs in lovely settings that make me wonder who manufactured them to be so perfectly human. Between the human repairmen and the drones, they are subjugating what is left of the Earth while harvesting our water. The explanation of why they wanted the water is to power their fusion reactors which immediately led other reviewers to suggest other locations within our galaxy that also hold substantial water reserves. We’re now into a problem. Either the aliens keep explaining their purpose to us via Jack, or the viewer is left with a huge ‘Why?’ that deepens as we explore the scientific ramifications of what we’ve been told.
Why would an alien race justify anything to those it was exterminating? Or had utilized as a functional element of its oppression? The moment a story has to have a character explain their actions to those watching, it loses the impact, the importance, and the believability.
Better to leave us with nothing but the images of water funneling upward into the sky. The horror of an Earth without water is reason enough to resist.
I do love a good resistance, but you won’t find one in this movie. Here they have such a minimal role in the story as to be cut out entirely as a people. Imagine if Morgan Freeman’s Beech was a hermit in the desert who accomplished the same purpose. The supporting characters of Sykes and Zara do not propel the plot and the others are cannon fodder. Other than existing in the moment that Jack shows up, they have no character, no world building, no actions to differentiate them. Beech monologues their point, but again, there is no investment in their desires or eventual deaths.
4. Character Development
There is none. Not a single character has any growth or change. Several make stupid decisions to advance the plot. (Julia in the box – you get a special call out.)
It was as though the writers assigned character traits to each person (Ie, Vika – rule-bound, infatuated, unwilling to take risks) and held those traits so firmly during this story that the characters are unable to think or breathe within the confines of their character. Take Vika again, her rigidity is so unquestioning that I wondered how she made it into the space program. The military and NASA value military service, but one doesn’t rise in officer ranks without a brain. Even if she were a scientist officer as his co-pilot, the assumption still is that this is a highly intelligent woman. Not here. Perhaps this would work if we saw Vika more in the final flashback where we learn their original fate. Instead, in this moment, we get her grumbling wife-like about his love of football and taking a creepy ambush shot of the two of them together implying that she is in love with him even then.
I need more out of a movie than for the participants to fit a stereotypical role and look pretty.
Tom Cruise – Jack Harper – Hero
Olga Kurylenko – Julia Rustova – Hero’s love interest
Andrea Riseborough – Vika – Hero’s false love interest and obstacle
Morgan Freeman – Beech – wise and noble Magician character
5. The Clones and Resolution
Oblivion does struggle in that it is nowhere near as psychologically mature a picture as Moon. There is no desperation in Jack’s realization of the thousands of copies elsewhere on the planet. It is disturbing, but his refusal to save Vika52 is just as disturbing. He knows she is unwilling to see, yet he will not save her. Assuming that the clones are people too, why not? Why save those on the planet but not those who were similarly deceived? The answer is, of course, that Jack only cares about Julia who he loves, and not the woman who loves him.
Then there is the final moment, bomb delivered, Jack49 and Beech trick the Tet and free the Earth.
But the denouement leads us back into madness. I understand that Julia’s existence with Jack49’s child is idyllic and exactly what he wanted to save. Their clothes made me wonder where she had found the shopping mall. No post-apocalyptic chic for the love interest, Jack must have been scavenging off-the-shelf supplies in her size. They have an extensive garden and lovely home. Ostensibly she has made no attempt to leave the home he built for her.
Then Jack52 arrives and we learn that he had been looking for her. And the only thing I can think is, what happens when the rest of the Jacks (or even a few of them) stumble onto this mini-Eden. How many men will poor Julia be expected to service? I know they meant this to be romantic and a realization of happiness for Jack and Julia, but seriously, all I could think about were his legions of clones roaming the Earth dreaming about the same woman.
And that’s it. A shallow, glass-like movie with beautiful images and a great soundtrack.