Oblivion is a very odd film. Not so much in format as in what it represents, and the really unusual, lop sided way that it represents it. There’s some moments of real genius in here but they’re mixed with plot elements and choices that honestly look like they’ve stepped out of the 1950s and are vaguely irritated at how pornographically everyone’s dressed.
Oblivion is set 70 years in the future, following a catastrophic alien invasion by a race called the Scavs. Their opening shot was blowing the moon apart and the resulting environmental horror all but ripped the planet apart. The survivors rallied, nuked the remainder to drive the Scavs off and began the near impossible process of rebuilding. Now, the Earth is deserted aside from two-person clean-up crews whose job it is to monitor and maintain the immense Hydro-Rigs cracking the oceans down into fuel for humanity’s relocation to Titan. The Tet, a vast obelisk-shaped space station orbits instead of the Moon, humanity’s greatest creation and the stepping stone to Titan. In two weeks, Victoria Olsen and Jack Harper, one of the only crews left on Earth, will finish their shift and rotate out to the Tet and then, Titan. They’re a couple as well as a team, Victoria handling communications with the Tet and general signals intelligence and Jack getting his hands dirty, fixing the rigs and repairing the security drones that surround them. He’s a soldier as well as a mechanic, continually forced to defend himself against the Scavs still left on Earth. There’s only problem; Jack’s dreaming of the world before. A world he seems to remember.
The first thing that becomes clear about Oblivion is how beautiful it is. Joseph Kosinski’s an astonishing visual director with a real eye for both detail and scope and this is his best work to date. Kosinski swaps the precise, geometric brutality of Tron:Legacy’s Grid for a world which is equal parts ruin and paradise, the shattered remnants of the old world attaining a new kind of beauty. One of the best scenes takes place at the site of the last superbowl, a broken-backed stadium with one goal post intact. It’s beautiful, desolate and abandoned and Jack finds a moment’s piece there, reliving a game he never quite got to see. A later scene, at the cabin he’s been painstakingly building does the same thing, as the last man on Earth carefully, almost apologetically, builds his first house. This is a Quiet Earth, and that’s a sort of post apocalypse that we don’t get enough of. The film’s at its best when it remembers this. The scale of the desolation gives the film an undertone of real sadness and fragility in places, and there are moments when Jack is nothing but a tiny white speck, a single living thing in a world filled with the ruins of its past. Kosinski cleverly uses this to show the scale of the conflict too, with pivotal scenes taking place at the Empire State Building, only its top few floors protruding from the ground. Jack may feel like he’s home but this isn’t a welcoming Earth and it lets Kosinski fold some clever character beats into the plot. Victoria is always clean, precise, dressed for the office she works in whilst Jack is constantly dirty from the work he does. He’s also charmingly down on his luck and one of the film’s few laughs comes from the moment where, having abseiled down into the ruins of the New York library and been ambushed, he climbs back to the surface only to find his bike’s gone and a long walk awaits him.
That sense of grounded, pragmatic, blue collar work is neatly contrasted with the literal castle in the sky that Jack and Victoria live and work out of. Tower 49 is a beautiful piece of cold, graceful design, little more than a pool, a machine shop, a kitchen, a comm tower and a launch pad perched thousands of feet above the ground. It’s a literal ivory tower, and Victoria’s presence there tips you off to the rift between them long before the movie does. There’s also some really smart stuff woven into the design work there, both in how ergonomic it is and also how cold. This is an idealised environment, the sort designed by committee, or machine, rather than an individual. As a result it’s precise, and graceful, and cold. It makes Victoria and Jack seem small and fragile and that gives several of the movie’s events real menace. The destruction of one of the Hydro-Rigs fills the sky outside the Tower and Jack’s search for a Scav transmitter in the Empire State is cold with tension. Even better are the moments where it becomes clear the ‘effective team’ are anything but; Victoria is pathologically afraid of anything from the surface whilst Jack hordes items he’s found and conceals them from her. It’s an ivory tower, but its foundations are starting to wobble.
This is where the film breaks new ground, as the exact nature of what’s threatening Jack and Victoria becomes unclear. There’s the increasingly pointed conversations with their Tet control officer, Sally, a downed spaceship whose crew are almost all murdered by drones before Jack can save them, the one survivor, Julia Korsova, whose simple presence disrupts their aesthetic little world and, of course, the Scavs. It would be very easy to pick one and run with it, but, instead, Oblivion chooses all of them and adds one more for good measure.
The cascade of reveals that form the spine of the last hour are genuinely great. We discover that Julia, and Jack were married, they and Victoria were all astronauts dispatched to Titan and rerouted to investigate an alien artifact. That artifact is the Tet, a machine intelligence that’s communicating with them through video of their old NASA CapCom, won the war and has been strip mining the planet for the last 70 years. Oh and just for good measure, it fought and won the war with a clone army built entirely of Jack and Victoria, who have had their original memories wiped. A second batch of clones are being used to run the Towers, each unaware of their origin or the other clones. The only reason Julia didn’t join them was that, as their ship was being taken, Jack ejected the crew module containing Julia and the others, still in hibernation. Finally, the Scavs are the last survivors who have been following Jack because they realize that, even though this is his latest in countless millions of clone bodies, he wants to remember. They’ve been gently prodding him along and trigger the distress signal that brings Julia’s ship back into orbit because they finally have a way of destroying the Tet but need Jack’s mechanical expertise.
That’s a pretty breathless list and even then it isn’t fully complete. We get a nice look at a very Portal-influenced Tet central core at the end of the movie and some really smart design work on the Tet’s drones and the Scavs ways of dealing with them. There’s some smart pacing too, the clone reveal comes very late and changes the timbre of the movie drastically. However, what really shines here is Andrea Riseborough as Victoria. Initially set up as the prissier of the two, the more we see of her the more we realize is going on beneath the surface. Even better, the film leads you to place some of her actions in context after the fact, which is a mark of some really solid, nuanced plotting. Her refusal to go to the surface at all could be read either as simple reluctance or genetic tweaking by the Tet, but there’s one line she has which is shattering in its implications. When Jack is preparing to take Julia back to her crash site, Victoria tries to reason with him until she finally snaps and yells
‘It was always her! She always had a thing for you!’
The line flashes by so fast it’s almost impossible to register straight away. Once you do, the implications are staggering;
Victoria knows. She, like Jack, has dreams about the life they used to have. In fact, Victoria knows more than Jack does, she knows what they are, who they work for and she’s made her peace with it.
That’s a really brave character beat and it informs everything we’ve seen Victoria do up to that point, especially her slightly out of character willingness to run interference for Jack. Suddenly, she becomes an unsung heroine rather than an antagonist, a woman faced with the definition of a nightmarish existence and doing the only thing she can about it; looking after her partner. The final payoff to this is Victoria’s final scene (Chronologically her first). Seventy years in the past, as their ship is drawn into the Tet, Jack orders her to evacuate with the sleep module and she refuses. She backs her partner up, and it costs her everything and she just keeps doing it. It’s a character beat I keep coming back to because superficially, Victoria’s a shallow role but thanks to this scripting, and Riseborough, we see just how deep she is.
It’s just a shame that, by and large she’s the only one who is. Kosinski has been criticized before for his lack of comfort with actors and that’s certainly on display here. Cruise is good but the role doesn’t, and should have, stretched him far more. Jack is perfect Cruisebait; a blue collar repairman who’s also the most important human left alive to say nothing of a fiercely effective soldier who gets to run a lot. He should be equal parts Charlton Heston and Ethan Hunt and, whilst Cruise is good he certainly isn’t that memorable.
The Scavs fare even worse. Morgan Freeman as Malcolm Beech, their leader, is given little more than three scenes, the vast majority of which is either exposition or ambiguity. Freeman’s character is almost completely passive beyond his initial meeting with Jack and seems to exist as a function of the plot rather than a person in his own right, culminating in a death scene lifted, beat for beat, from an unseen moment in Serenity. Which is then ignored for the sake of dramatic impact and closure.
His lieutenants fare even worse, with Zoe Bell, who excelled as the lead in Deathproof being given no lines whatsoever and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, one of the lynchpins of the Game of Thrones case, faring little better. The Scavs are supposed to be the last scrappy remnants of humanity, bloodied and bowed but not quite defeated. Just like Jack, they’re supposed to be an example of humanity’s tenacity in the face of impossible odds, and, just like Jack, they fall more than a little flat.
The worst example of this is Julia. Olga Kurylenko is an actress with range and, crucially, authority and here she’s required to simper and, on occasion, yell for Jack. The role that should be the emotional centre of the movie is non-existent, and she’s even more of a placeholder for emotional response than Freeman. There’s nothing to the character whatsoever and, decades after the creation of Ellen Ripley, seeing a female lead in a science fiction movie fleeing in terror from the monsters whilst the male lead fights them off is unforgivable especially as the script takes such huge pains to make Victoria complex. The end result is the movie’s gender portrayal is vastly lopsided, with Riseborough’s complex Victoria and the cold machine menace Melissa Leo brings to Sally counterbalanced by Julia’s total lack of authority and agency. Like Freeman’s character this culminates in a moment which involves her being shot, for literally no reason other than to create a little fake agency. She barely even qualifies as a character, to the extent that her scenes feel like elements of a 1950s gender dynamic have wandered into a 21st century movie. And yes, the irony of old behavioural patterns defining the script in a movie like this is difficult to miss.
It’s also difficult to get past. Oblivion throws so many ideas and nods onto the screen (The Tet and the Drones look like GladOS from Portal, the clone reveal riffs on Moon a little) that a much higher than normal proportion hit. Likewise, the movie has to be praised for being an original script, and not an adaptation, a remake or a sequel. There’s real worth to it, real weight of execution and story and it’s a genuine delight to see an original SF movie do so well. But for every good idea, there’s a needless beat, for every piece of remarkable, subtle characterisation there’s a stick figure with Morgan Freeman’s head stuck on it. There’s a lot to enjoy here, but Kosinski remains a big picture director, unfortunately, in all the worst as well as the best ways.