Oblivion

Easily one of the more gorgeous science fiction films in recent memory.

Oblivion is best understood as an entry level movie. It’s being criticized heavily for its “thoughtless” borrowing from just about every classic science fiction film of the last fifty years, but I would submit that this borrowing is meant both as a love letter to the genre and as a way for imagery, ideas, and references to be introduced to a fresh audience of younger people without any sure experience of many of those classics. Some of the references are to movies that were chasing after the Big Speculative Ideas. Oblivion is happy to pin them up in its road-map of the science fiction genre, but is more blue collar in its thematic approach. It is far more self contained and clever in itself than interested in cosmic or grandiose questions or ideas.

I mean, it’s a movie with an ending sequence that blends imagery and concepts from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Independance Day… at the same time. This is far more awesome than it sounds.

Oblivion may seem shallow at first glance, but I think there’s a methodology behind it that I can support. Because of its lavish presentation and clever structuring of reveals and payoffs, it is not boring even if you have seen the movies that it so expansively tributes.

I am going to have to spoil this movie in order to talk about it. It’s one of those where knowing too much may be detrimental overall, so you shouldn’t read this review if you haven’t seen it. That said, you may find it predictable or derivative as you watch it if you’ve seen some of the movies it riffs on. Use your spoilers judgment, kids!

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Cruise is fucking 50 now. Let that sink in.

In slightly too expository voice over, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) explains that an invasion force called the Scavs invaded Earth. Their entire civilization showed up, destroyed the moon, watched the catastrophes that followed, and then invaded. Humans fought back, using nukes, and won. The cost was a dying, inhospitable planet, forcing the survivors to relocate to Titan. Jack and his operator Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are the last two people on Earth, tasked with looking after the giant hydrogen rigs that are converting the last useable water into energy for a final migration to Titan. The Tet is a diamond-shaped space station that orbits like a new moon and contains the colonials waiting on the rigs to rejoin the rest of the human race in their new home. Mission control, onboard the Tet and personified by Sally (Melissa Leo), controls the drones which protect the rigs and which Jack, Technician 49, keeps running.

Jack is a repairman but also a fighter. The remnants of the Scav invaders periodically attack the rigs, the drones, and him. He is always armed, always alert, even as he walks the ruins of New York City in awe and nostalgia. He and Victoria (often called Vicka) had their memories wiped five years prior for the “security” of the mission. This is the first clue that things aren’t what they seem. In spite of the wipe, Jack has vivid dreams of a New York before the war. These dreams also feature a woman and feel like memories to him. So here we have a blend of Wall-E and Total Recall and you start to get a sense of the quilted texture of the movie.

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The design in this movie is one of its main selling points.

Unlike Jack, Vicka doesn’t ask questions or give much thought to Earth. They are set to leave in two weeks and that’s all Vicka is concerned about. The two are lovers by default, it seems, and have a strangely idyllic life aside from the Scav attacks that force Jack out into the open (where, in truth, he would probably want to be anyway). Their base of operations is an ultra-modern house on a platform high in the sky. It even has a fucking outdoor pool. A spectacular outdoor pool.

By the end of Jack’s introduction to the movie, you’ll have some lingering questions about the whole set up. One of the satisfying things about Oblivion is that it sets out these questions deliberately and sets about answering them just as deliberately. The movie takes its time teasing out or paying off its mysteries. Some are saying that this is a thoughtless movie, but this is where the thought is. The structure is itself carefully thought out. The implications and baggage of the references it contains are also included thoughtfully, not haphazardly.

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Kind of pretty for the apocalypse.

The status quo Jack lives with gets exploded when he and Vicka trace an offworld signal to the ruins of the Empire State Building. They know that there are no Scavs to send a message to, so why would they do it? Then a ship crashes and instead of more Scavs it contains stasis pods with human survivors. As Jack investigates, he watches as the drones destroy the pods. The only one he manages to save has a woman inside, literally the woman of his dreams. He saves her and we see that someone or something is watching him do it. Strange, black-garbed figures that we aren’t quite told are the remnant Scavs.

Not only does the survivor, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), complicate the narrative that Jack and Vicka have taken for fact, she also complicates their romance. Julia remembers Jack. They were married, before the war, and this means Jack is living a lie. Instead of trying to explain all this verbally, Julia gets Jack to help her investigate the crash again, this time to get the flight recorder.

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They do try.

This leads directly to their capture by the Scavs who turn out to be humans led by Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman). They explode the fabricated reality Jack occupies even further. In a nice bit of the clever, self-contained world-building the movie does, Beech explains that they dress and move the way they do to confuse the drones. They also use voice disguisers and other methods to survive. This has the side effect of making them seem alien from a distance, which is the only way Jack has ever seen them. The drones don’t leave much by way of remains.

Now this is where the movie falls into a bit of a problem with its own structure. Jack is the anchoring force of the movie and there are few scenes without him. When Beech reveals some of the truth to him and asks for his help destroying the Tet, he isn’t ready to accept it all yet. Beech lets him go, telling him that the truth is out beyond the so-called Radiation Zones. We then get a confrontation with Vicka, who has seen Jack and Julia embracing as Jack realizes that they were married and his dreams are memories, and then a protracted chase scene. This stuff is satisfying but it comes at the cost of secondary character development which the movie could really have used for the Scavs.

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Yeah so Jaime Lanniser didn’t spend that whole year in chains after all.

There’s no time given to them, so they don’t have much of an impact as characters. Freeman is entertaining enough as Beech, but Nikolaj Coster-Waldeau and Zoe Bell play his lieutenants and they are barely in the movie. Zoe Bell doesn’t even get a speaking line, if I remember correctly. This trickles down to the anonymous citizens of their refuge who we never get much reason to care about, making the threat to them register far less than the movie needs it to.

While this is my biggest criticism, I should also mention that the love story between Julia and Jack is overplayed and also costs the movie precious time that could have been better used. Cruise is in fine form and Olga Kurylenko is also good, but they can’t quite get past the generic nature of the relationship on the page. The most interesting thing about it is a wrinkle thrown in at the end.

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The drones are excellent. Their sound design especially.

In order to talk about the ending, I need to get to where Oblivion borrows from a more recent science fiction classic. Like Moon, Oblivion features the exploitation of clones. The first humans the Tet, which is really an alien machine intelligence and the real invader and destroyer, encountered were Victoria and Jack. Its invasion force was an army of clone Jacks, making Jack himself a semi-mythological figure to the survivors. They have killed tons of Jacks, hidden from others, and have learned to see him as a compromised human machine under the control of the Tet. The second phase of the Tet’s invasion is the energy gathering it pretends is for a nonexistent colony on Titan. For this phase, there are clones of Victoria and Jack working out of home bases separated by the radiation zone borders, which are also a fabrication. This requires a little more intelligence and autonomy from its clones, so the Tet has unwittingly engineered its own downfall.

The Jack Harper we get to know is the first “unique” one in some time. We know this because he is more curious due to his freer reign, and because he is observed directly by Beech and the Scavs in this capacity (he collects books and other memorabilia and even has a cabin dedicated to his artifacts). When he saves Julia, who is really the X-factor that sets everything else in motion, Beech and the others start to believe he may be different and able to defy the Tet.

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The action in the film isn’t show-stopping but it’s always interesting and/or beautiful.

The enormity of some of these ideas is left for the audience to ponder. We don’t really need to see a drop ship full of soldier Jacks. We watch Cruise’s face as the realization sets in. Likewise, the movie mostly hints at the consequences for all the other clones once the Tet is destroyed, but it’s enough.

The end has Jack tricking Julia to save her life and taking Beech to the Tet as a decoy. They go there, like Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum by way of Patton Oswalt, and destroy the Tet. The thing is this enormous monolith containing endless clone pods (The Matrix) and a giant red-eyed central brain (2001: A Space Odyssey and a little Tron too). Just before they detonate their Trojan horse, there’s a great sequence which answers one of the last mysteries in the film. Instead of letting us wonder about the details behind Jack and Victoria being the only clones or how it was that Julia and the other Odyssey crew survived in stasis for sixty years, we see the events recorded in the Black Box of the Odyssey play out in parallel to Jack’s final approach to the Tet. This gives the movie a nice sense of symmetry, of a cycle being repeated just before it is finally broken.

Though Jack sacrifices himself to save what remains of the human race, he lives on not only in the form of offspring but also in the other clones who are still on Earth. Oblivion doesn’t tell us how many of them there are or what happens to them next. Except of course for Jack 52, the clone that Jack 49 (our Jack) encounters late in the second act of the film. This Jack, like all the other Jacks, is more human than the clone army the Tet unleashed sixty years prior. Since we know there are also other Victorias out there as well, we have to wonder about them and what happens next. I appreciated that the movie didn’t hand this to us or use it as an excuse to bait a sequel. Like other films, for example Source Code, this one is happy to leave us with some unanswered questions about “what next?” and the implications of how the major conflicts resolve after bringing its story to a satisfying conclusion.

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This picture doesn’t do it justice. I love these kinds of big science fictional moments.

To provide connective tissue for all this stuff, the movie is full of small cues and clever bits. One example is the iconic graffiti stamped into the armor of one of the drones. It looks like Jack. It was almost certainly spray-painted there by Scavs after they managed to knock the drone out. There’s also the prevalence of the inverted diamond that symbolizes the Tet itself. There’s that the Tet can mean “tete” like head or tetragrammaton, the name of God. At one point, the Tet actually calls itself God in Sally’s voice. There’s definitely a place to which Oblivion is willing to go in engaging these kinds of symbols and hints in the service of its plot more than for any deeper themes. My favorite one, though, was the way that Jack’s pristine white jumpsuit progressively got dirtier and darker until it’s almost black by the end. The gleaming white of the machine is the Tet’s color, while black is definitely the color of the Scavs. It’s a nuanced bit of visual storytelling typical of the movie and reminiscent of other films where such techniques are used (The Fountain, for example).

A master visualist only two movies in, Joseph Kosinski is getting a reputation not only for impressive design and craftsmanship but also his bold approach to music in his films. For Tron: Legacy he got Daft Punk, which was a coup and signature for that movie. In Oblivion he uses M83 and gets a fuckton out of them. There are some sequences that are beautiful to look at but register much more due to the beauty and grandeur of the score. Two good examples are the pool scene and the first time we see Jack riding his motorcycle across the wasteland.

On the other hand, Kosinski is also getting a rep for being a shallow storyteller. Tron: Legacy, which I loved, was characterized by the same emphasis on presentation over plot and theme. Narratively, Tron: Legacy and Oblivion have many of the same weaknesses. Neither, however, is insulting to the intelligence of the audience.  They both rely little on audience familiarity with the genre and they both go for smaller cleverness and simpler allegory over big ideas. So if your question is “better than Prometheus?” the answer is yes, if only because it doesn’t reach so high and can’t fall so far.

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The technology is so well realized it’s almost a character in the movie.

Oblivion is by and large an effective movie, especially if viewed as an entry level and accessible ode to science fiction. A lot of filmmakers act like they love the movies they butcher and resurrect as soulless remakes. Kosinski, in crafting his “original”, non-franchise, non-remake, non-sequel hodgepodge of pieces from greater films, actually does show that love. Oblivion deserves credit for that and so does Kosinski, even if the movie doesn’t work as well for you as it did for me.

Now there’s something else I want to talk about. Lately, drones have been a major topic of debate and discourse as they increasingly become a cornerstone of the drama that is the United States military adventure. Let alone that CCTV cameras and domestic drones seem like distinct possibilities for the near future not only in the USA but in other countries as well. This gives Oblivion a certain topical flavor that takes some unpacking.

The enemy in the film is a machine intelligence, an all-seeing eye in effect, that has wrecked the planet and continues to drain its resources using duped slaves. Does that sound like a way of describing late capitalism to you?

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Technology, UI, and AR that are only now emergent are fully integrated in the movie.

Some people would probably say that Oblivion‘s allegory is obvious and even trite, but I think it calls back to the 70’s era with movies like Silent Running or Logan’s Run. There’s a certain persistence in the allegorical elements of Oblivion that informs my opinion that it’s not a shallow “pin the trope on the donkey” exercise. I think that Oblivion is deliberately saying something, even something obvious, about the world today. That makes it consistent with the allegorical tradition of “cerebral” science fiction films. I think contemporary audiences are simply spoiled on this sort of thing. That, or they are too busy counting the references that don’t pay off as expected to notice that the movie is actually building toward a statement.

Oblivion, for all that its a product of the corporate machine, is still a rebellion narrative that sides with the black-clad anarchists and de facto terrorists (from the perspective of the Tet, certainly) that is at the heart of the dissonant American relationship between authoritarianism and anti-athoritianism.

Not bad for a movie a lot of people are calling a shallow rip-off, right?

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