Mon
Apr 22 2013 9:30am

Oblivion Destroys Itself

Oblivion Review Tom Cruise Morgan Freeman Olga Kurylenko Nikolaj Coster-Waldeau

There’s some fairly hefty literary commentary in the board game Clue. By simply shuffling some cards, an entire murder plot is decided, sending the players on a quest to answer the basic questions of who? what? and where? And while this might emulate the basic shape of most whodunits, constantly wondering what the hell has happened might not be the emotional response you want to elicit in a science fiction action film. And while somewhat aesthetically pleasing, Oblivion’s constant need to tease the audience makes you wonder if certain plot elements from other movies weren’t just shuffled around at random.

Spoilers for Oblivion

Like an overtly flirtatious drunk person at a singles bar, Oblivion is making its intentions fairly obvious, and those intentions are to “screw with your mind.” From the opening voice-over from Tom Cruise’s Jack Harper, anyone with half a brain can already tell “everything is not as it seems.” To be quick and dirty about it, the supposed premise is this: The year is 2071 and aliens called “Scavengers” attacked Earth and blew up our moon, which was a huge bummer and caused the governments of the Earth to use a bunch of nukes which killed the aliens. Now, the remaining human population has set up a smattering of giant water pumps, which are converting H20 into energy to use on their new colony on Titan. Guarding the water pumps are little drones that look like Angry Birds with lasers. Jack’ s job is to fix these drones when they break, because drones can’t fix themselves. If he doesn’t fix them, the giant water pumps are defenseless.

Yeah riiiiight, Oblivion. Oceans are left over even after nuking the whole planet? Why does nuking everything just move New York City buildings to Iceland? Oh that’s not Iceland? It’s a post- apocalyptic North American landscape caused by flooding as a result of the Moon’s destruction! Duh. I’m so dumb. Oh, I’m sorry, Oblivion, you’ve so cleverly hid the real premise under this façade of Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes imagery that I questioned your intelligence. I’m sorry to question your intelligence. I can’t wait for the payoff of what is really going on!

Oblivion Review Tom Cruise Morgan Freeman Andrea Riseborough Olga Kurylenko Nikolaj Coster-Waldeau

Seriously though, wondering about the real premise of the movie made me feel as helpless as the characters Jack and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who are clearly having their legs pulled by their “boss” named Sally (Melissa Leo) who lives on an orbiting space station. Creepily, she frequently asks Victoria “Are you and Jack an effective team?” which gives the narrative a brief dose of George Saunders’ “Pastorilia.” However, instead of making me sympathetic toward Jack and Victoria, it made me impatient to have them do something that would reveal to me what the movie was really about. The asserted premise of the movie is so ridiculous that I wondered why these characters remotely bought into this obvious lie.

Part of what makes Oblivion so infuriating is, unlike a regular whodunit, the amount of information you’re given is so preposterous and obviously false, that you can’t really start to piece together anything in your mind that’s remotely logical or “realistic.” To put it another way, imagine trying to play Clue without looking at your own cards. Following the plot of Oblivion is like that. It’s not that it’s too confusing, it’s that being confused isn’t fun, because you’re not really being allowed to play along.

Oblivion Review Tom Cruise Morgan Freeman Andrea Riseborough Olga Kurylenko Nikolaj Coster-Waldeau

The film also mucks up any possible coolness with cliché plot vehicles. Jack randomly rescues a woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko) from “delta sleep” (read: suspended animation) who is of course in love with him and secretly his real wife. So instead of just having it be all about fake information versus real information, the movie needs a love triangle too! Is this just a remake of Vanilla Sky with beats from M83 instead of Paul McCartney songs?

Compounding this problems is the super-generic band of resistance fighters lead by Morgan Freeman and populated by central-casting Mad Max characters. There’s a battle scene between these folks and a few of the Angry Bird drones which was so generic that I actually zoned out and started thinking about what I was going to have for lunch instead. I don’t remember what happened in these scenes. Morgan Freeman has the answers, but Jack doesn’t really feel like asking him or Julia direct questions. I guess he’s been specifically told by the movie not to do that?

Oblivion Review Tom Cruise Morgan Freeman Andrea Riseborough Olga Kurylenko Nikolaj Coster-Waldeau

And in what could have been a cool twist, we soon discover that there are multiple versions of the Jack/Victoria team around the world and that they are clones of other people who originally tried to fight off the alien invasion. The aliens converted the raw material of Jack and Victoria, and turned them against the human race. Or so Morgan Freeman explains, and then later, in a flashback, we’re made to understand. The phoning in of the clone premise smacks not only of a rip-off of Duncan Jones’ Moon, but also doesn’t deliver on any kind of fun Tom Cruise on Tom Cruise action. The movie The Island may seriously suck, but at least it features two Ewan McGregors squaring off against each other. Here, the two Cruises grapple for a little bit and then are separated by pages of the script because that’s how it’s supposed to happen.

Why did the robot/alien intelligence create this elaborate ruse and give its clones of Jack and Julia real memories, etc? If all they needed were organic creatures to maintain the drones, why not make something with a bit less free will? How did Tom Cruise build that cabin in the woods? Where was he getting food supplies from? He promises Julia they’ll just live in the cabin until they die, but how are they going to eat? Will one of the characters from Peter Heller’s novel The Dog Stars fly in some canned goods? Why does Tom Cruise have a Yankees hat, and are those his aviator sunglasses from Top Gun on the shelf there?

Oblivion Review Tom Cruise Morgan Freeman Andrea Riseborough Olga Kurylenko Nikolaj Coster-Waldeau

Alien robots fashioning fake human technology is sort of a neat idea, but when we’re seeing things from inside the brain of the drones, why is everything in English? Shouldn’t it be weird alien characters? FURTHER, if you have a movie called Oblivion, surely the drones shouldn’t say TERMINATE when they’re going to zap someone, but instead say OBLIVITATE. Right?

I was predisposed to like the look and feel of this movie, because I’m a sucker for director Joseph Kosinski’s other movie; Tron: Legacy. Indeed, Oblivion has some very Tron-esque moments, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. Further, it’s relevant for super fans of sci-fi to note that this screenplay was partially written by the-great-nerd-hope for Star Wars, Michael Arndt. Granted, he wasn’t the sole screenwriter, and he’s written some decent stuff, but this was a fairly by-the-numbers script with awful, awful, awful dialogue. (the number of times someone’s line is simply an excited/anxious utterance of “Jack!” must be in the hundreds.) Further, outside of all the dull “reveals” and generic action, I was mostly irritated by the cliché roles everyone seemed to be playing. Tom Cruise was playing the Tom Cruise character, Morgan Freeman the Morgan Freeman character.

Oblivion Review Tom Cruise Morgan Freeman Andrea Riseborough Olga Kurylenko Nikolaj Coster-Waldeau

What if the lead for Oblivion had been a woman, with the male subordinate character played by a more comical, less traditionally masculine actor? If Olga Kurylenko or Andrea Riseborough were the main character of Oblivion would it have been a better movie? Well, maybe not, but at least it would have been different. Because just like there are clones of Tom Cruise in this movie, I feel like I’ve seen all of this before, and I don’t really like the way it was shuffled this time.


Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com and might be a clone of his former self.

40 comments
matt s
1. matt s
Oh, come on. Did this movie rip off a lot of great ideas from other movies? Sure. But it did it pretty well...and I'm a pretty jaded movie-goer. This was one of the few movies I've seen in the last year that made me glad I spent the 10 bucks to see it in the theater. Is it perfect? No. But it's fun.

This review is just a little too cool for school.
matt s
2. Hammerlock
At this point, I'd say "plucky strong female with derpy male sidekick" is also a trope, especially for scifi films. Plus I'm not sure Cruise's titanic ego would take playing second fiddle in an action flick.
matt s
3. nm_guy
Totally derivitive. But isn't everything? It's about putting it together in new ways.

This movie was fun ... something that doesn't happen much in sci-fi or Hollywood anymore.

It was about the characters ... like the best sci-fi is.

Had its faults ... wasn't genius ... won't make it into the 2001 or Blade Runner tier ... but definitely a step above most of what's out there these days. It was ambitious. (And earnest ... which is the greatest crime an artist can commit anymore.)

I mean, seriously -- look at any "classic" sci-fi. If you can't suspend disbelief, you're in the wrong genre.

OTOH, the movie offers an added element of fun if you watch it as a metaphor for Tom's current mental state.
James Goetsch
4. Jedikalos
matt s. and nm guy hit the nail on the head: this review is "to cool for school." The movie was fun to watch and I didn't regret laying down my money for it at all. It really wasn't THAT bad!
Joel Cunningham
5. jec81
This movie included a giant black alien machine triangle thingy with a red HAL eye shouting "I AM YOUR GOD!" in a robot female voice.

it is worth seeing for that alone.
Nathan Love
6. n8love
If anything there was too much exposition in this film. After rescuing Julia, Jack explains the situation to her in almost the same exact words as we were unnecessarily given at the open. An organic line about how the big ocean suckers are making fusion energy would have been all we needed, given the landscape and the "radiation zones". What we actually got made the reveal of the real situation feel ham-handed and Shyamalan-y-ish.
matt s
7. #4 Kitty
Did anyone get the half dozen or so homages to Star Wars? At one point I had to hold back from yelling "Now this is pod racing!"
matt s
8. Kirshy
Saw the movie on Sunday and have to say I'm mostly in agreement with Ryan. It was derivative, and a bit of a let down. I found the pacing a bit off, it got repetetive too. Why was it necessary for the intro voice over to be repeated almost word for word by Morgan Freeman, as an info dump, an hour and half into the movie? To be honest it's getting to the point where you can't rely and any "cool sci-fi" movie to deliver on anything truely epic anymore. The studio's spend so much money on these films, making them look good, and populating them with A-list actors but then fumble the ball when it comes to story, plot, and dialogue. It just seems to me that they have their priorities wrong. Either that, or the fact that it cost $15 to see it in AVX, or $12 for a regular screen, just means that they can put out whatever drivel they want and still get paid so it just doesn't matter to them to make a quality film. What a waste. So sad.
Fake Name
9. ThePendragon
I agree with most of the comments here. The movie was predictable and boring, but your review of it is absurd. Too Cool For School Indeed.
matt s
10. dalgoda
I had a feeling that TOR would attempt to shred this movie apart. I mean, TOR is all about "serious and deep Sci-fi."

I saw this movie with my 14 year old son this weekend and we both enjoyed the hell out of it. It is an extremely good movie and with a really good story. The visuals are great and it is extremely enjoyable. TOR....get over yourselves.
matt s
11. Mike101
Ryan made very true statements in his review of the movie. However, like most commented here, I still enjoyed it. Maybe it was simply the type of movie it was - alone defending earth (so to speak) with a 'fine' woman by your side that adores you. What more can anyone ask. Lol. The swimming pool scene, lol - sexy. Not such a bad movie, seen worst. I liked the feel of the movie and for the most part - IT WAS ENTERTAINING. Plenty of stuff mixed around from other movies, but Tom made it entertaining. Peace.
Ryan Britt
12. ryancbritt
Hi everyone!
Wow! Lots of opinions here. Really quick:

@10
I am not Tor Books, nor Tor.com. I am writer who works for Tor.com. This is me. There's no directive. Further, I LOVE a lot of stuff that isn't serious or deep. I loved John Carter!
http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/03/cynicism-aside-john-carter-is-a-charmer
Also, I like lots of funny sci-fi movies!
http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/04/the-10-best-comedic-science-fiction-films-according-to-me

As far as me being "too cool for school" and "absurd," I'll take it! My closest friends would lovingly say these same things about me. I'm glad you guys get to know me, too. Hope I didn't ruffle too many feathers, but, in my professional opinion, for all the reasons I listed above, this movie was quite bad.
Aaron Moss
13. bruceiv
I liked the movie - the one bit that kind of threw me out of it a bit was "Jack's dragonfly-plane has telemetery (this is a very obvious plot point). Jack's bosses *know* he's up to no good. Why don't they just track him by the dragonfly-plane he's stupidly flying all over the place instead of these slow DNA-trace things?"
matt s
14. Petar Belic
Whilst there were plenty of references in both plot and character to many other better and worse SF stories - it was a very enjoyable movie. Enough to ensure Kosinski will be making more movies, which I consider a good thing. What wasn't enjoyable was this review.
matt s
15. Tom Cruz
I think that perhaps the phrase "too cool for school" is the wrong insult to hurl at poor Ryan. Some of you are actually agreeing that the movie is bad, but still think Ryan's rational justification as to why is "too cool for school". Isn't the point of criticism to examine the culture in a discerning and thoughtful way? To delineate between art that panders and art that is sincere? According to my calculations, those people who were actually "too cool for school" are the same ones who now gobble up these crappy fast food plot lines handed down to us by the cinematic powers that be - the same people for whom it is sufficient to be merely "entertained" (emphasis on the word 'merely'). The fact is that Oblivion is DEEPLY flawed, for many of the reasons Ryan mentioned and more. If you enjoyed the movie INSPITE of these flaws, that's great. I'll be the first to concede that it is possible to thoroughly enjoy a piece of deeply flawed art or culture. But these forums exist because we believe on some (perhaps foolish) level that conversation about our culture will somehow, someday, improve it (also it's sort of fun). And to dismiss Ryan's criticism as "too cool for school" strikes me as frightfully ant-intellectual and not worthy of the fine readers of Tor.com. Therefore Ryan you are not too cool for school. You are a cynic and a snob. And we thank you for it. Keep up the great work.

TC
matt s
16. PSS
Tut tut.. Folks it does what most movies do on some level. Entertain. DEEPLY flawed? I think not. What is though is people kicking the backside out of a 'review'.

In Spite of, not INSPITE BTW. See me after class.
matt s
17. Blueberry2
This was enjoyable though a bit boring at times. Scenes are drawn out and the twists were not very interesting. A female lead would not have improved this movie at all though. Why do people always throw that criticism at genre movies?
matt s
18. WDH
Wow. Completely disagree. Thought it was entertaining and enjoyable. Stop looking for similarities and things to dislike and you'll enjoy it a whole lot more.
matt s
19. kerrybishop54
I had a good time. To quote the local news radio reviewers: "Visually stunning." My wife would add the second part of their review, also: "Confusing." She was not as impressed. But then again, she fell asleep in "The Matrix" also. Not her cup of tea. There were enough twists and turns in the plot to keep me entertained. I was not bothered by most of the questions that bothered the reviewer. I saw the movie as a statement of the persistance of life, (the hidden green valley) and the persistance of the human spirit (the cabin in the valley). And maybe even the persistance of love (the memories that wouldn't stay wiped).
matt s
20. storypilot
Have to say, my wife and I saw it last weekend, and we both pretty strongly agree with Ryan's critique of it here. Like Ryan, I was predisposed to liking the movie, since I quite enjoyed Tron: Legacy even with its problems. Oblivion had some nice moments, and I really appreciated the ambition of trying to do a sci-fi movie that was not a pre-established franchise, but I was really disappointed. Every element felt generic in the most unfortunate sense. Shuffling cards drawn from prior movies is just the right metaphor. The audience at our screening laughed out loud at the blatantness of the cliches, delivered with complete earnestness. This would be partly excusable if there were snappy lines and performances to go along with it, but there was none of that. Also, serious overuse of the big, scary sci-fi boom-horn noise that is everywhere these days. At times, it felt like one of those slick car commercials that are meant to look and feel like a sci-fi movie, but there was no car.
I don't regret seeing it, parts were a enjoyable enough ride, but much of the true essentials that make a story good were lacking.
Alejandro Melchor
21. Al-X
I enjoyed the movie but sitll found a lot of room for improvement. Curiously enough, I got into the theater 30 minutes late... I treated myself to a double feature and the first movie ran a bit longer than I expected... so I missed all the unnecessary exposition, which helped me enjoy the rest of the film as I pieced together the plot from the clues being dropped :)
CHRISTY DOWNEY
22. cricqket
rachel sternberg
23. rae70
While there was many plot holes and inconsistencies in Oblivion, I did enjoy it. Though seeing Tom Cruises' ego shine through his shower scene (with all his chest/arm flexing) induced a definate eye roll for me. I didn't have any problems with following the movie, though the script definately needed a rewrite. As for the "too cool for school" comment, I think the posters were saying that the author was trying to be too hip and high brow.. Frankly, I stopped reading the review after the first couple sentences and skimmed the rest because of the snark.
matt s
24. Larry3
Not a fan of Tom Cruise and had heard bad things (here) about the movie, but gave it a try tonight. I was pleasantly surprised. Sure it had plot holes and inconsistencies. However, it was the closest thing to a real SF movie that Hollywood has done in awhile. No franchise, no wall to wall special effects (though visually it was well done), but at least an attempt at a thoughtful story about the future and how people might react to an incredible situation. Will never be a "classic" but well worth the ticket (or DVD) price in my opinion.
matt s
25. JeffJ
For starters, the author spends a lot of time sarcastically making fun of the movie's shooting location. Not sure why.
matt s
26. JeffJ
"There’s a battle scene between these folks and a few of the Angry Bird drones which was so generic that I actually zoned out and started thinking about what I was going to have for lunch instead."
^ You went to the movies in the morning?
matt s
27. JeffJ
The author of this article must really hate all movies. If you're this tough of an audience for this movie, you're in for a world of hurt if you go see pretty much anything.
Bridget McGovern
28. BMcGovern
JeffJ @26: A lot of our movie reviews are written over the weekend, so yes--chances are pretty good that Ryan caught an early show. Not sure why that's so surprising to you, but if you want to share opinions on the movie, please feel free. Leaving a series of pointless nitpicks aimed at the reviewer, though, borders on trolling, so you might want to check out our Moderation Policy before commenting further.
matt s
31. jostasauce
Ouch! What did this movie ever do to you? Much of your criticism is a stretch, Mr. Britt. A movie like this isn't trying to be an air tight Acadamy Award winner. Its some fun sci-fi. The one thing I do agre with is that Tom Cruise probably shouldn't have been in this movie. Another, maybe generic male lead would have taken the Cruise distraction away so we could concentrate on following the plot. A little less Tom Cruise cockiness would have went a long, long ways.
matt s
32. Bishop
Nowadays, with the Internet and blogs. Everyone is a movie critic.. I enjoyed this film.. You have to suspend disbelief, he whole point of going to the movies, get out of reality and sit back and enjoy. Also, with the arrange of reality tv and reboots, the attention span of most movie goers ifs very short and thinking and using your own imagination is unheard of.. Sure the movie isn't perfect, no movie is.. But I'll buy it when it comes out on blu Ray.. Great film!
matt s
33. Dooker
It was a cool film, but it stuck in my head in a bad way. Not like The Matrix or Inception did, leaving me thinking about subtle ambiguities, but rather, leaving me thinking about so many things that didn't make sense by the end of the film.

The underlying premise of cloning two humans to maintain the aliens' operation makes little sense (surely they could have produced superior beings to do the job, having conquered planets and all), but without it, there's no film, so one lets it slide. But why?

And at the end, when the first Jack clone dies blowing up the Tet (why was delivering his wife important for the alien(s), anyway???), and months later the bandits lead another random Jack clone to Julia at the magically-running-on-electricity house, how is this supposed to work? So... She falls in love with the other clone, but what about the "thousands" of other Jack clones (according to Freeman's character)? Aren't they going to come looking for her too? Then what? They all kill each other or take turns gang banging her? This made no sense at all and left the film on a note of "fail". Pretty to look at (nice editing together of footage of Iceland, Louisiana sound stages, and CG), but massive plot fail. Wish I had my money back on this one.
matt s
35. B.Keenan
Sci fi is never for the masses and very seldom if ever, well reviewed. Only those titles which are seen as 'classic' are considered a worthwhile experience. Most people cannot just sit, free of expectations and just watch. Enjoy the level of incredible design, enjoy the escape and experience something which many will see as unbelievable/fantasy. Oblivion was a really enjoyable film which will only be enjoyed by certain like minded people. Unfortunate-but that is the often misunderstood genre of sci fi.
matt s
36. karelva
Well, you don't get to see Tom Cruise say "Fuck you" in movies very often. So Oblivion's got that going for it.
matt s
37. Mystery Tramp
I'm with Ryan. This movie was a huge disappointment. The more I think about the more I dislike it.
matt s
38. bP
This movie is anti-religion, pro-environment and probably atheist (maybe scientological given who stars in it). It's fairly buried underlying subtext is about the arrogance of God and the willingness of a clueless, gullible, emotional race to worship and serve that cruel God, against their own best interest, for the promise of a non-existent heaven. Adam & Eve are created in order to use the best version of the species is used, but not allowed to grow and simply serve for that heavenly promise. But, with the help of a group of rebels who know the truth, the programmed "drones", or at least one of them, learn and realize that truth; that there is no Titan (heaven), and that everything they think is real is false.

But that's ridiculous for applying to real life! It's just a movie! ......right?






Nope, put the book down.
matt s
39. Vern
Not sure how one can take this film as anti-religion. After all, there are repeated references to the "temples of his Gods", as well as "souls". If anything, this film is against idolatry, specifically idolatry of technology, and anti-authoritarian.

A better ending, of course, would have suggested that Julia and Jack would be re-united after death.
matt s
40. Samthesamsam
Am I glad I don't know anything about movies. I enjoyed Oblivion and it made me dreaming. Bad film this bad film that...
matt s
41. Shelly56
I bought this on blue ray on the strenght of " Minority Report " which i think is a fine film and a good adaption of the P K Dick book . The fact that i seek forums on " Oblivion " does tell you that i found some of it either confusing or disjointed ? I thought it was visually stunning and beautically shot . I don't mind a bit of blagging off other classic Sci Fi as long as it is done with respect and transparency and , as for dialogue Star Wars is one of the biggest films of all time and most of us love, not for the dialogue . I think Tom Cruise gets a bit of a un fair mauling at times because " Oblivion " has it's moments and i don't think it's obvious flaws can be set at his door . I mention " Minority report " earlier , that could very easily got dragged down by a complicated plot but it didn't , it flowed and took the viewer along for the ride yet kept the best till last . Also , i paid respect to all the views here and read them all and , when we get interlectual about all this stuff , shouldn't we also sit back and enjoy a movie too , warts and all ?
gez shelbourn
42. shelly56
sorry about the spelling guys , just read it properly , i need a memory wipe ! In answer to one of the questions , didn't the bad guys choose jack to clone because he was a war hero not your average guy and because his human form would initially encourage trust . In the deleted scenes there is a bit where Morgan Freeman shows the Tom Cuise character the archives and pictures depicting his hero type status .

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