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!
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.