Oblivion might just be the most sci-fi movie ever made. It felt like a lot of the choices were made simply because the writers and director liked what they saw in other films and said, “I gotta get me one of those”. While it doesn’t quite hit every single thing in a sci-fi movie, I’m looking at you here ancient aliens in Antartica, it does touch on most of them. However, it’s not like other things that are derivative aren’t awesome. Thanks to Hidden Fortress we ended up with Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope. Without King Lear and the legends of Daimyo Mouri Motonari, you don’t get one of my favorite films, Ran. Besides, isn’t a large part of the Matrix simply a twist on Alice in Wonderland? Then there is O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which is absolutely pure genius. So, let’s go ahead and say that it’s not derivation I dislike. In fact, a certain amount of incorporation and learning what came before is critical not only in cultural stories, but is a major part of what makes games good. To sum up, I am a fan of iterative design and don’t mind derivation.
If that’s true, then Oblivion should be a movie that I really enjoy. It’s the dim sum restaurant of sci-fi. A bit from the Matrix, a taste of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a sizeable portion of Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope and Independence Day, a side Planet of the Apes, some spices from Lifeforce, a smattering of Moon, a healthy serving of Wall-E, and even a dollop of Thundarr the Barbarian. It’s not like anything here is a straight 1:1 lift, so it’s definitely a derivation rather than an appropriation. It’s also not as if you can say that Joseph Kosinski doesn’t have a great sense of style. The visuals are top notch, and you can actually follow the action here, a great step up from the sometimes messy filming of Tron: Legacy. The film is gorgeous, vibrant, and evocative. Well, at least until you get to a lot of the actor direction.
So why don’t I like the film? I don’t hate it, but it sat uneasy with me during the viewing, prior to any sort of close scrutiny.
Don’t get me wrong. Some of the acting is incredible. Say what you want about Tom Cruise, but he doesn’t phone anything in. When he does something, he’s in it 100%, full throttle, balls to the wall. Andrea Riseborough? Amaze. She was far and away the best, and to me most tragic, part of the movie. She was so expressive in that incredibly minimalistic way, so reserved yet so emotive. She was the shining star in this film, no question. There are also some pretty cool bits having to do with the personification of the drones that Tom Cruise is repairing throughout the film. They do a good job of providing cold, calculating menace, and the sound effects are top notch in a way that really helps sell the scenes and tip you off to what the drones are about to do. It’s great non-verbal communication. In fact, the only person to really be accused of ghostwalking is Morgan Freeman, but I’m pretty sure he’s done this role so much that he dreams in Magical Negro. He’s not terrible, but he’s basically Morpheus, complete with nonchalance and sunglasses, and really is more of an aggrandized cameo. He might get five minutes of screen time. It might be slightly more than that, but it’s very little. Olga Kurylenko isn’t on the same tier as the other stars of the film, and it shows. Then again, this might be the underlying relationship issues that the film possesses showing through.
Now, when I go to see a movie there are some simple truths that I know I need to understand when I watch something. Conflict drives narrative propulsion, and when you ask yourself why someone did something or why something was done a certain way, sometimes the answer is, “because otherwise you wouldn’t have a movie”. Sometimes this is seemingly at odds with the story they are trying to tell on camera, but largely this kind of things speaks more to the viewers than it does the film itself. Quite often, there isn’t enough information given in a film to definitively make a lot of the statements that are made by viewers, and working on incomplete information is definitely a thing in films. I mean, is time-traveling really easier than incinerating a body in Looper? A confirmed kill in a Kansas corn field is better than a deep ocean or cliff drop, but why? These are things we ask ourselves but absolutely can’t know the answers to this, and thus the answer is “because otherwise you wouldn’t have a movie”, but we also cannot definitively know any of these answers and for all we know they could be answerable if the questions were posed. Oblivion has it’s fair share of thes. In fact, just about every time something is introduced, one of these questions pop up. Why solely produce flying attack drones and not robotic humanoids at least somewhat? Why can’t the sensors pick up those electronics? Why can it track DNA trails but completely misses a different DNA trail? There are more, but for the sake of spoilers, I’m leaving them out. So is that the problem I am having then? It is simply answering “because otherwise you wouldn’t have a movie” this frequently something that eventually becomes a problem for me and turns me into a hypercritical douche?
No, I don’t think that’s the case. When you apply scrutiny, most of these hold up well enough to the “do we know enough to definitively apply an answer to these questions?” standard. We don’t, it’s not addressed, and it really isn’t a plot hole in any sense that matters. So, what’s the problem I have with the film? After thinking about it, the answer is pretty easy.
There are no emotional stakes in the film.
It’s gorgeous, it has some really awesome setting pieces, and some strong acting, but when you boil it down, there is absolutely nothing at stake in the film in any way that really matters. What’s worse, the reveals and conflict seem to wash over the characters and one gets the sense that these people have to the most well adjusted people in the history of existence to just be so cool about everything. The revelations drift along in this sea of cool and Tom Cruise never once flips out. In fact, it’s hard not to imagine Cruise just looking at the latest Earth-Shattering development, shrugging, and saying, “Seems legit”, before accepting this as the new way the world works and moving on. Not once is he shaken by any sort of information received. It’s only Andrea Riseborough that has a breakdown, and the payoff for that is actually pretty baller. Unforunately, this is the only scene with any sort of emotional impact whatsoever. Some might say this is undercut by the complete flip out the night before once Olga arrives, but really, I thought this did a great job of showing just how fucked up Andrea was, too bad no one else was in that film with her.
The entire “you’re the one to save us!” thing is severely undercut pretty quickly, the heroic sacrifice becomes all but non-existant, and character investment more or less goes entirely out of the window. People go about accepting huge life-altering truths with a shrug and a nod, and then begin to live their life that way. The love story in the film is pretty fucked up, but there is never any real emotion behind it, save it gets a lot more interesting if you believe that Olga has PTSD or a brain disorder. There is no real chemistry there. Olga is all but emotionless, and doesn’t provide anything in the way of conflict for Cruise, but is like an ice cube just there to stay chilly and make things slide down just a bit easier for our hero. Even the idea that “this is our hero” is weakened and becomes an exercise in patience during the last stretch of the film.
This sort of emotional detachment leads to the story just not making a lot of sense, and having horrifying ramifications by the time you get to the end of the film. Keep in mind the only Andrea Riseborough has emotional engagement, so by the time you get to the end of her character arc all you will want to be saying is, “Wow, that is totally FUCKED UP!” However, this isn’t something the film really wants you to focus on. Instead it wants you to focus on this time-space spanning love story between two people that is pretty fucked up, but also doesn’t want you to focus on just how fucked up that is either, and their lack of emotions. This is further exacerbated by the meat of the story just really not making any sense, and the characters saying platitudes that just don’t hang together. Freeman makes a wizened comment seemingly based on something Olga is doing, but then it completely surprised looking later in the film when she says something that would have otherwise made his comment make sense if he had known. It’s just bad narration when you strip everything else away.
These Big Truths make little sense when stacked on top of each other, and it wears on you. This isn’t a short piece, and it keeps heaping on the Big Ideas. I only wish the Big Ideas made even Small Sense, but they really just don’t.
A film has to have stakes, the clearer the better. Instead, Oblivion is the Lucy to our Charlie Brown. It says, “Here are the stakes get invested”, and we run up, ready to invest. At the last moment, it yanks the stakes away like an asshole and boasts loudly, “LOL!”. It’s ok Charlie, I now understand how you feel, brother.