Oblivion Movie Poster

The other day I found myself watching a soccer game. The players were not very good: defenders were constantly out of position, midfielders of the same team were bunching together and stealing the ball from each other, few passes were completed, and those that were often gave the impression of being accidental. Once, the goalie was even caught standing inside the goal when one team took a shot. Fortunately for them, the shot went well wide of the mark, despite the fact that it was taken a mere ten feet from the mouth of the goal.

Notwithstanding the poor level of play, I was enraptured. I cheered, I groaned, I shouted encouragement. I never missed a second of the action. What is more, I had just as eagerly watched the 30-minute practice that had preceded the game. The reason for my enthusiasm was that one of the players was my four-year-old son. There is a lesson there for storytellers of all stripes.

Oblivion is the second opus of director Joseph Kosinski, who also gave us Tron. It is a perfectly average movie on net, with some attributes rising a little above and others sinking a bit below. Of all the changes one might suggest to improve the film, the single most important one would be to populate it with characters we care about. The same thing that turned an hour and fifteen minutes of abject boredom into an engaging experience on a small soccer field in central Ohio would have dramatically improved every single scene of Kosinski’s work.

Tom Cruise plays Jack, a repairman, pilot, warrior, guardian, and whatever else the situation requires. One of the very last humans left on Earth, he is tasked with repairing the drones that guard the power plants providing energy for the human race, which has moved to Titan after a long war with an alien species called The Scavs. The Scavs, we are told, attacked us, trying to take the planet. Humans eventually won the war, but Earth was devastated.

Jack goes out every day to repair drones and occasionally fight aliens, while Victoria, his coworker and lover, stays at home in the operations room. She relays communications, assists him, and monitors their area, from which they may not stray due to the high levels of radiation outside it. Their memories have been erased to make them, they are told, a more effective team. They are nearing the end of their tour of duty. Victoria is especially keen to go and does not want anything to get in the way of her rejoining the human race on Titan.

The setup is interesting enough, and there are some nice vistas to take in while Jack is flying all over, but there is nothing about this film to put it in an elite category. A number of plot twists have the potential to be interesting, but they raise logical problems that weaken the story. When one starts to find out the truth, the entire enterprise becomes increasingly absurd. The illusion under which Jack and Victoria are operating requires the cooperation of certain actors who should be little disposed to cooperate. It also requires that the Law of Large Numbers be suspended, so that a certain chance encounter, which could have happened at any time in the last few years, does not occur until the story is ready for it. Indeed, unless one were somehow given assurance that two specific characters were not ever going to come within sight of one another, it would be foolhardy in the extreme to create and depend on the illusion in the first place.

All of this would be forgivable, scarcely noticeable even, if there were characters to care about. Replace Jack and Victoria with Han Solo and Princess Leia, and suddenly the story becomes far more interesting. The ones we have, however, don’t excite much.

Part of the problem is that they don’t feel human. Everything about the home in which they live, perched high above the surface of the planet, is clean and sterile, almost like a CGI rendering. Like the people living in it, there are no physical imperfections. It never feels real — nothing ever needs to be cleaned, nothing is worn down from use, nothing scratched. A man can become attached to his faded, worn, torn, stained blue jeans. The brand spanking new pair recently arrived from the store have no history, no character yet. The abode of Jack and Victoria feels less like the home of two lovers who have each other and no one else, and more like the model home at the front of a sub development. Nothing is suggested or implied by its appearance, except perhaps that it is a movie set and no one lives there.

The human dwellers are similarly airbrushed of any mark of humanity. There is no bed head when they first get up in the morning, no bad breath, no blood shot eyes from a night of drinking. There are some bare indications of character, like Victoria’s strict adherence to the rulebook and Jack’s natural curiosity, but the director spends little time developing these points. When Luke Skywalker took a few moments to watch the binary sunset, it was a compelling, touching moment of character-building that did far more than give the audience a chance to breathe between action scenes. Oblivion has nothing like it.

Everyone is attractive here, but in a very distancing sort of way. Jack is Tom Cruise, and Victoria is a pretty redhead. A third character is brought into their home who has even less personality than the owners. After advancing the plot with her initial appearance, her only job after that is to be beautiful. They have no flaws, no bad habits, no irritating behaviors, no infectious laugh or goofy grin, very little in the way of humanizing attributes. Jack has a hidden collection of vinyl records in a shack he has built on the surface (A shack that contrasts nicely with the high-tech, antiseptic atmosphere where Victoria waits for him. It is too bad the director does not take much advantage of it.), but that is about it. These people wind up more like wax sculptures of people than actual people.

Andrea Riseborough in Oblivion (2013)
A wax sculpture on a movie set.

When Jack brings a beautiful woman home with him, does Victoria get jealous, and how does her jealousy affect the way she treats Victoria? Do Victoria and Jack ever get tired of being with each other, with no relief ever? Do they ever get on each other’s nerves? Do they ever get lonely to see someone else? How do they combat this loneliness?

Probing the answers to any one of these questions would bring some needed depth to the film, but I suppose that would require effort in an area that was of little interest to the modern moviemaker. There are no scenes designed to delve into a role, all merely skim over the surface. To the extent that a person will shape his environment after his character, and can in turn be shaped by that same environment, we miss out on other opportunities. The sets are, though out of the ordinary, ultimately bland and featureless, and the director is little disposed to exploring them anyway.

When the big reveal finally happens, there is a lot left unexplained. I cannot claim I truly had a handle on what was really happening on anything more than a basic level. Some of the gaps we can fill in ourselves, but some of them are perplexing and needed some kind of explanation. Much of what I did deduce made the entire undertaking seem implausible.

Oblivion is nothing more than a way to pass a few hours, not a movie worth owning and watching again and again. The story is competently structured, with a rehash of old science fiction tropes to keep it running. The performances are perfunctory but acceptable. The soundtrack is loud and a bit hard on the ears, but the scenery is easy on the eyes. And there is some action, shooting, and explosions. Like most movies, it falls right in the middle of the Bell Curve, far from either extreme.

3 / 5 stars     

Help Promote Prometheus Unbound by Sharing this Post

Send to Kindle

About the Author

Matthew Bruce Alexander Staff Writer

Matthew is a libertarian living in central Ohio. A graduate of Ohio State University, he majored in Spanish and has published a work of libertarian science-fiction called Wĭthûr Wē.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • normanh May 2, 2013 @ 11:42 am | Link

    Hey Matt. It seems to me that you are not quite giving the film full justice. You state initially that the characters seemed flat — but isn’t that the point at first? A major developing theme through the film is the “drone vs. non-drone” motif, to me that was the impact of the film overall and you didn’t really engage with it in your review. Harper is not supposed to engage your sensibility in that way at the beginning. To me, I think our first reaction is curiosity. Why is he the way he is? What is this sterilized internal world and ravaged external world? Why are these two characters seemingly so awkward and out of place at first? We are meant to see the Harper character slowly emerge out of being a pure drone and develop some individuality. He goes from drone to non-drone, while working on drones. Well, at least that’s what I took from it.

    That isn’t to say there were not major flaws in the film. The plot holes at the end ticked me off a bit.

    • Matthew Bruce Alexander May 3, 2013 @ 12:17 am | Link

      Hey, normanh!

      I didn’t get that aspect from it. If the intent was indeed to take a blank physical shell and watch it evolve into a person, it seems a lot of developmental steps were missing. Instead, I saw them as having distinct personalities which were simply underdeveloped.

      The plot holes were indeed a disappointment.

      Thanks for giving us your take on it. Maybe if I watched it again I’d be more in tune with what you were seeing.

  • Will May 5, 2013 @ 7:15 pm | Link

    Hi Matt

    I love any sci-fi, and would have raced to the cinema to have watched this had I not been overseas when it came out. I’ve read a couple of reviews and they all seem to agree with you- lots of pretty, no depth and a few plot holes that are a little too glaring to completely ignore.

    Not that I won’t see it, mind you. I make an effort to see all the sci-fi that I can (I have given up on the Universal Soldier series, thankfully), but I’ll wait for it to come out on DVD or when I have a free afternoon and a free ticket.


    • Matthew Bruce Alexander May 7, 2013 @ 10:59 pm | Link

      “lots of pretty, no depth and a few plot holes that are a little too glaring to completely ignore.”

      That’s a consensus I can agree with.

      “Not that I won’t see it, mind you. I make an effort to see all the sci-fi that I can”

      I’m a sucker for sci-fi, too. If something with aliens, lasers and space ships comes out, I’m probably going to be in the theater at some point.

      “I have given up on the Universal Soldier series, thankfully”

      LOL! I’ve only seen the first one, and a looooong time ago. I recall thinking it was decent.

      Thanks for stopping by, Will!

  • Iain September 5, 2013 @ 7:58 pm | Link

    Could you further elaborate on what was not explained and why it’s a bad thing that not everything is explained?

    • Matthew Bruce Alexander September 26, 2013 @ 8:37 am | Link

      Iain, to be honest, a lot of the details have faded in my memory. There are times when leaving something unexplained is good for the story, giving it a sense of mystery or ambiguity that can be effective. Other times, things want an explanation, without which the storytelling seems slipshod or lazy. I’d have to watch it again to refresh myself on the details.

      Thanks for stopping by!

Next Post:

Previous Post:

Support Prometheus Unbound

Donate toward our web hosting bill!

Get 1 FREE Audiobook from Audible with 30;Day FREE Trial Membership

We recommend Scrivener as the best content-generation tool for writers.