“Is it possible to miss a place you’ve never been? To mourn a time you never lived?” – Jack Harper
Oblivion is a visually stunning film. It’s what I’ve come to expect with the latest sci-fi films. Director Joseph Kosinski continues to bring his strong visual principles from Tron Legacy (a film which I’m a massive fan of) into Oblivion, where Earth is presented as a desolate planet, destroyed by an alien invasion. While familiar world landmarks (e.g. the Empire State Building in New York) are buried/destroyed, it is beautifully contrasted with vehicles and home station towers which are designed to live and travel comfortably whilst preserving security and maintenance that our hero, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) has to undertake. Notice how the towers and Jack’s mode of transport, the bubble ship, are mainly see-through. It suggests to the audience that this clean, modern and futuristic way of living has nothing to hide while it subconsciously suggests a false sense of security and that everything is not all it seems. It’s either that or an IKEA designer survived the alien war and business is booming!
Joking aside, despite the very epic and strong visuals, I did found this film lacking. The problem I have with Oblivion has nothing to do with Tom Cruise (who I thought was superb) or the rest of the cast who deliver strong and heartfelt performances. The problem sadly lies with the plot. It felt slightly backwards.
The first 2/3 of the film sets up the plot nicely. It easily establishes how we find Earth in the aftermath of the invasion. It’s introduces the character of Jack Harper as we see his mind constantly battle between two conflicts. The first conflict is his honourable duty to his partner, Victoria (played by Andrea Riseborough) and the mission. Maintain control, fix drones and they get to go home. The second conflict is the dreams he has of another past life and most importantly, another woman. Who was this woman who haunted his dreams and why does he seem to be the only one affected by it? It shouldn’t be possible as both Jack and Victoria both had a security memory wipe, which is suppose to keep their memories hidden beneath the surface so they could only focus on the objective.
The confliction is handled very well. After everything that has happened to Earth, Jack still regards it as home, and to be honest who would blame him. He doesn’t want to leave. He fondly remembers the last Super Bowl game in the same way we would remember the last music concert or the first football game you went to. He hoards collectable items such as old records, books and toys and takes them off grid to a secret location – a cabin that doubles up as a personal museum. It’s his heaven, his fortress of solitude where objectives and missions are secondary and Earth’s beauty and colour becomes primary.
His partner, Victoria doesn’t share the same feelings, obviously not hampered by the plaguing memories that Jack suffers. She naturally tries to discourage him at every opportunity. At times she comes off as cold and rigid because her own desires rule her decisions. For example, Jack grows a plant and shows it to her. It was a gesture to say that Earth is not completely lost and that there is life amongst the ruins. Before going to Titan, seeing what you are leaving behind might affect their decision, something he actively discusses with her. However, before he has the chance to explain, she completely ignores the good intention and drops the plant into the abyss from their tower station. The reason? Because infringements and disruptions can affect the mission of getting home, especially when she reports to Sally (Melissa Leo). She is comfortable with control and order because her role in the mission is easily accepted, in hope of a better life that is waiting for them in space. Jack and Victoria work as an “effective team”, that’s why they have been successful – he patrols while she monitors, records and feedbacks to HQ – no questions asked. Two more weeks on the job and they can join the others on Titan – a utopia where the rest of the supposed human race is now living. However, their dynamic is thrown into chaos when space pods descend from the sky and Jack begins to investigate. All these are interesting plot points…right up until the twist!
“I’ve been watching you, Jack. You’re curious. What are you looking for in those books? Do they bring back old memories? Don’t ask too many questions. They lied to you. It’s time to learn the truth.” – Malcolm Beech
Now before I get unto that twist, it’s important to remember that sci-fi is a genre that is heavily borrowed and flawed. There is not one ounce of film that you can’t recognise from another film or a TV show. Star Wars for example, is homage to films of the 1930s where our heroes have to rescue the princess from a trapped dungeon on the Death Star, the same way in which a knight in shining armour would rescue the princess in the tower of a castle. But what makes certain sci-fi films stand out and classify them as the best (e.g. Blade Runner, Gattaca, John Carpenter’s The Thing, District 9, Wall-E etc.), is the ability to take those familiar concepts and rework them for their own needs, stamping their own authority into a cohesive storyline.
Unfortunately Oblivion uses these familiar concepts in a way that it feels like a rip off and if you have seen enough sci-fi films like I have, then the references can be easily spotted. The red eyes on the drones are from 2001: A Space Odyssey – an ode to the psychotic computer, Hal. The radiation zone is a nod to Planet of the Apes with the forbidden zone where Charlton Heston learnt the truth of what happened to the human race. The idea of the human race being used as slaves could have been a scene from The Matrix. The way Jack collects old relics from the past to keep his memories alive is comparable to Christian Bale’s performance in the underrated Equilibrium. Like Christian Bale and Tom Cruise, their characters experience emotions and memories that drive them to do what they strongly believe in. The Scavs (the human resistance force who are trying to preserve humanity) are dressed like the alien predator (without the fangs)…from Predator . The final climax is straight out of Independence Day – seriously who would have thought someone would reference that crap film?
Starting to get the picture? Well the twist itself, you can say that it borrowed from Duncan Jones’s Moon. Yes you guessed it – clones being used to do the dirty work of our masters.
While I understand the plot, this twist does feel like it comes out of the blue, which is my problem. It unhinges what I felt was an engrossing film up until that point. It reminded me of I Am Legend where Alice Braga’s character is introduced and she alludes to this mysterious safe haven that Robert Neville (Will Smith) didn’t know about despite the daily communications he had been broadcasting to anyone out there in the world. Then you had the CGI zombies that suddenly went from the standard typical zombie that preyed on weak, to creatures suddenly having super-human abilities. Oblivion is guilty of that sadly.
Jack is a clone…and there are many of them (or at least hinted at). The same goes with his partner, Victoria. Their real versions died many years ago. Essentially the aliens have cloned Jack and Victoria to be this “Adam and Eve” team to carry out the mission whilst unintentionally helping the alien race to steal the resources they need. Jack and Victoria became a template for their operations and even though they were an “effective team”, in terms of compatibility they were never really suited to each other, because Jack’s heart naturally belonged to someone else. Being hypothetical, Jack, with his strong emotional memories must have been imprinted on every one of his clones – a bad flaw/hindsight from the aliens there. So if that is the case, what happens when all the “Jacks” eventually start to wake up and realise that the girl who has been haunting his dreams is actually real and means more to him than anything? What happens when they decide they all want to go home, to his safe haven cabin that is off grid? I mean there’s only ONE of her!
The same goes for Victoria. It’s hinted at but Victoria always had strong feelings for Jack but he never reciprocated and as a clone, those feelings failed to dissolve. She loves the idea of the fantasy relationship and yet she can’t accept the truth that she will always be second best. Yes she is mentally rigid as part of her duty to the mission and will do what is necessary but somehow I can’t believe she couldn’t tell the difference from one Jack to another. In one scene, Jack 49 turns up at another familiar looking tower, feeling bewildered and out of place. He has cuts to his face and his clothes are dirty. Yet when she sees him, she doesn’t even question why, doesn’t notice his slight change of personality or even recognise that he is wearing the wrong tower number (although Jack’s gun strap did help matters).
I understand what the film was trying to say – that human emotions (especially love) can be strong enough to break any mental barriers. But by introducing this twist, the whole memory wipe plot device seemed pointless. Maybe it’s because you can’t help but think why the aliens (or the TET) didn’t realise this flaw soon enough and correct it if all the “Jacks” might suddenly rebel against the system. The whole operation/invasion had been in effect for 60 years – surely that would have provided enough time to iron out the kinks? Or is that what the five year mission was really for because they knew the clones were doomed to fail? When the time was up, the TET would get the clones back up to the mothership so they can be re-programmed or worse yet, destroyed and then start the whole process again? It’s something the film doesn’t really answer or address and you as the viewer end up filling in the missing pieces, for better or worse.
When it came to the film’s climax, for a so-called sophisticated alien race, they couldn’t tell the difference between a man and a woman in a space pod or the fact it was carrying a nuclear weapon despite all the drones, their advance technology and their scanning methods?
Remember when I said it was a backwards film? Well somehow I think the truth of what happened to Jack could have been included in the beginning or at least hinted at with one of his flashbacks. Then maybe when the twist came along it wouldn’t have felt so leftfield. That’s what made Moon so good. Right from the off, we saw clues that all was not well (e.g. the spooky video transmission or the huge model town he had spent ages building but had no recollection of building it in the first place). When the clone was finally introduced (with a slightly different personality), we saw the plot evolved. Both clones questioned their existence and their true purpose in life. We saw them both physically and mentally engaging with each other as they battled to get home and expose the truth about Lunar Industries.
Sadly by the end of Oblivion, it turns an interesting concept into a very predictable cliché.
Because Oblivion borrows heavily from other sci-fi films, it lacks distinction in making the film truly it’s own. It’s very generic. It’s watchable and entertaining and ticks all the right boxes on making sure the human drama gets the same level of attention as the outstanding visual effects. But at the end of the day, the film falls short of being labelled as a classic.