Oblivion means the state or insistence on forgetting. This might come in handy to enjoy Oblivion (2013) if you’ve ever seen Blade Runner (1982), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Total Recall (1990), The Matrix (1999), The Planet of the Apes (1968), or any number of other science fiction movies. This movie is such a Frankenstein of other pictures that it’s hard to pay much attention to it while you are trying to identify influences. That’s just as well, as paying too much attention will not necessary lead to enjoying it. I’m all for homage and hat-tips but this seems beyond that. I’m not accusing the movie of plagiarism, just of creative bankruptcy, which may be the critical equivalent of “I’m not mad, just disappointed.” It seems to me, if you are going to borrow all the good ideas, you better do something with them.
It’s 2077 and the Earth is a wasteland, having been attacked by aliens 60 years prior (that’s four years from now—get prepared, people). The moon has been destroyed, causing destructive environmental disasters that wiped out the first layer of humanity; nuclear explosions got rid of most of the rest. All of this is told to us through narration by Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), one of the few descendants from the war. The human triumphed against their invaders but at the price of their planet, and now humanity exists on a faraway moon. Jack is stationed on a recovering Earth to wipe out the remaining aliens, known as Scavs (short for scavengers), before humans can return to their home planet. He is stationed with Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), his lover, and they get their directives from Sally (Melissa Leo), who broadcasts her orders presumably from the human community in outer space (where they still have baseball, thank God, but proof that they made a deal with the devil, the Yankees survived Armageddon and Jack is a fan). Jack is bothered by nightmares in which he sees himself in pre-war New York interacting with a young woman (Olga Kurylenko). He doesn’t understand these dreams, as he knows that not only was his memory wiped completely five years ago as part of a prohibitive measure were he ever captured and tortured for information, but he also is too young for the memories to be his. His job includes fixing the deadly drones that root out the Scavs if they become disabled or damaged. Jack is a dutiful soldier but he can’t stop his curiosity, which becomes inflamed when he finds a crashed ship carrying a human in stasis in a coffin-like pod, the exact same woman he’s been seeing in his dreams.
The rest of the plot requires spoilers, which I won’t reveal, not because I have a problem revealing spoilers (the Chief in Cuckoo’s Nest can talk! [look I just did it]) but because the movie plays its cards so far away from anyone’s vest that a thoughtful viewer should be able to figure them out. I don’t have a problem revealing spoilers because I think any movie whose quality is dependent on you not knowing a plot secret can’t be very good in the first place. Any movie with a great secret, whether it be Citizen Kane (1941) or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) or The Crying Game (1992) or Les Diaboliques (1955), remains great after you know the secret, a movie dependent on a spoiler is a shallow gimmick. Is there a person left on the planet who doesn’t know that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father? Does that make The Empire Strikes Back (1980) any less watchable? However, what makes that moment a great reveal is not only because it’s a fantastically dramatic twist, but because it makes sense in the story and acknowledges something darker that was already there. The point of the Don’t Look Now (1973) reveal is not that a creepy dwarf just happens to be wearing a red coat, but that the grieving parents’ desire to find what can never be found is folly and grotesque. It’s also a fantastically scary device. But each one of those secrets is earned through a competent set-up; the reason Hitchcock wanted audiences to see Psycho (1960) from the beginning has less to do with the reveal and more with his meticulous and masterful preparation for that reveal.
Oblivion gives so many indications that all is not as it appears that it isn’t so much of a reveal as frustratingly withheld admittance, and when it comes, it underwhelms because we already figured it out and had so much time to think about it, we were hoping that it couldn’t be so obvious and the movie had something even more fantastic up its sleeve. Worse, it undermines the credibility of our hero because it took him so long to understand. We don’t think less of Holly in The Third Man (1949); we think more of the deviousness of Harry Lime. During Oblivion, I was saying “duh” a lot.
This malaise is indicative of the movie’s largest problem, which is that it adds nothing to the discussion and therefore has a hard time justifying itself. This is a bit of a shame because the movie is flawlessly art–directed and looks spectacular, and the director Joseph Kosinski shows himself capable of assembling competent action scenes, but they don’t have a chance because they are at the service of watered down versions of movies we’ve already seen and like more, as if the mere imagery of great pictures will create the same feeling. Oblivion is constantly exploiting the loaded imagery from other sources to add heft to itself, even from other media, giving us Wyeth’s “Christina’s World,” one of the most evocative paintings ever created, as a talisman for the emotional state of some of the characters. Further, anatomic imagery of the sexual variety is a staple of science fiction but rarely have I seen it as literally, tastelessly and oddly as I have here. When it isn’t plumbing the history of the cinema to attach meaning to a story that doesn’t have any, it’s undermining any chance at creating any by itself. The stunning reveal isn’t very stunning but does reveal enough about Jack to make our interest in him melt away, even more so in the movie’s final moments,which are, based on what we now know, truly bizarre. None of this is offensive; it’s certainly not the first movie to try to launch itself from the shoulders of greatness, but it does make for an experience that can only pale in comparison to its sources, which, dare I say it, makes a movie with a title about extreme forgetfulness, rather forgettable.