Movie Review: Oblivion (2013)
What does it say about us?
That’s the point of movies set in the future, right? They tell us a little about ourselves today? That we’ve become dangerously consumerist (“WALL-E”), or dangerously blind to global warming (“Waterworld”), or just plain dangerous (most of them). We’re a violent, selfish people and we destroy the planet in some way. We blow it up, damn us, damn us all to hell. The future world is always out of balance, delivering either too much authority (“1984,” etc.) or too little (“Mad Max,” etc.), and the point of the story is to restore the balance or die trying.
So what does the world of “Oblivion” say about us?
I have no fucking clue.
I guess that we’re resilient. I guess that you can replicate us and replicate us and we won’t lose our soul. Much.
A king of infinite space
It’s the year 2077 and Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his wife, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), live in the pristine Tower 49 high above the sad, dry remnants of what was once New York City. Sixty years ago (or four years from now), an alien race, Scavengers, diminutivized to Scavs, destroyed our moon, which caused massive environmental chaos on Earth; then they attacked us. Smart plan. But we beat them back. We used our nukes and beat them. “We won the war but lost the planet,” Jack tells us in voiceover. He’s still pissed off about it; he thinks it unfair. Most of humanity now lives on Tet, a gleaming tetrahedral space station orbiting Jupiter, I believe, while Jack and Victoria stick around to mop up the remaining Scavs. But in two weeks, they, too, go to Tet. Victoria’s excited. Jack?
Jack has bad dreams. Scratch that. He has good dreams that imply reality is out of joint. He dreams of a beautiful woman, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), and the black-and-white tones of the pre-war years—a time before he was born. He dreams of being with Julia atop the Empire State Building, looking through the viewfinders. They’re young and in love and the world is whole. Then he wakes with a start to find himself in the post-war world living with Victoria, who is British, clipped, and so pristine herself she seems like CGI. They have sex in the pool. The pristine piscine.
Jack has a secret life. While Victoria remains atop Tower 49, he pilots a kind of whirligig spaceship—a future ride at Universal Studios if the movie had done better—to mop up the Scavs, but he doesn’t want to leave Earth. He relives old Super Bowl games, picks up old books. He keeps bringing books and other paraphernalia to a lakeside cabin, where he puts on a Yankees cap, a flannel shirt, and listens to Zeppelin, bro, and broods.
This cabin abuts the radiation zone and is out of range of both Victoria and their boss, Sally (Melissa Leo), who gives them orders from Tet in a scary-smooth honeysuckle Southern accent. “How are y’all doing this morning?” she says. “Are you an effective team?” she asks. Say what I will about the movie, and I will, Leo’s fantastic. I kept flashing back to “Three Days of the Condor,” and the soulless responses of the Major, a wheelchair-bound operative who is supposed to help the hero but doesn’t; who is probably on the other side.
How to find yourself in the desert
Then a beacon atop what’s left of the Empire State Building brings down a pre-invasion spacecraft with five humans in suspended animation aboard. A drone, a flying globe with R2D2 sound effects, kills four of them, even though it’s only supposed to kill Scavs. The fifth human turns out to be Julia. Jack risks his life to save her.
Once Julia awakes in Tower 49, she views both Jack and Victoria with wide-eyed (and full-lipped) suspicion, then asks that they retrieve the flight recorder at the crash site. But she and Jack are captured, not by Scavs, but by remnants of humanity, dressed in Sandpeople-ish outfits, and led by the cigar-smoking Beech (Morgan Freeman) and the dashing Sykes (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of “Game of Thrones”). Beech, intrigued by Jack, tells him three things:
- We didn’t win the war, we lost it.
- Tet is housed, not by us, but by an alien intelligence.
- Jack will find the truth about himself in the radiation zone.
What truth? Later, bro. We need third act reveals, after all.
Of course, let loose, Jack doesn’t go to the radiation zone. He goes to what remains of the Empire State Building, where Julia tells him, yes, they’ve been there before. In the pre-war years. This is where he proposed to her. She’s his wife. They embrace. But Victoria sees this, via the ship’s monitors, and she tells Sally they are no longer an effective team, and Sally sends drones to kill them all. Victoria dies, Jack and Julia escape, but in a damaged ship that crashes in the radiation zone. And what does Jack find there? Radiation maybe? Nope. He discovers ... himself. Literally. He comes upon another version of himself, whom fights and defeats.
Eventually, via Beech, he learns the whole truth. The aliens attacked Earth, not with Scavs, who never existed, but with clones of Jack and Victoria, astronauts from 2017, who destroyed the rest of humanity and have been involved in mopping up operations ever since. Jack, in other words, thinks he’s the hero but he’s the villain. We think he’s the hero but he’s the villain. This is a rather remarkable plot point for a modern Hollywood movie. Writer-director Joseph Kosinski (“TRON: Legacy”) supposedly wanted to make a sci-fi movie in the 1970s vein, and this is an element of it—that Vietnam War era “we know not what we do” malaise—but Kosinski doesn’t stress it enough. He covers it up. He keeps going back to the post-“Star Wars” roller-coaster ride, without which no big-budget movie is produced anymore.
Jack, in other words, or this particular clone of Jack, has to redeem himself, and Beech has a plan: reprogram a drone to deliver a nuke and blow up Tet from within. And after a final battle with drones, Jack does this: He flies to Tet, with a wounded Beech along for the ride, quotes poetry for poignancy and a final “fuck you” for the yahoos in the audience, and presses the trigger. And nothing happens. Well, something happens, an explosion, but the alien technology is much more advanced than we realized, and the damage from the nuke is contained, and the rest of humanity is mopped up by more drones and Jack clones. The End.
Kidding! No, they totally blow the thing up—BOOOOOOM!—and from our planet it looks like beautiful fireworks, and the Ewoks dance. No, the humans celebrate, including Julia, now living at the lakeside cabin.
At this point I was thinking, “Well, at least the hero died. That’s a bit of the 1970s. That’s something in this age of the happily-ever-after Hollywood ending.”
Except: Several years later, in a postscript, Julia and her young daughter (from Jack, obviously) are farming and subsisting by the lakeside when they are visited by a gang of marauding rapists. Kidding! No, they are stumbled upon by the remnants of Beech’s crew, now led by Sykes, who takes Julia as his fifth wife in order (he says) to better propagate the species. Again, with the kidding. No, Beech’s crew shows up, yes, led by Sykes, yes, but with that other clone of Jack, 52 as opposed to 49; and amid voiceover talk of souls being made up of the love we share, unbound by time and death, it’s implied that this clone, as opposed to dozens of others scattered around the planet, this particular clone and Julia live happily ever after.
And there’s your Hollywood ending.
1970s homage, my ass.
An effective team
So what does this futuristic movie say about us in the here and now? Don’t fuck with the moon? Don’t think yourself the hero? The life you save may be your clone?
That’s the biggest problem with “Oblivion.” It tells us nothing about our own time. It resonates not a whit. It has some clever bits, and some nice art direction, and a feint toward more poignant 1970s fare, but mostly it just fills in the modern Hollywood blanks. It feigns preference of the rustic (the lakeside cabin) over the sterile (Tower 49), but is itself as sterile as that tower. Kosinski and Cruise, and screenwriters Michael Arndt (“Toy Story 3”) and Karl Gajdusek (“Trespass”), make an effective team. They mop up well.