Oblivion: a spoiler-filled exploration

Feature Ryan Lambie 15 Apr 2013 - 06:03

Is Oblivion as empty as its harsher critics suggest, or is there something more subversive within it? Here's Ryan's spoiler-filled view...

Note: this article contains spoilers from Oblivion from the outset.

Reviews for Oblivion have ranged from enthusiastic to dismissive so far, with some critics expressing a surprising amount of outright irritation towards Joseph Kosinski’s latest film. Lifeless, derivative and lugubrious have been a few of the words used to describe it, while movies including WALL-E, Moon and 2001: A Space Odyssey have been repeatedly cited as Oblivion’s manifold points of reference.

Without getting too far into an impassioned defence of Kosinski’s film (for what it’s worth, you can read this site’s verdict on Oblivion here), it does seem as though the accusations that Oblivion is an exercise in style over substance may be slightly wide of the mark.

The constraints of a review generally mean that plot points and ideas can only be discussed in general terms for fear of spoiling things, but this article aims to go a little deeper, and explain why, at least in my opinion, Oblivion is far from a handsome yet empty vessel.

Are you an effective team?

In a lengthy introduction, Tom Cruise’s Jack Harper outlines the story behind Oblivion’s devastated Earth. A war with invading aliens resulted in the destruction of our Moon and a decimated population; in Harper’s words, “We won the war, but they destroyed half the planet.”

With the Earth’s surface an irradiated ruin, Harper’s one of several soldier-repairmen who swoop down from their cloud bases and fix the hovering droids which keep the remaining aliens (called Scavs) at bay. Most of Earth’s surviving population now live on the Tet, a gigantic ship in Earth’s orbit, and Harper, along with his desk-jockey work partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), have a few more weeks before they can join them. Once the final preparations have been made, the Tet will then set off for a new start on one of Saturn’s terraformed moons.

Gradually, however, Harper learns that all is not it seems. The unexpected return of his wife Julia (Olga Kurylenko) stirs up suppressed memories of his past, and Harper realises that everything around him is an elaborate construct. The Tet isn’t a last refuge for humanity, but the conquering aliens’ mothership. The Scavs are actually the human survivors of the war, forced underground and held there by the powerful droids which Harper has been maintaining.

Harper is himself almost as artificial as those droids; he and Victoria are clones of astronauts captured by the aliens during a space mission decades earlier. The aliens have harnessed thousands of these Harper and Victoria clones to monitor and repair the machines, while gigantic hydro rigs suck the planet’s resources dry out at sea.

Armed with this knowledge, Harper finds himself siding with Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman), the leader of the human survivors, and using his unique ability to control the droids in order to turn the tables on the alien invaders.

I want mankind to survive. This is the only way.

There is much in Oblivion’s story and plot twists that is familiar from other sci-fi touchstones. The unexpected return of a loved one and the use of a woodland house recalls Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. That Harper’s a clone is, yes, something we saw in Duncan Jones’s Moon, which itself follows a genre staple that stretches back to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Moon was an existential drama about a man coming to terms first with his own loneliness and isolation, and then making peace with his artificial twin. It was poignant, thought-provoking, and had at its centre a career-best performance from Sam Rockwell. The way Oblivion deals with the concept of cloning is very different from Moon, and its use of the genre staple is much closer to a Philip K Dick novel. Oblivion’s plot developments are not unlike the 1956 book, The World Jones Made, or any number of Dick’s novels where the protagonist discovers he’s a pawn trapped in a false reality.

In Oblivion, the Harper clones are stuck on an artificial treadmill of work and shallow relations. He and Victoria live together in a luxurious yet sterile condominium-cum-workstation among the clouds, where they have sex but display few signs of genuine affection for one another - much like the promiscuous, drugged-up populace of Brave New World in fact.

The arrival of Julia reminds Harper of the sort of life he’d secretly been pining for: an ordinary house on earthly soil, a family, a meaningful relationship. Oblivion’s philosophy is laid out in Julia’s lakeside speech (and one of the script’s strongest moments): “We’d grow old and fat together. We’d fight and get drunk. Then we’d die and be buried in a meadow by the lake. But we’d always have each other...”

Later events make clear that clones are extinguished if they’re no longer “an effective team”, which means that, until Julia arrives, Harper has been reliving the same superficial grind. Only by breaking the aliens’ chokehold can he experience life in all its fullness: passion, parenthood, kinship, and ultimately death.

What are you looking for in those books?

It’s possible there’s something else buried in Oblivion’s sci-fi fable, too - something which, depending on your interpretation, could be seen as quite subversive.

Pare away the science fiction surface detail, and what’s left? A story about a loyal soldier manipulated into fighting an unjust war against primitive people. Expected to follow orders without thinking (“Don’t ask too many questions. All part of the job description”), Harper keeps the wheels of the war machine turning, unaware that his masters - represented by the homely drawl of Melissa Leo - are stripping his home planet of its precious resources.

Not unlike Jake Sully in Avatar, Harper eventually sides with the insurgents he was unwittingly helping to repress, and together, they use unconventional tactics - turning droids into improvised explosive devices, and eventually, a suicide bombing - to bring this inhuman war machine's reign to an end.

For a film widely dismissed as superficial and meaningless, these are heavy themes. And viewed like this, the parallels between Oblivion’s events and the recent war on Iraq (at least, as described by its critics) become clear, and are underlined further by the drones themselves, which could be seen as a sci-fi analogue of the contraptions currently roaming the skies in the Middle East and elsewhere.

This is purely one person’s interpretation, of course, and for some, Oblivion will remain as empty and ponderous as its most vociferous critics have suggested. But if there’s one pertinent message that appears to be buried in Oblivion, it’s that the voices of authority aren’t necessarily as benign and trustworthy as they appear, and that individual thought and investigation are vital means of preserving freedom.

That, for me, is a more thought-provoking sentiment than I'd usually expect to find in an expensive multiplex blockbuster.

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Disqus - noscript

Interesting article. I just feel that all the ideas in Oblivion have been done before, & more importantly, done better!

I loved Oblivion. Yes it was a soup of loads of other films but it was done well and I remained engrossed and entertained to the end. And I cared about the characters.

I really wanted to like Oblivion. It looked beautiful, and it was well acted, especially by Cruise (an unusually unshowy performance) and Riseborough. The sense of mystery was well-established... but then each reveal came as a disappointment. I think the reason is simply that the way the characters behaved just didn't add up. Why was Olga Kurylenko's character so muted in her response to meeting Cruise and Riseborough again? It made no sense once you knew who she was - and that she had known who they were all along. Why did Morgan Freeman capture and then release Cruise without any real attempt to explain what was going on? That might have been explicable but there was no dialogue to explain what he was doing. The setup was intriguing, the plot was serviceable, but it repeatedly undermined itself by having its characters behave in ways that did not ring true.

Oblivion is a game changer (again "District 9" / "the dark knight rises"), and restarts a new wave of epic movies from the old ones like "space oddessy". This was a fantastic movie that combines a lot of genres into one movie. And the music was awesome.

I was so bored through this movie, just rehashed plots. It did look nice but that was about it. More importantly, I feel it set back the role of women in Sci Fi about 50 years. The female characters were totally under developed and were just there to be saved by men. The movie did not have game, let alone the ability to change it.

I just want to thank the DoG team for your review of this last week. Thanks to that, I saw this yesterday and quite enjoyed it :-) I found it was Cruise's most interesting film in recent years.

umm...Andrea, not "Angela" Riseborough!?!

Saw Oblivion yesterday, thought it was great. Visually stunning, music was great & well acted.

I saw this yesterday and thought it was pretty good. My biggest niggle at the end, though was why the aliens went to all the trouble of cloning Jack and Victoria to first be the ground invasion force and then repair the drones. Given how effective the drones clearly are at killing humans, why not just send thousands of them down to lead the invasion? And why not just have repair drones to fix the hunter drones? Coming up with an elaborate deceit just to keep the clones doing the relatively simple job of repairing drones seems excessive.

That, and how could Julia be ok with just accepting whichever Jack clone is around at the time as her long-lost husband?!

Started out well, sense of mystery got pretty well-established but then once the babe walks in, the whole movie started to fold (for me atleast) why doesn't Harper's wife display surprise or nervousness when she see her husband & the co-pilot (in her scenario) holding hands? She acts like she knows something, but how can she when she & the rest of the crew were jettisoned decades earlier & were in hibernation?

Oh.... and the ending? Independence Day anyone? Little Humans going in & blowing up HUGE BULLY Alien

I find it disturbing that people are calling this film vapid and style over substance. Have we become a people unable to empathize with characters and events, requiring exposition, to be told what to think and do? Are we no more different than the characters that are in Oblivion?
The style is the most important element in the film, it’s a very desirable life the “Jack” & “Vicky” live, they aren’t the classic movie genre couple of all heat and passion, slow burning, but they are happy, Jack merely sees something different and wants Vicky to experience it. One wonders what would have happened if she had gone along with him.
To take the analogy of the Iraq war in a different direction, it’s like they are living the “IPhone” life, beautiful things, for beautiful people, with little desire to understand what other hardships others have had to do to build those devices, Foxconn being what’s left of earth. But when one does find out, how quickly do those in power act to change it. I don’t hate IPhones by the way I do like my tech.
There is also the classic expulsion of paradise, here, so much for scientology, with Jack being Eve in this case and his wife being the apple and Adam in one that finally ends in him leaving Eden. I said to my friend, that “Oblivion” strikes me as good, proper SC-Fi, a very 70’s piece, a time where these movies weren’t necessarily perfect, but statements were being made, either in its ethics or the human condition.
Now I say 70’s and not any other decade as frankly “Style” has become the norm for a very long time since Star Wars & Alien gave Hollywood the green light that that sort of film is what makes money, and as a result we’ve had laser blasts and monsters on spaceships for quiet sometime (I like these films also by the way), in the same way “Halloween” said that small budget equals big returns for horror, and as a result big sets and classical scores of the golden age of horror got bumped for on location shoots and rock music. Yet again, I do lap this entertainment up.
Just to finish, I’m not a huge Cruise fan, don’t hate him either, but I do think that a lot of the criticism is aimed at him, hidden under the guise of “story” and “style”. The man does have one heck of a work ethic though, Id bet good money that this project was pushed by him, and if this is an example of his efforts, I’m looking forward to “All You Need is Kill”.

I take it youve never been married or dated, Ive known women to say nothing about an indescretion even with your hand, or any other part of you stuck in the cookie jar, untill their ready to do so.....usually to maximum effect. lol
That moment when you cock up (no pun intended - ed), it would have been oh so helpfull if they had screamed and shouted at that point, so we would have had some clue as to what we were doing wrong.
I found her character to be bang on, she knows something is up on the basis that her husband doesnt recongnise her, his hands in the hands of another lover being the proof of that, but not all women break down and cry or throw a tantrum when it happens. Still waters run deep, as does true love..

It comes down to a theory i have for the Alien in the Alien films. When you play a beat em up game, the hardest charachter to beat, tends to be the one before the big boss, ie yourself.
The clones fight, think, and go were the enemy go. Its a logical weapon. As destructive as the drones are, they have flaws which we see in the movie, however as an initial atacking force, what potential flaws they may have are unknown, potentialy disastrous (The Xenomorph takes on properties of the enemy, plus enhancement of its own). How do you beat an enemy you dont see, except in a mirror.
The use of the "Jacks" after as technicians follows the same principle, its their enviroment, its what they can adapt to easily and it follows that anything a human can do to stop a device, a human can fix.
With regards to the long lost husband, thats the point to this particular love story, love runs deep. It wouldnt be the first time someone fell in love with the image of a former lover, it happened to myself with disatrous results, I was the image, but bare in mind, the clone is a very good one, the dreams show hes still in there somwhere. :-)

I thought Oblivion was a beautiful, subtle and cerebral film.

This made it all the more disappointing when it did finally descend into cliche. Particularly the 'battle against yourself/existential clone dilemma' cliche, which is one of the most overused philosophical cliches in sci-fi.

A good effort though. And we should be glad that there are people trying to make more thoughtful sci-fi.

That's a very thoughtful response! I see what you're saying about the cloned Jacks being uniquely suited to the tasks for which they're purposed, though I still feel that drones would have been better. Of course, some suspension of disbelief is always necessary.

Fascinating that you have some personal insight into love with somebody who is the image of a former lover! Still, surely knowing that there thousands of copies of your loved one out there somehow taints them? Isn't somebody's uniqueness part of their appeal?

My point exactly.

That’s been said of me before, over thinking also lol. But bear in mind it’s not a thousand loved ones, but a thousand couples. They may be programed to behave in certain ways; Vicky obviously set to monitor the situation “We’re an effective team!” or not, ultimately triggering the self-destruct with the Drone activating on the base, but Vicky tries to protect him for the best part of the film, and Jack frequently returns to her and to get her to come see the world he sees. There may be trouble in paradise, but it’s not for lack of love. The issues are much more subtle than that.
This raises the ethical question, is love real if you’ve been programed that way, but let’s leaves that for another day and accept that’s what they feel and therefore its real.
If there is one short coming with the film, it’s in the death of Vicky, thus neatly side stepping Jacks need to decide who to ultimately go with, or go with both, as I would suspect, though how the Mrs would take to that would be a movie in itself.
Your right in saying having a thousand husbands would taint it, but bear in mind, it’s about her husband’s love reaching though to her. They aren’t an exact copy, its fragmented memories. The film ends with the second Jack turning up (presumably because he saw her) and with them together with her daughter, but the image isn’t a heavy romantic one. What happens after isn’t necessarily they’ll live together for ever, he could just as easily go back to his Vicky, it’s enough to know they are complete, happy and love intact.

That assumes that the Tet would be arrogant, assumptive, and might is right. It’s not, it’s a survivor living of the resources of how many civilisations in the past. You only need to look at the Vietnam War to realise that a “Superior” force can be beaten by an inferior one. As powerful as the drones are, they haven’t completely extinguished humanity. If the Tet (Tet offensive anyone – Ed) went to the waste of leaving drones around that had been deactivated, and drone parts, as shown by the destruction of one of the Hydro Extractors, could have been used to bring it to a standstill on the basis that no water means no energy and only surviving on what its brought with it.

Bear in mind it’s been doing this for 60 years, and successfully, with only the intervention of the returning capsule turning events around. Jack is able to repair drones in the field that technically he shouldn’t be able to do, bodged together, thus proving that human versus human is more successful (see my other comments for my reason for the clones in the first place)

I watched it yesterday and I was really fascinated with the story. Things I weren't clear about and I suspect it will never be, were how did the human race die out? I think it wasn't told in the movie unless I missed it. I've an educated feeling that the TET came earth. Earth sent Jack and his crew to investigate TET. TET cloned Jack and with the drones attacked earth and wipe out the human race?? So why was the moon destroyed? Also so when Jack recanted the story about Scarvs and the humans fought back with nukes, did this really happen? I think it didn't because Jack was able to cross in radiated areas without harm. What does everyone else think?

I'm married & have a child... so personal experience says I will show no mercy or bias in using sharp or in fact any implement that comes my way...

Another peeve... I was all caught up thinking Mrs. Harper & Mr. Freeman's characters were in the know and wanted to break it to Cruiser gently, then... it turns out she knows just as much as the Cruiser. My not understanding the script? Maybe... but too many 'ohhh loookkk' moments.. and then pfffttt....

Your 1st point? Without that- No Movie. 2nd-It's a Movie :)

Interesting that you exposed the theme of the authority being far from benevolent, but you didn't see - or choose to not speak of - of another interesting theme at work.
Jack and Victoria live a fake, vapid life, devoid of emotions, in towers that look like the wet dream of all yuppies as high-tech condo. Jake however will awaken to a real life with the return of his true love AND his return to a life close to nature, a cabin in the wood facing a lake. He change clothes when he is over there, which is very significant in his change of personality.
To me this is another major theme of the movie - we nowadays live fake lives, surrounded by technology and cut off of our natural state - and this is precisely for this reason that the authority can abuse the Earth without restriction; the sheeps in their brand new condos are way to happy to forget about the destruction of the planet happening simultaneously What will save Jake and redeem him is his love of nature (the grass he brings to the tower), what will kill Victoria is her rejection of nature and her blind adherence to the "government" and its policy (she throws away the grass and refuse to visit the surface). Kosinski tell us to choose a side, with a very different outcome in both cases.

They explain in the movie, through Morgan Freeman, that the destruction of the Moon was the first war act of the Ted - and it was enough, as it totally disturbed Earth creating tsunami, earthquakes etc. The lost of the gravitational force of the moon is what wipped out most of humanity. Well thought...

Thank you, that makes sense. Some cow was playing around with some plastic bags next to me so I missed some of it.

Nice spoiler review.

Seemed like a derivative of 2009's Moon (an excellent movie by the way) This was ok. I'm just glad they didn't make it tacky with actual aliens. I was hoping that part was an illusion which it was. Or was it an alien machine? Interesting either way.

Jack and Vicky weren't exactly holding hands when Julia woke up; Jack spent most of that first scene skulking in the doorway, and Vicky probably wanted to throw Julia out of an airlock.

Besides, Julia just woke up from 60 years in a deep sleep--she spent the first bit of the scene throwing up "breathing fluid"--and she's in an unfamiliar location, woken by people who should be familiar, but really *really* aren't. All in all, I think she acted like I--and probably everyone else--act in dreams: everything is familiar and weird at the same time; normal relationships are randomized; and you're transfixed in the search for some MacGuffin (say, a flight recorder) that you just know will explain everything as soon as you find it.

Yeah. The article is called a spoiler filled exploration dear.

I saw the movie last night and I loved it. Im glad that in reading this article other people feel the same way, that its being misrepresented by dismissive critics who dare not look a little deeper into a 'Blockbuster'. A lot of questions raised, a few answered and some left for us to ponder. Plus Tom Cruise on magnificent form along with it being a good looking film and an even greater sounding film!

The more I think about it, the more I like it.

My only negative of the film was that when Jack goes to plant the nuke, I thought they had used footage from Independence Day.

And one question, how did Jacks wife have a child?

Agree with your assessment. I was engrossed while watching it. Saw similarities to other sci-fi movies afterwards, but I don't care much about thbat. The important thing is that I enjoyed it on its own. Sometimes we need lighten up and enjoy things for what they are.

To really enjoy this movie, don't watch the TRAILORS!! they contain so many spoilers.. it's best to watch this movie raw!

Although the destruction of the moon fits in with the story, i think it is more a nod towards the film being heavily influenced by the modern sci fi classic 'Moon'.

I also wondered about particularly that scene, looking back on it.
What could she know, and would she not act differently? Ask questions?
Of course Julia is confused, does indeed not know that much (more) and can't make sense of it all ...and then there's the effect of having just awaken from hibernation, whatever that effect might be. Yet still...
Then I remembered that she very much did not want Victoria/Vicky the co-pilot to touch her, which might be a response to the realisation that there is something between this woman and her husband (which there might actually have been already, maybe coming from Vicky.)
There is however at least two things Julia does know:
1. Jack is or was her husband, and it seems and turns out he does not remember that. And this Vicky does not even remember her at all.
2. She knows that the secret mission of their ship was to the Tet. So she knows that it is alien or at least not from Earth, which neither Jack nor Vicky turn out to know ...moreover: they both think it is human-made, and take commands from it.

Anyway. It was an entertaining movie. If I am going to really have to mind all (story-)flaws and credibility ...if I'd really have to be bothered by everything that could be wrong or not-so-good about a movie, there wouldn't be a single good Sci-Fi movi for me. [Possibly not a single completely good movie at all even.]
For that, I like to read the better of sci-fi books.

I haven't seen anyone mention the Star Wars references either:
-Tatooine Luke Skywalker: standing on dunes with twilight, using riflescope as binos, zipping across desert looking for lost droid
-Scavs cum Sandpeople/Jawas
-Amalgamation of both DeathStar Battles - 3 tie fighters chasinf X-Wing/Falcon through canyon/narrow openings
-Clone/droid armies hunting the last of the Jedi
-Jack disabling the tractor beam (homing beacon)

Plus the V miniseries with stealing of the water and Matrix for the underground human resistance led by another sunglazed black man in leather.

it's not that oblivion is riffing on other movies; most movies do.. it's that oblivion makes you think of the greatness of others and the turd that's in front of you.

Omg you all need to get a life. You`re looking way to much into this movie.

Well written! Not as intellectually impossible to understand people. I heard more than a few thug groups after the movie laughing and saying "this movie was terrible "it made no sense." I didn't get any of it?" I wished the Tet would come destroy them.

I thought the answer you were looking for with "why the jack and Vick clones?" was because they had ejected the other survivors(Julia etc...) and those happened to be the last two people the Tet had contact with.Def wondered the sme as you with how Julia didn't started screaming what the hell is going on ?!! Why not start talking about what happened,who Jack and Vick really are,were..etc... Why did we only encounter one Jack clone? How many Vick clones did we see in the movie? Two?

It's reality, if man wasn't here to save and direct woman,they would all be running around mindlessly bumping into each other, texting and talking on cell phones while driving, completely *Oblivious to anything or anyone else. Fact!

I am assuming this is tongue in cheek?

Thought about it after. I get now that the Tet had already replaced the original Jack and Vic after the drone was sent to dispatch them. The OG Jack w Julia had run into the clone 059 not 49. So to answer my own Q. One set of clones after the Original.Oh and to answer your Q. The Main Jack was different,which is why the guy asked Freeman "what makes you think this one is diff?" This Jack had memories of her. He felt empathy and sympathy, had been keeping snd reading books.Why she felt so close to him. Not just any old clone.

First of all, don't compare this movie with Avatar. Avatar is the best movie ever made. Second, the part when she says "grow old together"... INCEPTION MUCH??? Seriously, this was a good movie, but it takes from so many other movies.

Agreed. It's a flawed movie (especially the disappointing ending), but it does have depth and serious, and I found many aspects (like Olga Kurylenko's emotive beauty, the desolate landscapes, and the M83 score) very moving. Not sure why so many negative reviews on this; maybe it's an anti-Tom Cruise backlash? I thought Cruise does a fine job in this and I give him credit for the role.

The same way your ancestors did.

In simpler terms - the same reason hunters in 2013 use hunting dogs...

You're on a website called 'Den of Geek'.

What the hell do you expect us all to be here for? Not talking or discussing the one binding thing that brings us here?

Apologies for bringing up points about a film in a discussion on a website devoted to all things film.

I know it's almost a year later, but I just watched (and loved) the movie. Except for one thing - what would destroying the moon really accomplish? Unless you remove a sizable portion of its mass, its gravitational effect on the earth wouldn't change, right? You'd get weird tides from the new mass distribution but nothing drastic, I'd think.

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