Oblivion’s Vika: the most tragic film character of the year?

Feature Ryan Lambie 17 Sep 2013 - 05:57

A film with hidden depths, Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion also contains one of the most tragic film characters of the year, Ryan argues...

Note: this article contains Oblivion spoilers throughout.

When Oblivion came out in cinemas earlier this year, the critical consensus appeared to be that, like director Joseph Kosinski’s previous film, Tron: Legacy, his latest science fiction film was an exercise in style over substance. In fact, Googling the words “Joseph Kosinski style over substance” will bring up thousands of reviews and other web posts that describe the film in those terms.

It’s unfortunate that Kosinski couldn’t have somehow directed Oblivion before Tron: Legacy - if he had, then maybe the critical response to Oblivion would have been rather different. Because while Legacy was indeed a visually spectacular but narratively thin movie, Oblivion is more complex and resonant. It’s flawed, certainly, and also derivative, but I can’t help but feel that the accusation of it being a shallow film is somewhat wide of the mark. It’s undoubtedly a stylish film, but there’s also a very human story tucked away in here, too - one that becomes all the more noticeable on repeat viewings.

For a film reliant on huge vistas, Oblivion’s actually a quite intimate in terms of its cast. In a future where an alien invasion has been repelled but at a terrible cost to the Earth itself, humanity’s mere weeks away from leaving its home planet for good, and setting up a new life on a terraformed moon orbiting Saturn.

Tom Cruise plays Jack, a futuristic soldier and service engineer who flies down from his remote control tower and posh flat in the clouds, and services the patrol drones that occasionally break down on the Earth’s surface. The drones have been designed to keep at bay the Scavs, a breed of alien left behind from the failed invasion. Back at the control tower, Jack’s partner and lover Victoria ‘Vika’ Olsen (Andrea Riseborough) oversees the terrain from her command station, a fancy touchscreen interface from which she receives mission updates from Sally (Melissa Leo), a friendly management type on the Tet - the ship which will soon be leaving for Saturn with the remains of humanity aboard. 

In spite of the promise of a happier new life elsewhere, Jack has the feeling that not everything’s quite right. He has dreams of a life he never had and a woman he never met - something to do with the Empire State Building and Olga Kurylenko - and can’t shake his desire to live in a log cabin by a lake.

In true Philip K Dick style, nothing in Jack’s life is as it appears. A crashed spaceship containing the woman from Jack’s dreams - Julia (Kurlenko) - is the trigger for a series of paradigm-shifting revelations. The Scavs aren’t aliens, but surviving humans. The Tet isn’t an ark containing Earth's final dregs of humanity, but a vast artificial alien intelligence. Jack and Vika are clones made by the aliens; formerly soldiers who helped conquer Earth, they work as oblivious service engineers for the various machines now stripping the planet of its remaining resources.

Jack and Vika aren’t the only clones, either - the planet’s covered in copies of them, each with their own outpost, segregated by a so-called ‘radiation zone’ which prevents them from accidentally bumping into each other.

The plot of Oblivion is much more complicated than this - I haven’t even mentioned how Jack, Vika and Julia were once astronauts in 2017 - but it’s sufficient to say that, once Jack discovers the reality of the alien occupation, he finds a way to stop it in its tracks. In the process, he saves humanity from destruction by drones, destroys the evil Tet, and although he sacrifices himself in the process, one of his clones eventually steps in to become a husband and father to Julia and their young daughter.

Although Oblivion ends on a note of triumph, it quietly forgets about Vika. As played by Andrea Riseborough, she’s a slightly frosty yet capable and witty woman who seems perfectly content with her comfortable, slightly soulless life with Jack. It’s only in the second half of the story that we find out why she behaves the way she does - and in particular, why she’s so reluctant to find out more about what’s going down on Earth’s surface (“It’s our job not to remember, remember?”). 

Like Jack, her emotional responses have carried over from her previous life as an astronaut. In that existence, Jack was married to fellow space traveller Julia, and he seemed entirely unaware that Vika was in love with him, too. Just as the cloned Jack is haunted by vague memories of the woman he loved, so Vika is still quietly besotted with Jack.

In fact, Vika’s character arc through the film is the opposite to everyone else’s. Where everyone else is looking for completion (either through getting back with their loved one, or freeing themselves from alien tyranny), Vika already has what she wants, and then loses it. She’s alone with the man she loves in her perfect apartment in the clouds, with nothing to come between them aside from the occasional malfunctioning drone.

Yet even here, there’s a cloud on the horizon. Jack’s dissatisfaction with this false reality means that their equilibrium is constantly under threat. The aliens closely monitor Vika and Jack’s relationship for any sign of a fracture - “Are you an effective team” is a daily mantra, a test to see if their false relationship's still hanging together. There’s even a killer drone waiting in the basement, ready to spring into life at the first evidence of a break-up.

Julia’s arrival, and the sequence of events that follows, results in tragedy for Vika. In one brilliantly played scene, we see just how threatened Vika feels when Jack suddenly shows up with Julia, still asleep in a her cryotube. Vika doesn’t remember enough to know exactly what’s going on, but she knows that it’s the beginning of the end for their relationship - it’s all in Riseborough’s brilliantly wounded, vulnerable performance.

We never learn exactly how many Jacks and Vikas there are dotted over the planet, but we can safely assume it’s at least 52, since the towers are all numbered. We see the Vika in Tower 49 destroyed by the gunfire of a drone, as her anger and jealousy causes her to blurt out the fateful words, “We are not an effective team...” 

For the other remaining Vikas, there’s more tragedy. With the Jack from Tower 52 united with Julia in his lakeside cabin at the end of the movie, the Vika he was once partnered with is presumably still in her house among the clouds, all alone. Then there are the other Jacks and Vikas scattered over the rest of the planet, now without a mission to carry out. Each Jack potentially yearning for a Julia he can’t have. Each Vika essentially doomed to love a man who will never love her in return.

As I said at the top of this post, Oblivion isn’t a flawless film, but neither is it the empty vessel its detractors have suggested. For one thing, its possible subtext - about a soldier tricked into carrying out a drone war by a faceless ruler intent on stripping the planet of resources - is quite subversive, should you choose to see it that way. There’s a certain melancholy poetry in its story of a husband and wife reunited after decades apart. And then there’s Vika, a quietly tragic character whose sad fate - like Riseborough’s performance, which is arguably the best in the film - is so easily overlooked on first viewing. There's a meditation here, perhaps, about how love is part of what makes us human, but also what makes us vulnerable.

Full of expansive landscapes, high-tech graphics and bombastic music though it is, it’s these moments that, I’d argue, stick in the mind once Oblivion’s finished - and that’s really not something you’d expect from an exercise in style over substance.

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Andrea Riseborough is my favourite actress at the moment I think she has an extraordinary presence on screen and has been the highlight of pretty much everything I’ve seen her in, Oblivion included and her involvement was my main motivation for making time to see it at the cinema. Her work in Shadow Dancer, Resistance, Brighton Rock and even the rotten W.E. is exceptional.

I didn’t hate Oblivion in fact there are moments I very much enjoyed and it does look good. It also on a small level gave me some hope of a Rama film in the future what with the size and scope of the Tet. I quite like the idea that if you look at Oblivion from a different perspective it can be more than it seemed however I don’t believe that the tragedy of Vika was intentional on the filmmaker’s part though I’d be more than happy to be proved wrong.

There are a number of moments throughout where we as an audience are manipulated into disliking Vika to find her unpleasant, a cold look, unquestioning loyalty, the plant and even the circumstances surrounding the photograph. I think the character was created to be no more than the opposite of Julia to be less appealing, a soulless block in Jack’s life, someone who holds him back so when his pretty wife turns up it’s okay for Jack to leave, especially when she is reduced to a jealous and crazy woman more willing to destroy everything and one than listen to reason.

I saw Oblivion a week or two ago, knowing nothing about, director, who was in it etc.

It's not the greatest sci-fi film ever, but I enjoyed it and it was more reminiscent of those slower paced 70's scifi films, the (good) CGI was used effectively but didn't become the focus of the film (unlike Tron: Legless).

If there had been a little bit more or a little bit less plot then I'd have been happier as parts of it were a bit wonky logically. I think I could have done without the bit inside the Tet, he should have just crashed into it.

But any film where Cruise doesn't do his shit-eating grin constantly is fine by me. I wasn't even convinced it was him for ages due to his performance, so that's something to be said for it.

With Vika, I liked to think that there was at least one version of her and Jack that survived somewhere. Now, isn't that a more pleasant thought than assuming they've all been killed.

an excellent read. I absolutely loved this film, saw it in IMAX and was completely blown away. Absolutely stunning to look at (and listen to) and with a proper good old fashioned science fiction STORY.

I actually didn't like Vika at all. She wanted Jack and she was willing to lie, cheat and kill to get him. And if she couldn't get him, nobody would. That's not tragic, that's delusional and dangerously obsessive. Great character in a great movie, just not a tragic one.

I would say Oblivion is my favourite SCIFI this year. Its a surprisingly subtle film, the depths to the characters are left very much to the viewers own experiences and as a result becomes a very deep film, of which the scene with the three of them having dinner is a emotional minfielsall so well acted and restrained.,
However, my take on it is that Vika's insecurities (or programmed ones for the use of a better word) misinterprets (or not, programming) Jacks actions . Jack is forever asking her to come down to the planet with him, even with the second Vika we meet. My feelings are that Jack does love Vika, but like all relationships that travel through troubled waters, Jack strays from the path, but I never doubt that he'd leave Vika, and this is the tradgedy in her charachter. She does have what she wants and ultimately sets in motion her own destruction.
The final shot shows Jack and Julia together, but it doesnt show a lovers relationship, they are sitting apart, just two charachters happy were they are, so my personal view is that they arent necessarily together.. After all, he may be Jack, but not the original Jack or even the father of the baby Jack (confused?, nicely so :-)). I Like to think, that once hes got his answers hed return to his Vika.

I actually read Vika's attachment to Jack in a slightly different way. Although I agree that she is the tragic figure in the film, it is not because she has lost someone she loves but simply because she has lost her sense of purpose. I'm not sure that she is in love with Jack, I wonder if it isn't more that the AI has misinterpreted the fact that they are seated together on the spacecraft as them being in a partnership (where Julia is elsewhere on the craft). They are the more obvious 'effective team' to clone when the AI would not necessarily be aware of the pre-existing relationship between Jack and Julia.

That's all true, but that's how people can get when they're desperately in love, especially when they think they're going to lose the person they're so in need of.

I liked Oblivion. It wasn't amazing, but it was a good start to the summer movie season. I also felt really bad for Vika and thought she was overlooked. But wasn't Oblivion a graphic novel? I'm sure Kosinki is a competent director when he has good source material, something he didn't have for Legacy.

Andrea Riseborough was brilliant as Annie the ghost in the Being Human pilot. I was gutted when they recast her (and the main vampire) when it finally went to series. This was the main reason I could never get into BH.

Great piece, Ryan. Oblivion was one of my highlights of the blockbuster season this year (admittedly that's not saying much!) However:
"Each Jack potentially yearning for a Julia he can’t have."

I was under the impression that our Jack was a special case. The reason he has such strong memories of his past life is because Sally (stupidly in retrospect) based him in the New York area, and helped get past the memory wipe that would have been applied. But Jacks stationed elsewhere in the USA or the world would not necessarily have these associations without the baseball stadium, Empire State Building etc.

"I wonder if it isn't more that the AI has misinterpreted the fact that
they are seated together on the spacecraft as them being in a

To be honest, I was wondering if the Tet was just using information that was already there in the minds of both pilots, in the case of the original Victoria, that she was secretly in love with Jack.

A few things: When Julia started laughing hysterically, it could be that it was finally dawning on her as to what happened to the Earth (a lot to take in all at once) or it could have been that it was a response to Victoria holding hands with Jack. There could have been signs before and during the Odyssey mission of how Victoria felt and Julia knew it too. In the midst of all the world changing disasters, the small personal things still don't go away.

Inside the Odyssey, Victoria's behaviour was possibly just a bit to familiar to be workmates too, given Jack's reaction to the photo and her embarrassed "for posterity" remark in response to his discomfiture. There's also a scene in the trailer as Julia reaches across for Jack's hand as they're being pulled into the Tet, though that could have been cut from the film.

Also, during the film, even though Victoria always denies ever remembering anything, it's implied that she actually might be. Overall, what I did like about all of the above is that it's left ambiguously and up to the viewer to interpret as to how Victoria saw jack instead of beating us over the head with a definite answer. I lean towards her secretly pining for Jack and the Tet using that (the story to me is just as much about a guy, the girl who wanted him and the girl who actually got him) but in could just as validly be what you're saying too.

As an aside, Beech was surprised to hear Julia was married to Jack, so maybe it was only just before the mission and not public knowledge yet. Maybe even the rest of the crew including Victoria didn't know about it yet. Once again, who can say for sure?

... lovely article. I felt too strongly towards her and thought that everything that happened to her was very sad and unfair

There are certain movies that strike a chord with me and this was one of them. I realize it's not going to win any Oscars but I've already watched it twice and plan on many more viewings. Thanks for the article.

Mind you, to add to what I said earlier, just after locking out Jack from Tower 49 because of what she'd seen on the camera footage of Jack and Julia at the Empire State Building (and just before the drone in the basement started trashing the place), Victoria does say to Jack "It was always her ... wasn't it?". So maybe it's possible she did remember both Julia and that she'd been in love with Jack all this time - and was seeing it all come to an end. Once again though, I think there's room for interpretation and no absolute answers.

Another question worth asking is whether Jack and Victoria are just acting as the Odyssey pilots would have or were they starting to forge their own identities at all as they had new experiences that the originals did not.

Kosinski absolutely bottles it when he fails to show vika being gunned down by the drone.

Thank you, thank you, thank you! To me, "Oblivion" is not the best movie of the year, but I was deeply touched by Vika's character (and of course by Riseborough's performance). I was unable to explain it and express it, and felt a great relief when I read your article: your words are exactly translating my feelings, at last someone who shares my point of view, who's moved by the same thing and who can skillfully write it. My friends didn't like the movie and don't understand why I've already watched it three times. I'm going to tell them to read you!

On the contrary, I think it was much better to focus on Jack's reaction to her death rather than the death itself. Her look and final scream are best as the last we see of her, and it also subtly hints at the fact that she's still alive somewhere.

Actually the only jacks and consequently vickas that are "activated" and remember their old lives are very few. In particular it's only the ones that work in the area where Jack previously lived.

Kosinski originally intended it to be a movie but couldn't get funding so he wrote it as a graphic novel instead. After seeing the graphic novel, a studio expressed interest and green-lit the film.

Ah, ok. Thanks.

I also thought that the AI had misinterpreted Vika and Jack's relationship as one of a loving couple, and that if the AI hadn't got this wrong, maybe Jack wouldn't have discovered the truth.

I found this film to be very boring and dull. I was hoping to see something new but nope.The redhead was like any bond girl. she has to go by the second reel to make way for the main love interest


OMG that was her?? No way! I'll have to watch the pilot. I loved BH...until they started to change up the cast and there was no-one to contain Lenora Crichlow's particular brand of cryface overacting for the role, which does grate after a while.

Ha! I just watched this and was wondering about the Vika we saw when he went to get supplies. She never shows up again at all! I was expecting her to play a part somehow and sacrifice herself for Jack or something. I don't know. But thanks for addressing this. It seems like something they should've touched on but the movie was already kind of long.

I'm not sure if the "real" Vika was in love with the "real" Jack or if those were just memories implanted into them like the whole "winning the war" and "leaving for Saturn's moon"

It is the empty vessel its detractors have suggested, and they even forgot about a main character so much that this article got written. It's hollow, the performances are weak at best, and it steals from some of the best Sci-Fi films ever made. It is rubbish.

I agree that this movie is much better than most people seemed to think. It certainly has some problems, but in many ways I enjoyed it more than most of the other "big" summer movies.

A good film, but not very original. It borrows many elements from "Moon", an earlier and much better film, in my opinion.

I just saw the movie and did enjoy it very much, but i have several questions i welcome any ideas in explaining them. When Jack and Vika are flying the space ship to the unknown ufo, they separate the sleeping pods from their ship. How does the sleeping pods break free from the tractor beam? Why does it take 60 years to return to earth? And how did Morgan Freeman know to send a signal to the sleeping pods to land near New York City

I agree, Vika wasn't the brightest bulb but she tried to make the best of her limited existence and was content with just being with Jack

It was certainly better than the overhyped Promotheus

You'd think if "Sally" was worried about a Jack-Vika team, why not just have a remote controlled bomb in the penthouse instead of that silly drone. Much cheaper and more effective

Really? Vika was despicable. She was a collaborator, selfish, ignorant, manipulative, deceitful, murderous. It's also implied that she know a lot more than she let on, when she slipped and said "It was her all along". She got what she deserved. As Lou Reed sang, "You're going to reap just what you sow."

"Sad and unfair"? She denied the truth and then was ready to send Jack and his wife to an unknown fate out of jealousy. She got her karma. Only in that sense is she tragic, as a character whose own fatal flaw is her own undoing.

"...jealous and crazy woman more willing to destroy everything and one than listen to reason."

But that's exactly what she was. She is the equivalent of a Nazi collaborator who is unwilling to face the truth of what she is doing.

Presumably not to waste the lovely home, which can be quickly cleaned up for the next pair of fools.

Originality is over-rated.

Moon was not original either. That film, powerful and beautiful as it is, clearly draws influenced from Tarkovsky's Solaris, Silent Running, etc. That does not lessen its value.

It is shown as a flurry of ashes. That's all one sees when those drone marbles take a victim.

That's not love, but psychosis.

No. Jack and Julia should be the tragic characters. The real Jack is dead, and Julia can never have him back. The ending ruined this by imagining that there could be a "happy ending", as if one could accept a clone for one's love. That is as unromantic and inhuman as the Tet, treating clones like drones, merely interchangeable pawns.

Jack and Julia should have either never gotten together, or gotten together with the bittersweet and tragic knowledge that this is an entirely new person, and the real Jack can never be returned.

I loved this movie for what it could have been, but not for what it was. The tragic love story is there in all its beauty, but ruined by the unbelievable swap. By that move, Jack 2 and 3, as well as Julia, prove themselves as delusional as evil Vika.

By bringing in the third Jack, the poignant story just became comical. How can Julia possibly just keep replacing Jacks? Sorry, your husband died, but here's another, and after enough grain alcohol, you'll hardly know the difference.

I suppose when that Jack dies, she will take the next one in line. In the meanwhile, she can tell the lot of them to "Take a Number". Oh, wait, they already have numbers.

Or maybe love IS a psychosis? There must be a fine line if not.

A little bit too harsh? After all, she was a clone with most of her memory wiped clean, same as Jack

True, poison gas would be the best solution since you don't need the tower all shot to pieces by the drone either

Also, note that on Julia's pod, it didn't say Harper.

There's also the possibility that she hadn't taken his last name professionally or legally. In the overall context of everything that happened, I'm inclined to think it's likely they'd only just gotten married regardless of whether it was official or not.

Seen this about 15 times now, I think the next time I see it, Vika will be in a version with the happy ending shes yearning for.

Spoilers in my comments.

These romances were the heart of the movie. I see it as a romance movie within a sci-fi action flick. Glad to finally find a review that saw what I did in the characters, particularly feeling badly for Victoria. I felt that the alien could wipe out most memories, but not those that were connected with the powerful feelings of love. I like that the writer didn't beat us over the head with it, but allows us to see it within the actors portrayal. Watching the movie a second time was able to enjoy the actors more because understood the plot and thus knew the angst they were feeling from their past memories that couldn't be completely erased.

Victoria appears to be is used as a monitor over Jack and left with less free will. She appears to be programmed to watch Jack and to follow the rules. Sally of the Tet tells her more than once that she isn't to think. Originally she was a co-pilot and trained as much as Jack, so not thinking would not be in her original traits. Jack needs more free will and choice in order to make decisions on the ground dealing with unknowns battling Scavs and fixing drones. Jack is still able to think outside the box, as evidenced by using chewing gum in a repair. The Tet understands that he is a bit of a loose cannon and needs Victoria to attempt to keep him happy and under some control. Victoria reminds him of the regulations. The Tet constantly queries Victoria about how they are doing on their mission. Poor Victoria thus has her love of Jack used as a tool by the alien to keep an eye on the less controlled Jack.

Victoria with her unrequited love is happy being with Jack in this little universe, but can feel that he isn't fully connecting no matter how much she tries. Jack seems to know that he isn't supposed to love Victoria as they were only "put" together for the mission. Sally knowing Jack doesn't love her does her job. She watches Jack all day and tries to keep him as safe as possible. His being a loose cannon is a constant issue. Poor Victoria's longings for Jack lead to her own destruction when she finally admits to herself that they aren't an "effective team" with Julia's appearance.

All the Jacks not quite understanding why they aren't more content with Victoria and having dreams of yearning for a ghost. Being in NYC area then Jack #49 has more chances to have his memories tweaked making him more likely to venture off track. Victoria even breaks free somewhat to protect him from the Tet knowing he is going off the rails a bit.

Poor Tet miscalculates and is a bit greedy. The Tet seemed to want to have a new "more effective" team built using Julia with Jack,. The protein from the Victoria models would have gone to make Julia models. The Tet was removing the breathable atmosphere and sending back the armed robots at the end. Stupid Tet messed up on that judgement call.

I really think was a very good sci-fi movie and actors did a good job. Plenty of things blow up, action scenes, a bit of skin shown for the tiddly aspects, and love themes of humanity with heroism. Have been surprised at how many reviews have read that entirely missed the love story center of the movie.

Think may eventually be a cult classic.

My family and I watched this movie on DVD and we wished we saw it on IMAX. Of all the characters in the movie, Vika was the one that was the most haunting, lingering character. The well done pool scene demonstrated her total love for Jack. From that point on their relationship began to deteriorate after a chain of events took place, the slaughter of the survivors by the drones, the appearance of Julia, Jack's capture and his discovering of the truth of his and Vika's current existence. Vika distraught at seeing her world crumble fell to the very world she believed in. Vika's fate was sad and I would agree that Vika is the most tragic film character of 2013..

Excellent read and great replies. I actually really like this movie because of Vika. The emotions she portrayed could be felt. The tears she shed, the jealousy she felt, the pain she endured when she realized Jack didnt love her for me was almost more tragic than the loss of Earth itself. I love learning about this character and everyone's opinions and little ideas. Riseborough's performance was outstanding.

Did anyone notice Julia's original pod number? 60 years before she was discovered by Jack,
her pod number was 08. Somehow, in her
sleep she moved to pod number 06.

Lol I have watched it about 8 times lol I can't get enough..I just love it..and what happens to Vika is so sad...Reading Ryan's review made me see a little bit of her that I did not realize on my own, but the rest of the review, we see eye to eye...good work!

I loved Vika, wish she and jack has stayed together. and andrew rise borough's performance is amazing I loved her long before having seen her on British television. I loved the scene she yells I don't want to know and the next moment when the drone approaches she turns back and says'"Jack" I loved that fear,love and longingness in her eyes.

Totally agree, for all the films visa's and planetary scope it is quite an intimate one. For a sic-fi film it does not go too deep into backstory, the focus is on Jack and Julia and Vika. For Vika her life is on the edge, everything she had ever wanted but constantly waiting for it to fall, their cloud house a beautiful symbol of their fragile gilded cages

hey, don't knock grain alcohol.

Jack placed her in his own pod, and Beech in a different one.

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