Oblivion (2013) is underrated
Oblivion, starring Tom Cruise running, deserves your attention. At the time of its release it was branded as having dull characters, reused ideas from other science fiction films and being generally uninteresting. Now admittedly the film has dull characters, but for a plot driven narrative the focus is less on characteristics anyway. Cruise’s Jack Harper is just seemingly an ordinary guy with a job to do, and he sometimes likes to take things home from the office and mess about when on the clock. His motivations make sense, as do those of his work colleague/girlfriend Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). She mainly worries about doing her high pressure job right and about Jack getting killed. Their job by the way is to guard giant water hoovers in the sea from alien guerrilla fighters before the citizens of Earth, in an orbiting space station, fly away forever. SPOILERS: this film is set in the future. So whilst the film has dull characters, they don’t do anything stupid that throws you out of watching the film.
Generally speaking the cinematography is good, it is nothing overly special but it doesn’t have the dull gloss of a modern American rom-com or Marvel film. The visual effects are fantastic, the CGI looks real and the director has chosen to meld CGI with traditional practical props, sets and real exterior locations. There is no George Lucas styled green-screening BS to be found here.
The music is a rip off of the Inception BWAAAHHS noises that all recent Sci Fi films have yoinked mainly for their trailers recently. So whilst nothing good in the soundtrack, it’s not bad per se. So in terms of filmmaking Oblivion is nice enough to look at and hear. It is a lived-in world that you can believe. You won’t find yourself mocking the visual effects. The pace takes its time and the exposition is given out skilfully and sparingly enough. The first act is the usual ‘day in the life’ fare that actually reasonably sets up later events with reasonable subtlety without seeming completely ‘out of the ordinary’. Oblivion doesn’t throw a thousand dumbly thought-out action scenes at you in the first ten minutes, instead they are brief and logical and the film earns them with patient plot building.
If I am to talk about story I have to say out of courtesy: SPOILERS.
Obviously in the film there is a succession of twists; the water isn’t being sucked by humans, but by an evil AI-run spaceship. Tom Cruise isn’t an average worker, but one of many Cruise clones manufactured by said evil AI spaceship. The evil aliens on Earth he has been defending himself for years are actually humans and even standing on a box Tom Cruise is shorter than Olga Kurylenko. At the end he dupes the evil AI and blows himself, a profound looking Morgan Freeman and the evil spaceship up. Woo-hoo! Many criticise the ending for its similarity with Independence Day, however the plot of disguising-yourself-to-sneak-on-the-enemy-finale isn’t something original to Independence Day. You might as well say Oblivion ripped off Master and Commander: Far Side of the World. It’s just easier to say it with these two films because they both have bad guy spaceships and a big bomb, that is pretty much where the similarities end. The decision for the Jack Harper to trick the evil AI and destroy it from within makes complete logical sense within the story as well as being the character’s only and last option.
Oblivion also takes a lot of flak for the clone twist, many accuse the film of ripping off Moon. Whilst Oblivion did come out after Moon, Oblivion is based on a comic book (written by the Director/Screenwriter of the film itself) that actually came out before Moon. Could the film have been made without all the elements from the comic? In this case no, because this films themes is all about the nature of life and DRONES!
Jack Harper is constantly followed around by these uber-tough flying drone robots that are pretty much invincible. The evil AI uses them to murder still alive humans to keep the truth from Jack Harper. This film manages to display the real world problems of having powerful drone capabilities without hammering the point home. And as such the film makes a further point, Jack and Victoria being clones bred by the AI makes them also drones in a manner of speaking. The evil AI have managed to programme people as though they are robots themselves to do their bidding. In doing so Oblivion makes some important observations about the free will versus determinism debate. It says that humans can be programmed just like a computer. In fact the argument for free will is left ambiguous as although Jack Harper chooses to rebel it is due to memories from his genetic template that inspire him to do so, as well as the fact that he initially believes he is serving humanity, a desire the AI gave him in the first place. Oblivion doesn’t just promote a deterministic stance, but also explores how misconceptions and delusions of free will enable determined actions to occur. If Jack Harper wasn’t a clone this whole subtext to the film would be weaker. Yes it is possible to have him be a normal working guy whose memories have been altered and still have powerful themes; working class people are essentially forced into the capitalist machine with little regard for their own desires, but the very fact that sentient robots could breed organic life like humans is a stronger parallel, as well as being much creepier.
This creepiness grows deeper. There is a way to leave questions in a film unanswered and a way not to. In Prometheus they make a point of wondering about everything; what was the alien goo? What was the planet for? Why did they choose to wipe out their own creations? And while these questions sound interesting, the lack of implications towards what they could be means the questions and Prometheus as a whole is ultimately empty. At the end of Oblivion we still have no idea where the evil AI came from, aliens? Even more evil robots? Arguably the evil AI spaceship is a drone itself, this takes the drone allegory to another level as well as creating a dawning sense that the threat isn’t over. If another one turns up the remaining humans have no chance at all of fighting back. These implications give the unanswered questions a sense of depth and ultimately; threat.
Please don’t overlook Oblivion’s worth. It is very underrated. It comments on our nature of people and whether we can really choose our path. It points out how helpless to resist we are against drones in the hands of a tyrant. Even if you dislike Tom Cruise, you can’t deny when he produces a film it always turns out well. Seriously, look at his success rate, he may be a dull actor but he hasn’t produced a truly bad quality film at any point. It doesn’t really rip off Moon or Independence Day, and it explores different ideas with the similar material anyway. It looks great, has solid pacing, the action is clear to watch and isn’t over indulgent. Overall Oblivion is worth a watch and a think.