Every fiber of my being tells me that, during the two hours I sat through Oblivion, everything was at one point or another explained to me. Why, then, do I have no idea what this movie is about? Perhaps it’s because every explanation plays like a conversation that’s already halfway finished, and because certain revelations are, to say the very least, perplexing. Whatever can be gleaned from the plot is presented in such an abstract, elusive way that it’s liable to go over most audiences’ heads. It’s based on an unpublished graphic novel coauthored by the film’s director, Joseph Kosinski; if the film is of any indication, I understand why the source material never made it into comic book stores. I’m hard pressed to say it will mean anything to any potential audience – save, presumably, for those that prefer their science fiction films needlessly confusing.
According to what we’re told by an opening voiceover narration, the story is set in the year 2077, fifty years after a dying alien race destroyed our moon, allowed Earth to be ravaged by earthquakes and tsunamis, and invaded Earth for its natural resources. Although humanity successfully fought back, the ensuing nuclear holocaust rendered most of Earth uninhabitable. Humanity had no choice but to evacuate to a temporary command station in Earth’s orbit, with the ultimate goal of resettling on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. Although the war has long since ended, pockets of alien scavengers, scavs for short, still remain. This is where Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and Victoria Olsen (Andrea Riseborough) come in; stationed on a mountaintop military outpost that looks more like a luxury House of the Future, their mission is to do maintenance work on the robotic drones that seek out and blast away scavs.
Harper has been haunted by a recurring dream, one set before the time of his birth; he meets a woman in New York City and takes her to the top of the Empire State Building. He has this dream so frequently that he’s convinced it’s not merely a dream, but a memory. That, of course, would be impossible. Or would it? What are we to make of the fact that he awakens with a start, and then uses his narration to tell the audience that it has been five years since the “mandatory memory wipe”? When a movie opens with that kind of information, we’re basically being told that, from that point on, we cannot take anything that happens at face value. In the right hands, that can be an effective narrative technique. Here, Kosinski is spoiling the story before it has the chance to be told. Then again, since all the explanations are rather opaque, I guess it doesn’t matter what is and isn’t known right off the bat.
Two important things happen in the course of this movie, although decency, along with my own lack of understanding, prevents me from divulging too much information. One is that Harper will discover a human resistance movement still living on Earth. It’s led by the enigmatic Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman), who smokes cigars and wears sunglasses in the dark. The other is that a spaceship crash lands at a site emitting a transmission signal. Within the wreckage are cryotubes, inside of which are humans in status. The one tube that Harper saves from a passing drone contains – surprise, surprise – the woman he has been dreaming about. Her name is Julia (Olga Kurylenko), and when she awakens, she seems to know so much more than she lets on. It should be noted that the transmission site is the Empire State Building, or, more accurately, what remains of it, namely the observation deck and the art deco antenna. The rest has been buried by earth.
Why is there a human resistance movement on Earth? Who is Julia, and why was she put into status? Why does Victoria react so badly to Harper’s gift of a potted plant he cultivated himself? What does a military commander named Sally (Melissa Leo), who Victoria regularly reports to and is seen only on an interactive desktop computer screen, know about the situation Harper is in? I have the feeling that the answers to all the above were staring me in the face the whole time, and I simply failed to notice them. Part of the problem is that Kosinski provides explanations in the form of visual fragments, all of which are paired with cryptic passages of dialogue that sound uncannily like half-truths. It doesn’t help that he throws in a plot twist that doesn’t make much sense when it’s first revealed and makes even less sense the more it’s narratively analyzed. We’re given flashbacks, character admissions, and very specific images, and yet they all confuse more than they clarify.
Although this movie has interesting imagery and is structurally, characteristically, and thematically superior to Kosinski’s previous effort, the disastrous Tron: Legacy, it’s so ponderous and intangible that it’s unlikely to be appreciated by those outside hardcore science fiction circles. Watching this movie is like trying to grab hold of something dangling just out of reach. I could praise it, but it would be limited to superficial aspects such as art direction, visual effects, and performance – and by that, I’m referring to the obvious things the actors display, such as anger, fear, and love. When it comes to what motivates them, both internally and externally, I don’t have much to go on. Maybe I’m just dense, but I see no reason why Oblivion couldn’t have been more straightforward in its approach.