This post contains plot spoilers.
Oblivion (2013) is a science fiction film directed by Joseph Kosinski. The film exhibits impressive world building, stunning visuals, and action sequences.
I’d say that Oblivion is an enjoyable film to watch but the story is unsatisfying. I’m not alone with this view. Oblivion has a satisfaction rating of 53% on Rotten Tomatoes. On Rotten Tomatoes 50% isn’t good. 25% is an outright disaster. And anything over 75% is decent.
So the question is, why did Oblivion, which was a successful film, get such a low score? The professional reviews also picked it up on its script issues.
Kosinski focuses on cool visuals but stints on a compelling plot. It’s a dazzler, but the story lacks the impact of the futuristic look.
— Claudia Puig, USA Today
In space, Jack [Harper] hopes, someone may hear you dream. But in a movie theater, no one will see you yawn.
— Richard Corliss, TIME
Glossy, derivative, ambitious and fatally underpowered.
— Tom Charity, CNN
Mystery posed by Oblivion as a whole is why its mysteries are posed so clumsily, and worked out so murkily.
— Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal
The filmmakers don’t even have the courage to see the story to its proper end, opting for a ridiculous finale that feels vaguely insulting.
— Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald
All the eye candy in the world can’t mask the sensation that you’ve seen this all before...and done better. Too bad the movie’s script wasn’t given the same attention as its sleek, brave-new-world look.
— Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly
To be fair to Oblivion, it’s an action-thriller which isn’t designed to be picked apart and analysed. During a normal viewing there shouldn’t be enough time to notice or reflect on these things. The problem with Oblivion is that they are apparent when watching the film. There are so many things that don’t make sense.
Why is this? The answer is simple. The story has prioritised plot twists over everything else. As an action-thriller the issue is exacerbated because the plot twits don’t really have the impact that they deserve.
In Moon, for example, the plot twist is successful because there’s time to make it emotionally resonant. Action-thrillers don’t have that luxury. In the 124 minutes of Oblivion the film has to work hard to scene set through the exposition:
- The script has to introduce Jack Harper, Tech 49’s weird flashbacks of a mysterious woman (a scenario vaguely reminiscent of Total Recall).
- Explain why Earth has been destroyed (a post-War of the Worlds type situation where the aliens have more or less won, which is achieved via a heavy handed voice-over).
- Explain what Tech 49’s role in this world.
- Show us his relationship with Victoria ‘Vika’ Olsen.
And all of this setup that we invest our time and emotions in are going to be revealed as a lie. By the time the plot twists hit the story we’ve invested in Tech 49’s day-today word and his relationship with his attentive and dutiful companion Vika who has to be jettisoned when his real wife turns up.
During the setup the audience gets to know Vika. By the time Julia Rusakova Harper, the main love interest, appears the film is already switching into action-thriller mode. Even though Julia is the more important character we never really get to know her in the same way. As a result, Julia feels like a less rounded, more one-dimensional, action-based character while Vika, who is a secondary character, has greater depth because we’ve spent more character-based screen time with her. The possibility of achieving a more satisfying story has been sacrificed to enable the plot twist.
What if Vika was untrustworthy from the start? The challenge of scripts with a limited number of characters is that the characters have to perform double duties. In Hollywood scripts a trusted character often turns into a traitor while an untrusted character becomes a friend. That’s what is happening with Vika and Julia, even if the script doesn’t have time to explore the nuances of the shift. Jack Harper has to transfer his allegiance from Vika to Julia. Even though it’s a difficult dilemma, it’s resolved in a few lines of dialogue and Vika’s death at the hands of a drone. Her death performs multiple functions. It gets her out of the story so that Jack Harper can fully align himself with Julia and it confirms his suspicions that Sally is a malicious force.
The problem is that the plot twists need so much work that they hinder the rest of the story. They literally wreck havoc on it, leaving a confusing and nonsensical plot. And the payoff isn’t really worth it because (unlike Moon) the film doesn’t have time to explore the emotional implications.
In the first plot twist Tech 49 discovers that the ‘Scavs’ (who vaguely resemble Jawas from Star Wars) are not frightening mutant creatures but human beings dressed in ‘stealth’ outfits.
The second plot twist is that he’s working for the aliens and helping them to destroy the earth.
The third plot twist is that he’s a clone (his companion Vika is too). There’s a fight scene where he battles with ‘himself’ (another clone, Tech 52).
Part of the world building is also about maintaining the plot reveals. Why does Tech 49 live in a glamorous Sky Tower in a devastated world run by an alien AI? The answer is that the Sky Tower needs to be sufficiently humanistic to avert any suspicion that Tech 49s world has been entirely created by an alien AI. It also performs double duty by highlighting the cost of his abandoning his luxury lifestyle to save humanity.
Why does Sally (the name of a NASA worker that the alien entity uses to communicate with the clones) allow Jack Harper into the Tet? The Tet is the massive alien structure orbiting Earth. The destruction of the Tet is itself a homage to climatic scene in Independence Day. The alien AI has travelled across space, possesses unimaginable technologies, obliterated the Earth and cloned humans to harness them for its work. Why would it be so stupid to let Jack into its vulnerable inner core?
The ending is confusing. The Solaris-like ramshackle cottage in a hidden gorge with a jarring voice-over from Julia that wants to be tragically profound while also serving as upbeat celebration to send the audience away with a happy ending.
If there’s one thing an audience wants after being entertained, it’s for the story to make sense. Confusing stories tend to disappoint viewers. And that’s where Oblivion falls down. It has a complicated (but all-too-convenient plot) that doesn’t satisfy its own questions. It’s a story that’s held back by the need to maintain the secrecy of its plot reveals. Balancing an action-thriller with impressive visuals is tricky enough without bringing in big, existential ideas that the film doesn’t have time to explore.