This movie is “good art” in the sense that it’s a conversation piece. It says very little, and you get to decide whether that’s a sign of depth, or pretension, or simply having nothing to say. I got to see it with people of all three opinions; it seems to depend in large part on where you’re standing.
But if it’s introverted, it’s also stunningly pretty—and it’s easier to give a pretty introvert the benefit of the doubt. With that in mind,
This is where I start spoiling the movie.
Tom Cruise’s character (his name is not important, because, as will become clear later, he really is just Tom Cruise) has been told that he’s one of the last remaining humans on Earth after an alien invasion that left the world blanketed with nuclear radiation. He’s tasked with gathering up fuel for the massive ship that will deliver the rest of the human race to Titan—and all his memories have been erased to prevent tactical data from falling into alien hands.
Robots do all the heavy lifting—dozens of combat drones zoom around hunting stray “Scavs” (remnants of the alien army), while huge obelisks suck up ocean water to convert into hydrogen fuel. All Tom Cruise has to do is check up on them periodically, and fix them when they break.
In return, he gets a very clean and expensive-looking house perched on a mountaintop, a sleek little bubblecopter, and an assigned redhead with whom to have uncomplicated, team-building sexual intercourse.
Tom Cruise does the outdoor work, and his sex-associate’s job is to track his position and report to their supervisor, “Sally”. They’re a surrealist Ward and June Cleaver: him striding purposefully out the door every morning with all his manly accoutrements; her waiting to give him a broad smile and a chaste kiss before he leaves. He’s tame, content, and ripe to have his world shattered by a terrible truth.
I know I haven’t made a very strong case, but this film actually succeeds at creating real warmth between the two of them. They seem much like participants in a successful arranged marriage, having skipped the romantic beginning, but found the same comfort and tenderness that most happy couples do. They touch, and flirt, and make love, and really seem to mean it. If the filmmakers hadn’t fated their relationship to capsize, that might have been a statement in itself.
Tom Cruise learns that he’s married to the wrong redhead
Since he spends his day digging in the corpse of human civilization, Tom develops a deep nostalgia for everything they’ve lost—specifically, macho stuff. He pines over the memory of hunting, the Super Bowl, manly Roman war poetry—and like so many spouses, Red politely fails to understand him.
Oblivion really wants you to care about its high-speed chases and laser fights, but what makes this movie worth watching is its meditation on maleness: specifically, the experience of men who feel domesticated, lonely, and misunderstood.
What do you do when your spouse doesn’t get it? How different can two people be, and still be happy together? Of course, the filmmakers gradually transform his sex-friend into a petty, delusional harpy who would rather doom mankind than face reality, so the answers they come up with aren’t exactly hard-won—but the questions themselves are worth asking.
Of course, Red doesn’t just misunderstand—she’s not interested in understanding. She lives in this beautiful, bizarre landscape with no memories older than her haircut, and she has zero questions about that. Nobody’s that boring—but, like everyone in this movie who isn’t Tom Cruise, she becomes more of a sounding board than a person. Still, Tom Cruise bravely soldiers on, because there aren’t exactly “other fish in the sea”.
There’s totally other fish in the sea.
As their relationship curdles, Tom starts having visions of another woman—a woman who would presumably totally get his Super Bowl monologue—and who is also conveniently just a couple notches hotter than his dull, incurious sex-colleague.
We never get to know this new woman, exactly, and that’s deliberate—she’s the fantasy woman that all unsatisfied men imagine, and nothing spoils a fantasy like too many details. She remains an immaculately blank slate, upon which the viewer is encouraged to project his own imaginary perfect girlfriend.
When Tom picks up a distress signal near the edge of their assigned turf, Red tries to stop him investigating (because she’s missing the part of her brain that ought to find that kind of thing interesting)—but it turns out she should have tried harder, because that beacon leads him to a crashed spaceship with his dream woman in it.
Tom thaws her out, and the two of them discover the truth–that he’s a cloned alien stooge, and the “Scavs” he’s been hunting are human survivors, who have obscured their faces to fool the drones’ destroy-all-humans protocol. The earth isn’t swathed in radiation, and there is no colony on Titan–the aliens are just aliens, stealing the ocean, because they’re dicks.
Of course, his sex-coworker refuses to believe she’s an alien stooge, freaks out in a way that seems vaguely uterus-related, and conveniently gets herself murdered by a murder-bot so that he and his One True Girlfriend can re-fall in love guilt-free, and begin their quest to destroy the alien mothership.
(As a side note, my current fan-theory is that Oblivion is intended to be non-fiction, and this is just the way things look when you’re Tom Cruise.)
Oblivion feels like a tour of a very self-absorbed male mind.
Everything in this world revolves around Tom Cruise. Everything that has happened on Earth for the last sixty years has been his fault. Everything and everyone else is passively defined by their relationship to him; and what really matters, in the end, is his fulfillment and self-actualization.
He has no responsibility for the distance between himself and his partner; everything falls to her vapidity and moral cowardice. His partner obviously doesn’t share his interests, but the film never even bothers to ask what her interests are. Up until her character assassination, she is a real human being—by which I mean someone with opinions and priorities and feelings that aren’t about Tom Cruise.
She loves him, and he loves her, and that actually means something because they are both real, challenging, noncompliant human beings. She also turns out to be the only real person that we meet—but Tom is mercifully spared the trouble of facing an authentic relationship when the writers flip on her crazy-bitch switch.
Tom’s One True Girlfriend is a whole lot easier to handle, precisely because she isn’t a person—not even after we spend the latter half of the movie with her. She exists to adore and be adored; to have a beautiful smile and knowing eyes, and none of the risks and complications associated with an adult personality.
The adventure plot is, if possible, worse
Among the human resistance, we meet Morgan Freeman and Jaime Lannister, both of whom deserve better. Morgan’s job is to instill wisdom and confidence in the white protagonist (no surprises there), while Jaime’s job is to distrust Tom until he proves himself, and then bestow his respect in a single, profound glance.
The remaining horde of extras either get murdered to show Tom Cruise’s situation is serious, or saved to show that Tom Cruise is a self-sacrificing humanitarian. There’s a 20-minute battle when a drone infiltrates the human camp, and you watch these guys get cut down by the truckload—but they’re so thinly drawn that it’s hard to care.
The fact that Tom is a clone means that he gets to have his cake and eat it too; he confronts the evil alien AI on the mothership, recites his Roman war poem, and then nails himself to the cross for all mankind—but he also gets to come home to his One True Girlfriend and make a baby, and then the natives presumably make him their chief.
I saw absolutely none of this at first
I walked out of this movie a little in love with it; probably because I could so strongly identify with the type of blind, self-pitying narcissism on display. Then I talked to a girl who referred to it as a “brainless action movie”, which helped me realize that there is absolutely no place for a woman to put herself in this story.
Everything that matters about Oblivion takes place inside the mind of one very self-involved male, all alone with his man thoughts. If you can’t relate to his peculiarly male flavor of navel-gazing, this movie really is just tiresome action scenes and paper-thin characters; but, for better or worse, I knew exactly where Tom was coming from.
I definitely don’t think Oblivion is a brainless action movie—I think it’s an artful, sincere expression of a very foolish and immature worldview. But it’s a foolishness that I can intimately understand, and hearing it voiced by someone else helps to shine a light on it.