I saw Oblivion the other day, and will now write about it. This isn’t strictly a review, and it isn’t strictly dramaturgery, but I will review it a little bit, and I will also do dramaturgery on it, so stick around if you like either of those things.
SPOILERS FOLLOW. Serious spoilers, don’t read ahead if you want to be a little surprised.
Tom Cruise is a drone repairman in the future. After he meets a woman that came out of a spacepod, he discovers that the giant robot ship he’s been working for IS the aliens, and the aliens his drones have been blowing up actually are the humans. Then he blows up the mothership. Some things about true love and memories, &c.
The Uncanny Valley of Tom Cruise
In the future, Scientologist roboticists will build a near-perfect simulacra of a human, imbued with all the powers and knowledge of Scientology, and with precision-engineered cheekbones and haircut. He will then be sent back in time to star in vaguely intellectual action movies in which Things Are Not What They Seem. That is Tom Cruise.
While his Running, Being Descended by a Rope, and Jiu-Jutsu modules will function perfectly, certain other modules will not be quite right. These are most noticeable when Tom Cruise does things like “Sits Down to Read a Book,” where he poses in a way that no human being would ever possibly sit in order to read a book, and clearly reveals that he is an android inadequately programmed to mimic human behaviors.
Related problems include, “Tom Cruise Tells a Joke”, in which Tom Cruise says all of the words that constitute a joke, and, indeed, even seems on some level to recognize that a joke is being told – certainly, his facial-expression-algorithms correctly align themselves in a reasonable facsimile of a “Wry Smile” – but no joke is actually told.
This is the Uncanny Valley of Tom Cruise; we probably wouldn’t even notice this sort of thing if he were a rubbery-faced spastic goon like Jim Carrey or Marlon Wayons, but because he, in all other pinpointable ways, resembles a human being, those slight shortcomings in his behavior modules become more pronounced.
I think that at some level, Tom Cruise is best at doing the thing that he is actually doing, as opposed to, say, physically doing one thing while thinking another. He is very good at running, because when you are running, you are also thinking about running. Likewise jiu-jutsu – that’s just how it is. But when you ask him to “Sit In a Chair and Look at this Object” with his body while also “Consider the Semantic Meaning of these Written Words” with his mind, the contradiction is impossible for him to manage. Similarly, sarcasm escapes him – he cannot possibly say one thing while meaning something else.
At one point in Oblivion Tom Cruise stands in front of Vicka (Andrea Risebourough) and looks at her with a pained expression on his face. Vicka touches his head and asks, “What’s going on in there?”
The statement is laughable. It’s obvious what’s going on in there: Tom Cruise is Standing in Front of You and Looking at You with a Pained Expression on His Face.
Some questions which Oblivion asks us to ponder include:
If the alien spaceship has a tractor beam, why does it capture the command capsule of the ship, but not the sleep capsule?
If the alien spaceship is able to manufacture an army of flying laser-machine-gun robots, why does it take over the world with an army of Tom Cruises?
Likewise, if the alien space ship can build an army of flying laser-machine-gun robots, why doesn’t it just build smaller robots to repair them? What did it do on alien planets that didn’t have Tom Cruise?
If the alien spaceship just wants water, why does it spend so much time and energy invading Earth, instead of just eating a comet or something?
Why did the sleep capsule for a ship bound for Titan first, and for an alien spaceship second, immediately go into orbit around Earth for sixty years once it was disconnected from the main ship?
Why did it then fall to Earth after someone beamed coordinates at it? Was it just waiting for someone to do that? Would any coordinates beamed at it have brought it down?
How did Morgan Freeman know the coordinates of the place he wanted the ship to land?
How did Morgan Freeman know which direction to beam the coordinates?
How did Morgan Freeman know the capsule was even up there?
Why would he think that bringing the capsule down would teach Tom Cruise about aliens? Is it because he thought Tom Cruise had never seen a human before?
If he just wanted Tom Cruise to know about humans, why didn’t he have someone take off their space-mask and just say “Hi” to him?
Why would looking for something on a noisy motorcycle be easier than looking for something in a weird flying space ship thing? That, while admittedly also noisy, at least could fly, and had scanners and things on it?
Why is it that the honorable thing for a man to do is to die against uncertain odds, defending the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods, but the honorable thing for a woman to do is to be tricked out of a valiant death so she can live in the woods and bear children?
Aren’t there 50 other Tom Cruises in this world (at least)? Are they all going to be Olga Kurylenko’s husbands?
Are human beings in fact just fleshy receptacles for memories and as long as cheekbones and a few recollections are the same, are they otherwise interchangeable?
Ultimately, of course, science fiction movies don’t really have to answer questions like that; the whole point of the premise is that we’re supposed to sort of just go along with it, and accept a certain number of functional problems, in the hopes that the story and characters will carry us through towards an interesting idea. And so, we can kind of ignore most of these questions according to the principle that, “I dunno, it was neat,” except for one glaring one:
What the fuck was Olga Kurylenko even doing in this movie?
It’s not hard to figure out whether or not you’ve got a character who is dead weight in your movie. Take them one at a time, and think about the role that each one plays in the story. Could this action be accomplished by another character? Could the motivation they provide be provided by something else that you’ve already introduced? Does that action or motivation even need to be there in the first place?
Olga Kurylenko’s character Julia crashlands in a spacepod after Morgan Freeman beams some numbers at it. It turns out that she is Tom Cruise’s wife (Tom Cruise’s character has a name, but in the tradition of Tom Cruise characters, it has all the same aesthetic quality as “Tom Cruise.” Jack Harper or something, I am just going to call him Tom Cruise). Because clones carry the memories of their originals (sure), she causes him to remember…that they were married? Then she tells him that his giant spaceship boss is actually an alien spaceship, that the aliens are the humans and the humans are the invaders, then she dies.
No, wait, then she just gets dragged around for fifty minutes, often in jeopardy, occasionally screaming, always with these sort of preternaturally wide eyes.
(Sometimes, of course, the rule of Character Efficiency works against you – mysteries can be very challenging, if you want a character to have a secret role, since the audience is going to notice when some knucklehead is just hanging around the plot not doing anything; in my opinion, this just means you need to work harder.)
Here, I’m going to do a trick, watch this.
Tom Cruise is a drone repairman. One day, he finds a crash-landed space-pod. In it is Olga Kurylenko and the space-pod’s flight recorder. A drone tries to kill Olga Kurylenko, Tom Cruise saves her. Later, Tom Cruise and Olga Kurylenko go back to the ship and get the flight recorder. Tom Cruise learns from Olga Kurylenko that the humans are the aliens and the aliens are the humans. Tom Crusie meets the humans, then flies his ship with a bomb in it up to the mothership and explodes it.
So, that is roughly what happens in the movie. There’s some other stuff about space-memories or whatever, Morgan Freeman is real impressed with this one time he saw Tom Cruise read a book, and that’s why he tells him the humans’ secret plan to explode the robot ship, but this is the gist of it. Now, look:
Tom Cruise is a drone repairman. One day, he finds a crash-landed space-pod. In it is Olga Kurylenko and the space-pod’s flight recorder. A drone tries to kill Olga Kurylenko,
Tom Cruise saves hersucceeds. Later, Tom Cruise and Olga Kurylenkogo(es) back to the ship and get(s) the flight recorder. Tom Cruise learns from Olga Kurylenkothe flight recorder that the humans are the aliens and the aliens are the humans. Tom Crusie meets the humans, then flies his ship with a bomb in it up to the mothership and explodes it.
Same fucking movie, right?
It’s actually not QUITE the same movie. Having Olga Kurylenko in the movie does raise a bunch of questions like, “Why did the alien spaceship capture some of the astronauts, but not all of them?” and “Why would love cause you to remember things that didn’t happen to you?” and “Does a person really love someone just because he looks like her dead husband and has ONE MEMORY in common?” and “If there were people in that space-pod, how come no one ever tried to bring it down before?”
And having Olga Kurylenko in the movie obviously changes the fundamental message from, “What if you discovered you were working for the enemy?” to “Love is the best.” LOVE can cause you to remember your TRUE SELF. If you lie to someone and deprive her of agency OUT OF LOVE, then it’s okay, because LOVE. Blorrrp. (That is my opinion about this message, which even if it weren’t stupid, is also the message of every other fucking movie these days, and guys, I know that the movie industry is purposefully anodyne and generic, but I am pretty confident that we can handle a different idea every now and then.)
EXCEPT, even if you DID want that to be the message, you’ve already got another woman in the movie. Andrea Riseborough is there, and if you wanted to make a movie in which LOVE caused Tom Cruise to get his memories back, and LOVE made it okay to deprive someone of their agency, then why didn’t you just make Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough husband and wife in the first place?
The most amazing thing about Oblivion is how strong it could have been as a claustrophobic, two-character drama:
1. Tom Cruise is a drone repairman, Andrea Riseborough is his operator, they have two weeks left on their assignment before they go to Titan.
2. Tom Cruise finds the flight recorder from the fallen spacepod and starts listening to it at night.
3. Tom Cruise tries to explain his suspicions to Andrea Riseborough, but she remains unconvinced.
4. Tom Cruise attempts to make contact with the actual humans. Andrea Riseborough betrays him.
5. Tom Cruise survives the betrayal and flies a bomb up into the mothership.
You could use the growing distrust between Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough as a pretty interesting metaphor for marriage – the more Tom Cruise remembers of their past life together, the more passionately he tries to get Andrea Riseborough on his side, but while HE remembers their marriage, SHE is a new and different person, and that is a pretty good parallel for how time can disrupt a relationship. If you were feeling REALLY nasty, you could set it up so that Andrea Riseborough wasn’t mindwiped at all – or even a clone at all. Andrea Riseborough is the original, and a traitor to humanity, and she consented to help the mothership if it mindwiped Tom Cruise (who did NOT want to betray humanity) so they could still be together.
(See, that way the message is actually “It is NOT okay to deprive someone of agency because of LOVE.”)
Learning the truth from the flight recorder also helps to heighten Tom Cruise’s ambivalence. Because it’s just recorded voices, he can’t be SURE that the humans are the aliens and the aliens are the humans – his suspicions can grow, and as they grow Andrea Riseborough can be more insistent that they’re wrong, and that’s a nice, slow tension. They can have their conversations exclusively at night, since the mothership can hear them when it’s above the horizon; they can even start to get suspicious that the house his spying on them even at night – Tom Cruise begins making increasingly paranoid demands on Andrea Riseborough, who doesn’t understand the changes happening to her husband, and is afraid he’s going to jeopardize their survival.
Tom Cruise finally learns the truth about the humans (and this is all predicated on the idea that we live in a world in which marketing boobs hadn’t spoiled the whole fucking movie in the first place – the realization that the humans are the aliens and the aliens are the humans is only interesting if we haven’t spent fifty minutes waiting for post-apocalypse Morgan Freeman to show up, dummies) after a scuffle with the Scavs (these are the aliens who are really the humans), when one of their helmets gets knocked off. He intervenes to prevent a drone from killing the person (see, we’ve already GOT people in this world for Tom Cruise to rescue).
Since the ambivalence about the truth of the mission is built in to the question of the flight recorder, we don’t need the Scavs to convince Tom Cruise to help – we could actually reverse this and have Tom Cruise approach the Scavs and needs to convince THEM to trust HIM. They could feel betrayed when one of the drones shows up anyway, because of Andrea Riseborough. This is pretty standard stuff, I guess – the best way to handle this would be like this:
1. Tom Cruise approaches the humans and tries to get them to come out into the open, still thinking the drones are the allies of humanity.
2. The drones kill the humans, and Tom Cruise understands that humans will never be free as long as the Tet (the humans who are really the aliens) exists.
3. Tom Cruise abandons his attempts to make contact (that is, Tom Cruise sacrifices his connection with humanity so that he can destroy the enemy of humanity — Horatius [a Roman legend that Tom Cruise makes much of in the movie] is interesting not just because he died defending the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods, but precisely because he had to sacrifice his comfort and connection to that history in order to do it]) and flies the bomb into the mothership.
This lets us avoid the, “You said we could trust you but you LIED” trope that you might be tempted to rely on: the emotional beat is not the Scavs’ sense of betrayal, but Tom Cruise’s overwhelming guilt and recognition that no reconciliation is possible.
The problem with this movie (of the manifold problems with this movie) is that it’s baffling: the removal of Olga Kurylenko’s character has such a profound and necessary impact on the plot, making it both stronger and more sensible, that it boggles the mind why she was included in the first place. Either they started out with a pretty good idea, then added an extra character and kept having to have to make junky changes in order to give her something to do, or else they STARTED with an extra character, then proceeded to edit her out, then stopped before they were finished.
The internet tells me that Oblivion was based on a graphic novel by Joseph Kosinksi, but actually maybe it was based on an illustrated novel by Joseph Kosinski, but actually maybe it was based on an eight-page illustrated PITCH by Joseph Kosinski, then turned into an illustrated novel while it was being turned into a movie, and it doesn’t matter because you don’t seem to be able to get the illustrated novel anywhere, anyway. All of which means, I don’t know what the story originally looked like, so I can’t say whether Joseph Kosinski dropped the ball, or someone knocked it out of his hands.