Oblivion is the result of too much story and not enough canvas. Think of a house with a tiny frame, or a painting wadded up into a crumpled ball. The story — trust me, it’s in there somewhere — is a compelling work of creative fiction that both reveals and represses human nightmares of technological development. A speculative creation of a sweeping, gothic variety, Oblivion is too ambitious and in its efforts to say too much all at once, its message becomes lost in a frenzied shout of sound and fury.
Oblivion tells the story of Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), known also as Tech-49, a technician dispatched to restore drones that malfunction on Earth’s surface. This is the year 2077 by the way, and Earth is no longer inhabitable. The last remaining humans live on Saturn’s moon, Titan — an idealized paradise as distant and elusive as Eden after the Fall. Jack is part of a two-person team alongside his assigned partner and lover, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). They live in Tower-49, a high rise near the clouds where they’re safe above the contamination and danger. They receive their orders from a floating tetrahedron known as the “Tet” and a distant mission control commander known as Sally (Melissa Leo). Sally communes with Victoria while Jack roots through the ruins of post-apocalyptic Manhattan. Just another day on the job.
But little by little things start going wrong. Jack has memories he cannot shake of a time before his birth. He also remembers a woman who he has never met before. All of these things were supposed to have been deleted from his memory and yet they persist. He finds their presence troubling. On Earth, the newly repaired drones become prone to fits of uncharacteristic violence, resulting in several near misses. Mysterious creatures scuttle through shadows and darkness attempting to trap him in the ruins of an old library. The worst comes when Jack observes a NASA space vessel crash land, ejecting a series of strange pods to the ground.
Jack rushes to help and discovers that the pods are actually ship survivors in cryogenic hibernation. He saves one from the destructive path of a rogue drone and lugs it back to his tower home. He and Victoria manage to revive the survivor. She is the woman from Jack’s dreams, and she knows his name.
I’ll end the summary now for the sake of spoilers but be aware that I’ve explained less than a third of what the actual story is. In screen time, these events take up nearly half the film and leave much to be wondered in the film’s final moments. A series of hurried voice overs and monologues shared between Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman (don’t forget, he’s in this movie too) lay the shaky foundation of the world we’re inhabiting but are insufficient in creating a self-contained womb in which we can sit back and allow the story to absorb us. It’s a good effort, but an overwhelming result.
What interests me most about the Oblivion universe is its multitextual domain. A graphic novel exists not as a precursor but as a complement to the filmed story, and there are undoubtedly more works on the horizon. It’s my suspicion that this attempt to be mutable across different genres is what led to the concentration of story that derailed what could have been a promising film.
Consider my earlier article on the tricks of exposition in science fiction and you’ll be reminded of more organic routes of worldbuilding. Oblivion is the wrong medium in the wrong way — resembling a Penrose Triangle of story where the beginning, middle and ends merge together at impossible angles to make an impossible shape. I look forward to the emergence of a medium that can continue this story in a less limiting fashion, allowing its universe to unfold naturally with less of an agenda and more of an experience.
In its eagerness to cram as much story possible into a limited frame, Oblivion overloaded its circuits. I will not make the same mistake. There is more here to be discussed and I plan to digest it more at length in future articles.