This is Part One of a review/craft breakdown of the movie Oblivion. Happily, Part One is pretty much spoiler-free; nothing you wouldn’t see in the previews.

Oblivion movie poster

Directed by Joseph Kosinski, 2013

So, after seeing a whole lot of films that seemed to be written by either a team of trained monkeys with typewriters or the vast and terrible Hollywood Machine, boy was Oblivion a lovely breath of fresh air. (Apparently others disagree, but lo, I will break it down yo why this film is good.)

The film wasn’t really on my radar; I tend to roll my eyes whenever Tom Cruise is in anything. And the irony of Tom Cruise’s  Scientologist ass in a film that involves hostile alien takeover was not lost on me. Thetans eat your heart out. Cruise aside, though (and seriously, I *almost* forgot it was him), I am a huge sucker for dystopian stories. So Oblivion is right up my alley. Also, the whole damn score is by M83, orchestrated by the guy who worked with Daft Punk on the TRON: Legacy soundtrack. Also, the movie would be worth seeing in theaters for the visuals alone.

But a lot of movies have rad soundtracks and pretty visuals. I mean, that was true of TRON: Legacy,  Joseph Kosinski’s first go at film directing. But this movie had so much more going on.

So, what this movie has that so many do not:

  1. Careful and strategic worldbuilding (which actually could have been slightly *more* careful at the end, but hey. It still outclassed many sci-fi releases of the past decade)
  2. Here’s the kicker: Really well-designed, active characters that all had clear motivations upon which they acted.
  3. Kicker No. 2: A clear “ticking clock” in every scene that drove the plot forward.
  4. Nice use of symbolic props.

So many films tend to forget these, particularly number two. Seriously. It is oddly difficult to write active characters, even when you’re trying. It’s so much easier to throw big scary monsters at your characters and see how they’ll REACT.

So, let me break down the beginning, non-spoilery bit so you can see what I’m talking about.

We begin by meeting two characters:

Jack Harper and Victoria, or “Vic” Olsen. They live in a ivory tower of a fancy house on top of a giant pole that lands them well above lightning-filled doom clouds.

Jack and Vic's house


Jack Harper is a mechanic. He explains his job in voice-over: He fixes the drones that repair the machines that suck up the ocean that powers the getaway vehicle (a giant tetrahedron craft called The Tet) that has all remaining humanity on it and will shortly be bound for Titan (Saturn’s moon) since Earth is wrecked (radiation, hostile aliens called Scavs) after the big ol’ war where the alien invasion force blew up the moon then invaded. (Worldbuilding, anyone?) But day-to-day, he fixes drones.

Jack fixes a drone.

Jack Harper, played by Tom Cruise.

Vic is Jack’s controller. She stays up in the tower. She’s a line between Mission Control on the Tet and Jack; she literally watches his back for Scavs and other hazards while he does his job. She’s pretty frigging anxious to get out. At the beginning of the movie, she can’t stop thinking about how it’s two more weeks, and then they’ll go up to the Tet and be whisked off to Titan with everyone else. She’s doing her damnedest to hold it together for just two more weeks, and trying to get Jack to do the same. (Ticking clock, anyone?)

Vic at her control desk.

Victoria “Vic” Olsen, played by Andrea Riseborough.

Jack and Vic are in charge of a limited section of territory in between radiation zones. Hint: It’s New York. The only other things we know about Jack and Vic: They’ve had a mandatory “memory wipe” so that they cannot reveal secrets should they be captured by hostile aliens. Jack has memories of Old Earth and a woman he doesn’t know.

Vic is actively trying to get out; she’s ready to go and is doing everything she can to survive these last two weeks to Titan. Jack is trying to preserve the memories of Old Earth as much as he can before they leave. He’s also curious. And, as with any good story, today is the day something different happens.

  • Major Dramatic Question: Will Jack solve the mystery of what happened to his world and who this woman is? (Will Jack be able to preserve his world?)
  • Passover Question: Why is tonight different than any other night….? Well…”An object has come down in Sector 17″ is all I’ll say.

Apparently Kosinski got Tom Cruise to sign on based on the little Oblivion comic/ashcan book, and then spent a year working on the script. And to my mind, it shows! Michael Arndt, of screenwriter for Little Miss Sunshine, was among the writing team.

Other cast members include Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, That One Guy From Game of Thrones, and Xena’s Friggin’ Stunt Double.

Okay, now go see it already! Next post will be filled with Spoilery, spoilery spoilers. I plan on tracking the character motivations and symbolic props throughout the whole thing in a delightfully anal-retentive way.