Stop Being Mean: A Defense of Oblivion (2013)

Jack Harper looking out over a barren landscape, the giant fusion energy generators siphoning water in the background.
I’m not a model, the camera just turned on by itself.

Look, I know. I can imagine with crystal clarity what your face looks like right now. “Really?” your eyebrows seem to say as they travel ever further towards the stratosphere. “This is the hill you are willing to die on?”

To that I say: bear with me for a hot second while I invite you to join me among the lush highland dunes of films whose critical reception I get vocally angry about whenever anyone hands me alcohol at parties.

Oblivion is a great film. There, I said it. I am not even willing to soften it to “Oblivion has its moments” or “Oblivion was not nearly as bad as everyone said it was”.

In my humble opinion, Oblivion is the most underrated film to come out in the year 2013. I don’t actually know which other underrated films, if any, came out that year, but I’m pretty sure Oblivion would still be at the top of the list even if I did.

And I am going to explain why that is. In detail, with with words. Strap in (and beware the spoilers, I guess).

Stop Being Mean About The Plot

Jack Harper falls through a sinkhole into an underground complex.
Team Rocket blasting off agaaaaaaaaain…

The most common complaint critics seem to have is that its plot was derivative, underwhelming and predictable. If you made a word cloud out of its reviews, those words would probably dwarf the rest as effectively as a homicidal space AI might loom over Tom Cruise. An accusation regularly thrown Oblivion’s way is that it is wholesale ripped off from Moon (2009). Given that Moon came out a few years earlier and also features a sci-fi narrative with surprise cloning, it’s easy to see why people came to that conclusion (even if they’re wrong).

Oblivion’s narrative was in fact written way before Moon had ever come out. It started in the form of a graphic novel which Oblivion’s director Joseph Kasinski began writing in 2005. The graphic novel was never actually published—RIP in peace, sweet prince, we barely knew ye—and Kasinski instead used it to pitch the film to studios. The ensuing screenplay went through some rewrites, but the core of the story remained the same—and while it of course borrows from the sci-fi canon that came before it, the idea that it’s entirely derivative is unfair and untrue and, most importantly, gives me stress wrinkles. Can we please keep my skincare budget in mind when we’re writing our film reviews, guys?

Ultimately all science fiction relies on and reworks stories previously told by someone else. It’s a staple of the genre partly because it’s an aspect inherent to speculative fiction in general, and partly because our ideas about what constitutes the Other have been surprisingly constant over the years. It’s why we still visually borrow from Star Wars and it’s why fantasy is chock full of g-ddamn elfs (sorry, elves). It’s why Moon and Oblivion both raise questions of personhood and agency using clones, and it’s why there is space for both of them (get it? Space? They’re both set in space).

But even apart from sci-fi’s inherent borrowing, the idea that Oblivion’s narrative is boring or badly written simply isn’t true. Sure, the five minutes of uninterrupted verbal exposition at the start made me roll my eyes*, but I would still rather get it out of the way and jump straight to the plot than have to put up with half an hour of careful Show Don’t Tell style exposition put there solely to satisfy nitpicking Youtube commenters. Is CuckMonster3000 really the type of audience you want to bow to?

After the fairly milquetoast opening the film escalates tension at a perfect pace. From Sally’s slow descent from merely unsettling to downright menacing, to all the little stolen moments that make up the TET’s version of reality, Oblivion culminates in a way that makes me feel all warm and gooey about science fiction as a genre. The world building is carefully enriched with small details like Jack’s co-pilot “Bob”—an Elvis bobblehead that he clearly doesn’t recognize as the hip-swinging musical colonizer, but that still sparks enough recognition of the past to influence its name. That’s good sci-fi writing!

Even the predictability of the first plot twist did not bother me at all—and not only because I enjoy feeling smart when I manage to figure things out before the movie tells them to me (please don’t judge me. It’s my only reliable source of outside validation). The viewer railroading in the first act can understandably chafe for some, but in my opinion, it’s worth it  to make the second plot twist hit harder. Surprise! You thought you had this plot all figured out? Well, you didn’t! Might as well roll in baking soda because you just got double twisted like fresh soft pretzels. Booyah.

“But Charlie, what about the ending?” you say. Well. We don’t talk about the ending.

Stop Being Mean About The Visuals

A barren landscape with a single obelisk marring it.
Very #grammable.

I realize my next words are the written equivalent of deliberately poking the drone’s nest but: film is a visual medium. That’s why movies are not called audiobooks. You would think that the visual components of a film would compose a great big chunk of all the ‘-ception’ words to do with it, like its inception and it’s critical reception. And yet a whole lot of reviews of Oblivion had very little to say about its visuals and a whole lot to say about a whole bunch of other stuff. Look, if you want to position yourself as an expert on a specific medium and get paid to tell people your opinion on it, I think it’s only fair that you take into account the literal biggest aspect of it that distinguishes it from other mediums: the funny little moving pictures.

And Oblivion is really, really, really good at those.

The sprawling scenery, captured sometimes in tightly edited tracking shots and sometimes in arching wide shots, is so gorgeous that it make me wanna hurl. After sitting through so many post-apocalyptic movies in which film makers clearly thought the only way to get the right atmosphere going was to make everything look really ugly and… orange, Oblivion is a desperately needed breath of fresh air.

But this isn’t just about mere aesthetic appreciation. Those vast, grey landscapes under that brilliantly blue sky are beautiful enough to make me want to rend tissue paper, but more than that, they’re petrifying in their complete lifelessness. Oblivion takes advantage of something I feel many post-apocalyptic film makers overlook: the horror inherent in how beautiful death can be. Looking at those pristine dunes entirely devoid of life hurts more than any amount of carnage and destruction could. I mean, carnage and destruction is kind of ‘been there, done that’ anyway. We’ve all been to Croydon, Hollywood.

This also ties neatly into the aesthetics of the TET and how it contrasts with that of the scavengers. The scavs are deliberately scruffy, drab in colour, and radiate distrust. The TET’s creations on the other hand are sleek, seamless, and beautiful. Also, they’re all designed for murder, household appliances probably included. The sleek lifelessness of the post-apocalyptic earth and the TET are both related and informed by each other.

Being lured into a false sense of security by technology that pretends to be cute would never happen in real life! Alexa, buy Oblivion on Blu-ray.

It’s not a coincidence that the drones are pleasantly round and make friendly little beeping noises and have big ol’ “eyes”. Those are all aspects meant to endear them to humans, who are genetically predisposed to recognize faces and dole out empathy based on that. Everything about the TET, from the appearance of its minions to the state it left the world in, is meant to lull the viewer into a false sense of security without compromising the sense of unease crafted by the narrative.

Whenever story and visuals work together so perfectly it makes me feel kind of tingly all over, especially considering how many sci-fi blockbusters just copy and paste the same stuff without putting any thought into why things look the way they do. Everything you’re looking at in Oblivion, from the muted colour grading to the costume and set design, is carefully crafted for maximum effect. How about you give that some recognition? Douchebags.

Stop Being Mean About The Soundtrack

It slaps.

Stop Being Mean, Fullstop

Wish I could strut across post-apocalyptic cat walks with that much confidence…

Level with me here, dear reader. We are stuck in a maelstrom of Hollywood pumping out franchise sequels faster than the internet can agree on how much they hated the previous instalment and think tanks devoted to figuring out which decade to reboot next. At this point the promise of an original and, most importantly, standalone sci-fi blockbuster is enough to drive me to commit unspeakable acts (like writing entire articles solely to defend the honour of films no one but me has thought about since they came out.)

Why oh why is Oblivion regarded as a stain on the career of everyone involved in it and collectively snubbed like it insulted your new haircut? 52% on Rotten Tomatoes? The Grinch reboot has 57% and I haven’t been able to escape that green bastard for months now even though it’s February!

Oblivion has some genuinely great acting from all of its leads (Andrea Riseborough in particular). It has drone fights in glaciers. It has Tom Cruise conversing with fish. It has an innate understanding of the fact that the only valid female AI is a homicidal pyramid. Can we please, for fuck’s sake, just stop being mean about it.

*Speaking of borrowing from Star Wars…

Author: Charlie

Charlie is a lizard parent, AI apologist and spreadsheet enthusiast currently living in the UK. When they're not pressing worms, they can usually be found imbibing their body weight in fruit smoothies, playing incremental games, and embarrassing themselves in front of street cats. They like soft pretzels, science fiction, maths, and dirt. They are definitely a human being. They have flesh. They promise.

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