I finally had the opportunity to see Tom Cruise’s most recent sci-fi epic, Oblivion, and it inspired a few thoughts. First of all, note that this is not a review. I found the film relatively entertaining, if a bit long, and Cruise was his usual combination of charming and competent, but other than that I have little to say on the subject of whether Oblivion was “good.” Rather, I am more concerned about what the movie represents in regards to science fiction plotting and the interaction between drama and speculative elements in SF.
Be aware that in the following paragraphs, spoilers for Oblivion abound. If you have not seen the movie and wish to, please do so then come back and read.
Oblivion is a post apocalyptic film set in the aftermath of an alien invasion. We are told, through Cruises’s protagonist character Jack Harper, that alien beings called Scavs broke the moon, which sent the Earth’s climate and geology into chaos. They took over the desolate remains while humans moved to Saturn’s moon Titan. Only Jack, his partner Victoria and a space station called the Tet remained. Jack and Victoria were tasked with ensuring that giant fusion producing oceanic power plants remained operational so that the Titan colony/refuge would have power and, at the opening of the film, they only had two weeks to go before they themselves were freed to meet the rest of humanity at Titan. Oh yeah (and here’s the suspicious part) Jack and Victoria were operating after a mandatory, mission-security required memory wipe that ocurred five years earlier. Couple that with imagery of Cruise’s character and an unidentified woman (read: not Victoria) in “modern day” New York City and there’s all the reason in the world for the audience to distrust the narrative as it has been presented us.
Without bothering to go to deeply into the twists and turns of the actual plot of the film, here is the circumstances as they are revealed to actually be by the end of the film: Jack Harper, Victoria and the woman from New York named Julia were all astronauts on a mission to Titan when the alien Tet structure arrived in orbit. It abducted Jack and Victoria (Julia, Jack’s wife, was among other astronauts in “sleep pods” and Jack managed to eject that portion of their ship before being abducted) before breaking the moon and invading the earth with an army of Jack clones. That was fifty years before the film started (revealed five minutes before it ended, however). After humanity was all but wiped out (human survivors filled in as the Scavs in the Tet’s narrative to Jack and Julia) the cloned astronauts were set up as essentially maintenance workers — their job was to keep heavily armed drones operational while the giant oceanic power plants bled the planet dry so the Tet would, one surmises, move on to the next system and start the process all over again. Not bad for fifty years’ work, especially presuming centuries or millennia in transit between star systems.
It is long and convoluted but overall serviceable as a sci-fi plot, except for one aspect, which is what inspired this essay: never, in all the back story or display of current circumstances, is a reason ever provided for why human clones are ever needed at all, ever, even a little bit.
The central conceit from a dramatic perspective, that Tom Cruise’s character is a clone and the memories found in that clone will allow him to fall back in love with a long frozen wife who fell back to Earth and in so doing inspire said clone to rebel against its creator and free the human race, has exactly zero reasons to exist in the first place. Why does an alien entity that can create hyper-capable killing machine drones need an army of human clones for the initial invasion or, more inexplicably, a human duo (in love and apparently having little to do in the off hours than go skinny dipping) to maintain its massive energy consumption system. Moreover, why does it need to create multiple sets of that couple unit and quardan them off into sectors (through the use of fictitious radiation zones) so that each set can maintain drones and go skinny dipping? The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t and that is just what needs to happen to get the story to turn on its dramatic fulcrum and shut up and eat your nine dollar popcorn.
There is nothing wrong with story conceits, character or setting or otherwise, that bring the audience to a particular place, emotionally. However, I believe that if you know what you want to do and where you want to bring your audience, you need to support those things throughout the work, whether prose or film or game or anything else, and make it happen organically and naturally, at least from the audience perspective. Ultimately, everything in fiction is a conceit and every dramatic turn is a manipulation. The key is to make your audience forget that while they are engaged in the work.
Working backward from the big reveal or the story climax gives the creator the opportunity to build a support structure for that reveal or climax, to ensure that it satisfies the expectations set by the body of the work. Demanding of oneself as a creator consistency and internal logic in the story creates a better experience and empowers the audience: their expectation, anticipation and even pride over having figured out what is going to happen is much more powerful than the disappointment or confusion born in a poorly thought out plot point or unsupported twist ending.
In the case of Oblivion, what was needed was a believable reason for the clone situation. Every other story element grows out of that conceit and on it hinges all the emotional resonance of the film. As the writer of a story like Oblivion, you would have to ask yourself what kind of being the Tet should be that it needs to clone humans rather than use its own “native” machines to get the job done. I won’t bother listing different options that I think would make it work because, as science fiction fans and writers yourselves, I am sure you can see right off the bat a number of potential explanations. The point is that speculative explanations exist that would be more satisfying than the non-answers provided in the film itself.
I do think that in general science fiction films are more commonly guilty of unsupported conceits than other works and media. Films are very expensive and must appeal to a diverse audience in order to be considered successful. I think that it is common for producers of such films to assume a less than creative and intelligent audience and therefore push for easy, if nonsensical under even moderately close scrutiny, explanations for the central conceits of those films. Ironically, this attitude does not seem to help such films very much and sci-fi films bomb more often than not. That films that are often considered surprising hits, like District 9 or Moon, are often those that treat their intended audience with a modicum of respect and assume a degree of intelligence and sophistication.
Oblivion could have been a very good science fiction film but was instead merely “okay” because it failed to fully consider how its speculative elements interacted with its dramatic ones. I think it makes for a valuable cautionary example in that regard, a reminder to creators who want so bad to get to a narrative or emotional place in their stories that they ignore the details of the path to that place. Emotional investment requires a lot of trust and plot holes and bad or missing explanations violate that trust, making for a far less satisfying experience.
By all means, watch Oblivion. It is a reasonably entertaining ride despite its flaws. But if you write science fiction, take note of where it fails to provide a strong narrative foundation for its final dramatic construction.