Hear me now and believe me later in the week: OBLIVION is an interesting and beautiful movie that could have been classic.
Why did it flop?
Let’s look at the prime suspects:
5) Tom Cruise fatigue
This is an easy target. Cruise has gone from “Biggest Movie Star on the Planet” to “Incredibly Excited Actor Jumping on Oprah’s Couch” to “Scientologist Who Gets Divorced a Lot.”
As a huge fan of Lee Child’s Reacher novels, I have to say that Reacher is something like 6’5, 250, blond and quietly sarcastic, while Cruise is short, light, dark-haired and loudly cocky.
HOWEVER: I will give the man his due, because Cruise did a fine job of acting in this movie. The average sci-fi apocalypse movie would have a hot new 20-something actor mumble his way through the thing looking stoned while trying to seem macho. Cruise was an upgrade from the typical New Action Hunk.
You could’ve put Matt Damon, Ryan Gosling or George Clooney in this sucker and it wouldn’t solve the problem. Cruise gets a pass.
4) Double mumbo-jumbo
Screenwriter Blake Snyder (may he rest in peace) says in SAVE THE CAT that audiences will buy one crazy piece of magic or sci-fi. They’ll buy a giant robot assassins with heavy Austrian accents or they’ll buy witches with real magic powers–but they won’t suspend disbelief to see a movie featuring magical witches battling a robot assassin.
Audiences might buy sci-fi techno stuff mixed in with a little magic if you distract them with lightsabers and don’t try to over-explain the magical stuff. But if you start talking like an idiot about the magic being caused by science, say something insane like “midi-chloridians,” they will turn on you, and hate you for ruining things forever.
OBLIVION throws all kinds of stuff in here: an apocalypse, an alien invasion, evil robot drones, massive human cloning, frozen astronauts who are 85 years old or whatever plus and a serious fetish for spiffy helicopter-things.
All of this, however, is under the happy umbrella of technology. Even the craziest stuff seems plausible given the setting of the movie. Also: Cruise should spend his salary from this movie to make a working replica of his helicopter-jet thing, which I’m gonna call the Tom-mobile.
3) Insanely confusing plot
This is a good suspect. While the movie technically avoid the double mumbo-jumbo trap because it’s all science, there are enough plot threads to weave a throw rug.
We’ve got dream sequences in black-and-white, Morgan Freeman channeling Morpheus by way of Mad Max, some Minority Report flavorings and a dozen other subplots thrown into the blender.
Even so, the director holds it together. You understand it. So the confusing parts of the plot aren’t what keeps this movie from being an instant classic.
2) Happy endings are for suckers
The ending is happy, which fanboys never like. Tom Cruise Clone #1 and the dying Morgan Freeman blow themselves up in the mothership of the aliens, saving the world, and later we see Tom Cruise Clone # 2 finding his wife and baby daughter.
Reunited and it feels so good. Except it doesn’t feel great.
1) The villain
There are three parts to a villain, which I’m making that up right now.
Let’s call it Guy’s First Law of Villainy, which states villains must be motivated, fascinating and scary.
Motivated: If your villain is simply doing bad things for no reason, it’s nonsensical.
This is a huge problem with OBLIVION, since these aliens invading Earth go through all kinds of trouble to (a) find Earth in the first place, (b) travel a bazillion light years to get to our precious rock orbiting the sun, (c) wage a long and brutal war to gain control of the planet so they can … (d) suck up all the water in our oceans to create nuclear fusion or whatever.
Water is no big flipping deal. Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe. Oxygen isn’t exactly rare. You can find water on asteroids, comets and planets. There’s some moon orbiting Jupiter or Saturn that we think is a giant ball of water with a frozen crust of ice on top.
I don’t buy aliens going through massive amounts of trouble to steal our water. Sci-fi needs to make sense, because sci-fi fans are smart people who care about this stuff. So this is a huge problem.
Fascinating and scary:
If you’re going to have an alien invasion movie, don’t forget the aliens.
OBLIVION has no aliens. I kid you not.
It has all kinds of drones, which look like angry flying cousins of Pac Man, yet tiny little drones aren’t scary of fascinating. Give us big, threatening bad guys, not cute little ones.
Who is the ultimate villain of the movie? A big faceless computer.
That’s not fascinating or scary. At all.
To make this movie work, we needed amazing aliens, the kind that are incredibly fun to watch. ALIEN got this right, as did ALIENS.
PROMETHEUS forgot about this rule, and therefore wasted the gross domestic product of Paraguay on Michael Fassbender and special effects for no good reason.
This is the reason OBLIVION failed as an alien invasion classic: no aliens. You can’t expect audiences to go wild for a boring, faceless computer as the bad guy.
It’s the same trap that doomed THE MATRIX sequels. We never saw Neo battle the ultimate bad guy in charge of the machines. He died playing anti-virus cleaner for the machine lords, which put the B in Boring.