“I know I’m dreaming, but it feels like more than that, it feels like a memory. How can that be?” Thank you, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise). With this and about several more minutes of somber exposition, he lays out his place in Oblivion. Each day, he says, he makes his way from his shiny apartment on stilts to Earth’s surface where he works as a drone repairman. It’s 2077 and the drones patrol the planet — or at least his little desert corner of it — in search of scavs, creatures who started a war that is now over — but it destroyed the world.
Jack believes he cannot have a memory because he knows his memories have been “wiped”, for his own protection, apparently. And so he says he’s dreaming, even while you know he’ll discover otherwise. And in the meantime, he immerses himself in his current routine, part perilous, part tedious, and all preposterous. He goes forth to find and fix drones, then comes home to converse and sleep with his dispatcher-handler-partner Vicka (Andrea Riseborough).
Here the film makes clear enough its lack of imagination, as it sets Vicka against the woman who appears in Jack’s dreams that might be memories. Where Vicka is at once icy and too perfect, preparing little rectangles of crustless toast for his breakfast each morning, welcoming him home in the evening with amatory smiles and dresses that slip off in an instant, Julia (Olga Kurylenko) is all warm wonderfulness. The dreams posit a gauzy-nostalgic, black-and-white and awfully generic past, wherein the couple meets at the Empire State Building and shares significant gazes.
Jack’s increasing curiosity about his visions is countered, of course, by Vicka’s insistence on keeping to their schedule. This she receives from by a death-starry vessel in the sky called Tet (this may or may not allude to the beginning of the end for the American war in Vietnam). Vicka does her best to keep him on mission each moment, following her own instructions each moment from Tet, with which he communicates by way of a scratchy, regularly irregular video image named Sally (Melissa Leo).
Vicka maintains faith in Tet, believing that, as she’s been told, she and Jack are only a few days away from the end of their successful mission, and they will be rewarded by being sent to join other surviving humans on Titan (a moon in Saturn’s orbit, and a plot point borrowing from science fictions including The Twilight Zone, Blade Runner, and Moon). But Jack has reason to distrust Tet, first as he’s bothered by his dreams that might be memories and second as he does indeed go out each day and deal with Tet’s mistakes that might be deceptions.
You can see how Jack may thrill to being Tom Cruise each day — piloting his awesome ship, shooting his awesome weapons, performing his awesome stunts — he also confronts directly the dangers posed by the drones, which regularly mistake him for a scav, targeting him by way of POV screens marked “Terminate” and colored red. Though Jack typically calls off these attacks, identifying himself by yelling his name and number, such screen views make visible the risk to scavs, who appear at first as scary others, shadows rushing across the screen or bipeds lurking in caves, wearing ooky black helmets and decorative feathers that seem inspired by the stylings of the Lord Humungous. That neither the drones nor the scavs are quite what they seem is predictable, but it still takes Jack most of the film’s running time to sort it out.
This sorting out involves a meeting with Morgan Freeman (not playing God here, but close enough) and also Jack’s recognition that his routine has a function quite different from the one he’s believed. It also involves a couple of detours that underline Jack’s crucial divergence from Vicka. She sees everything Jack does, using a satellite camera system sans limits, peering into holes and caves, past any sort of obstruction with thermal readers.
Or rather, she sees everything, until she doesn’t. She purses her lips and pouts when Jack says he’s “going off comm,” then suggests he not do it, and instead follow the rules. (This opposed to Julia, whose observation is pretty much exactly opposite: “I don’t know what happened,” she tells him, “But you’re not who you think you are.”)
What Vicka can’t know is that Jack is following rules, a whole other set defining a generic movie hero, say, the Tom Cruise hero. Thus, he travels to a sanctuary that’s so broadly drawn that you can’t quite tell whether this is a joke or a fantasy or yet another sig of the movie’s utter lack of imagination. Off comm, Jack maintains a cabin beyond cameras (however unlikely), situated on green grass near a flowing river, outfitted with books with portentous titles like A Tale of Two Cities, as well as other precious remnants of earth before the war, a turntable and LPs (Procol Harum, Blue Oyster Cult, Duran Duran), a Yankees cap and a pair of Tom Cruisey Ray-Bans, and oh yes! a stuffed King Kong doll, scavenged from what’s left of the Empire State Building (ding ding ding!).
It’s not the sanctuary per se that makes Oblivion so odious, even if it is the easiest possible emblem of Julia’s great goodness, and so, Jack’s fate. What makes the sanctuary odious is Vicka’s relationship to it. For her anxiety concerning his off comm moments is not only a function of her personal feelings, but also of her own potential complexity, a potential the film can’t seem to fathom. As Vicka wants so desperately to believe in Tet and in Titan, she seems almost a post-apocalyptic Betty Draper, taut, tense, indoctrinated but also, sometimes, chafing.
These tensions, barely visible, make Vicka the film’s most compelling figure. When Jack disappears, she makes excuses, to herself and to Sally. Asked again and again by Sally to confirm that she and Jack are an “effective team,” or “still an effective team”, Vicka nods and smiles, her meticulously manicured fingernails trace over the touch screen and her eyes not quite watery. Though Jack must discover who he is (and so engage in a Tom Cruise-on-Tom-Cruise throwdown so absurd and shockingly brilliant that you almost forgive the film for everything else it does), Vicka cannot. She’s trapped inside a dream that’s a memory that’s a cliché.