“Oblivion” was a Tom Cruise science fiction movie that included amazing visual effects. Yet the movie only got a mediocre response in the American market but did better overseas. So what happened?
“Oblivion” is actually a decent, but not great movie. In mulling over its lukewarm reception, I think “Oblivion” suffers from two problems.
First, if you’ve seen other science fiction movies like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Planet of the Apes,” you’ll see lots of similar ideas in”Oblivion.” So there’s nothing new and different in “Oblivion” that you haven’t seen before.
Second, “Oblivion” is structurally sound with a decent story although it may not be completely original. One problem is that “Oblivion” isn’t really about anything.
In “Star Wars,” the story was about the Force, which gives the plot a somewhat mystical experience. Look at all the wannabe science fiction movies that Hollywood churned out in the aftermath of “Star Wars,” thinking that people wanted to see science fiction. Most of those other movies simply faded despite action and special effects. Most of these bad science fiction movies were simply action films disguised with futuristic costumes and sets. What they were missing was a strong theme that integrated the action.
In “Blade Runner,” the movie was about what makes us human? In the original “Planet of the Apes,” the movie was about how evolved are humans really? In “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the movie was about the human race evolving. What was “Oblivion” about? Just plot with action, that’s all.
That’s where I think “Oblivion” failed. Structurally, the story elements are all there with a hero slowly discovering a mystery and learning what’s really going on in his world. Yet there’s a distinct lack of a theme of any kind. What’s “Oblivion” about? What is “Oblivion” trying to tell us? Not much when you think about it, and that’s a major failing of “Oblivion.
“Oblivion” is actually an interesting story, but the lack of a strong theme means it’s all action and nothing else. Some other failed science fiction movies include “Prometheus” and “Elysium.” “Elysium” had a theme about the haves and the have nots that got a bit overwhelming, but “Elysium” failed to fully integrate that theme into a compelling story. “Prometheus” had lots of ideas about who created us and why, but failed to answer any of its questions that it posed, leaving you feeling empty and unsatisfied at the end.
The lesson from “Oblivion” is that if you’re going to write a movie, you need an original story. Then you need a strong theme to make that story more memorable and emotional. Stories should be about something, even if it’s as simple as making us realize that the good guys always win in a pure action flick like “The Expendables.” Even “The Lego Movie” had a theme that told us about the dangers of rigidity and conformity.
Use a theme that tells us something about ourselves.
That seems to be two points that “Oblivion” failed to do, which explains why “Oblivion” wound up being a visually stunning movie that failed to connect with as many people as the studio probably hoped.