9 Big Questions Left Unanswered by ‘Oblivion’

By  · Published on April 20th, 2013

Oblivion is the kind of science fiction movie that plays with a lot of other movies’ toys and forgets to clean them up afterward. Then we all step on a HAL 9000 doll in the middle of the night when we’re going for that last piece of fried chicken in the fridge, and the bruise reminds us to yell rhetorically at the Tom Cruise-starring movie the next morning. How many times have we told it to pick up its things?

The movie’s created some mixed responses, but it’s also left behind some huge questions. Plot holes, really, if we’re being honest. It’s messy for how hard it tries to be smart. Some of those questions are inconsequential, some slightly annoying and some vital to what could have been sci-fi success. On their own, they could have amounted to nitpicks, but the sheer number of them (and the severity of a few) made for a truly confused experience.

Spoilers for Oblivion abound so beware, but if you’ve already seen or just plain don’t care, let’s dive in to the bizarre question marks looming high in the sky over Joseph Kosinski’s latest film.

1. Why Was Beech Always Wearing Sunglasses?

This one’s just a mild annoyance, but Morgan Freeman spends the entire time wearing dark sunglasses literally in places where the sun doesn’t shine. They live underground, but he’s rocking BluBlockers. It’s not a mystery though. The answer: because it looks cool.

It has no real explanation within the story itself, but Oblivion’s mantra is that it’s better to look good than to make sense, and this one is a very minor quibble that’s common for big action movies. Unfortunately, this will be the answer for some of the other questions as well.

2. How Did the Scavs Know About the Sleeping Pod and How to Bring It To Earth?

The first major plot development comes when Jack Harper #49 has to investigate a signal beacon that’s coming from the edge of the radiation zone. On top of the Empire State Building ruins, he gets some flashback jitters, finds the source and disables it, but it’s too late. It’s already done its work bringing Olga Kurylenko’s character Julia and her crew back down to Earth.

Later on, the Scavs give a short group history that involves a military background and the wartime survival of staying near Chicago (because it’s unaffected by earthquakes and massive tidal change…), but nothing in it explains how their group could have intimate, classified knowledge of the NASA mission, how the breakaway module worked, or what sequence of code could bring it back.

So how did they know the sleeping pod was out there in space still? How did they know the brief Morse Code combination to draw it back down to earth? And is that how sleeping pod recall would really work? You send a few bleeps into outer space for ten minutes, and a sleeping pod falls down?

But let’s do the script’s work for it and assume for a second that there was a NASA employee or someone with knowledge of the spacecraft’s workings who survived alongside the group that would become the Scavs. Let’s assume that they knew somehow how to do all this because one of their own was in Houston when the Tet first arrived and made their way up to safe ol’ Chicago.

Why did they wait 60 years to do it?

3. Why Would the Aliens Need to Clone Jack and Victoria in the First Place?

Oblivion Riseborough
“Who are we kidding? You’re going to divorce me when I turn 33 anyway.”

As we learn from the NASA mission recorder, Jack and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are sucked up into the alien Tet and cloned. But why? Imagine for a moment that you’re an incredibly powerful, very successful alien force that plans on destroying the planet in front of you. You’ve perfected the art of doing it after pillaging several other planets, but now a tiny little shuttle is headed your way with weird fleshy pink things inside. Your instinct is to halt your own well-oiled plan in order to make more of them?

The aliens went through a lot of work and presumably a lot of whatever currency aliens use in order to make a ton of copies of Jack and Victoria, and it achieved…exactly nothing.

No one is fooled by the clones (except the clones themselves), and all they do is maintain the alien tech that’s draining the world of its last resources. They couldn’t get other alien machine grunts to do that? And if not, how did they take care of their own society before they got sweet worker bee clones? They had to have some kind of maintenance bots, right?

Granted, cloning Jack and Victoria once and sending them back to earth as spies/saboteurs makes a lot of sense (even if two people couldn’t really do that much damage), but why clone hundreds of them? Why keep up the charade of the “memory erase” and the “completion of the mission” followed by the “return to Saturn’s moon to live peacefully with all other humans”? They created a bunch of meat piles just so they could lie to them about their identity? And get them to do menial labor? Is this the alien’s version of The Game?

And where did they get all the cloning tech in the first place? They meet their first two human beings ever and know right then how to manipulate our DNA?

But, okay, assuming that they had some sort of hidden alien reason for building a lot of oblivious handymen, and that they somehow knew how to do it because they’re simply really advanced, it still leaves the bigger question:

4. If 49 is a Clone, Why Does He Have Jack Harper’s Memories?

Seriously, that’s not how clones work. It’s just not. He looks like him, has shared DNA, but boiling a new Tom Cruise will not give that freshly cooked human his DNA-donor’s memories. Same hair color? Sure. Experience of how he romantically proposed to his wife on top of a tall building? No way.

So maybe they stored Jack’s memory information in order to make sure he could, you know, speak English and walk around without falling over. In that case, they initially either give him limited information or they give him his full memory only to wipe it later. If it’s the former (and they had the power to selectively upload memories), why would they upload memories of his wife at all? Just give him speech and movement and repair skills and be done with it. If it’s the latter, that’s moronic. Still, they were smart to choose Cruise because Jim Carrey didn’t take to having his memory wiped well at all.

None of it makes sense. They’re growing all these clones so they can trick them (and only them) into thinking they’re helping the humans, and somehow accidentally (or intentionally?) giving some of them dangerous old memories from the guy they cloned.

Why not just send more drones down when others get shot down? Why not send robots to repair the drones? Why build crazy sky houses with swimming pools and concoct elaborate lies in order to fool the thing you just made? Better yet, why not just tell the new clones that they’re your children – or that you’re God – teach them whatever values you want them to know and then send them down to Earth to complete that mission?

5. How Does Beech Know Which Part of the Book Jack Read?

Oblivion Morgan Freeman
“These sunglasses are actually ‘always see what Jack is doing’ glasses.”

Taking a break from the fundamental flaws, here’s another small concern that exists solely for dramatic reasons. As most know, Michael Arndt was brought in to polish up the script and give it some humanity, and it’s fairly obvious to see his additions. One of them is most likely the connection that 49 and Beech make over the poem “Horatius,” in the book “The Lays of Ancient Rome.”

49 picks up a copy at his local library after almost being captured by the Scavs, and when he brings it back to his sky house (far away from the sunglasses-covered gaze of Beech) he reads the lines:

And how can man die better

than facing fearful odds,

For the ashes of his fathers,

And the temples of his Gods.

A perfect dramatic encapsulation of the inner struggle facing 49.

When he’s captured by the Scavs, Beech lights up a cigar (which has miraculously survived 60 years in the desert of NYC) and repeats the same exact lines that 49 read. Without knowing what book 49 picked up, without knowing what pages he turned to in his solitude, Beech somehow knows exactly the right passage to quote back to him. It would be annoying as a surface-level contrivance, but it also helps Beech earn 49’s trust, which means he gets the clone to do his bidding by magically knowing a poem.

He later says that he’s been keeping an eye on 49 for some time, but there’s no way he got cameras/spies all the way up in the sky house. So, again, this one is chalked up to dramatic service without any direct logical tie to the plot. For the second time, Beech knows something he couldn’t possibly know, and it helps the story along. Are we sure he isn’t reprising his role from Bruce Almighty here?

6. How Do the Aliens Know How to Copy Sally’s Face and Voice?

The entire artifice perpetrated by the aliens hinges on their ability to connect Victoria and Jack to their former NASA admin Sally (who they inexplicably have memories of). It was awesome to have Melissa Leo crush another role, but how did the aliens know what she looked or sounded like?

They never had any contact with Sally whatsoever. She was on the ground when Victoria and Jack were captured, and their own tractor beam cut off Sally’s feed to the NASA spaceship when it was activated. So how were they able to make a video avatar of her? And why do Vic and Jack remember Sally if their memories were wiped anyway?

7. Why Does 49 Put Julia Back Into a Sleeping Pod To Drop Her Off At the Lake?

“But I want to sacrifice myself and my miracle baby that nobody knows about alongside my fake husband.”

Perhaps the most infuriating lie that the movie tells the audience is when 49 recreates the “dream of us” moment by putting Julia back into her sleep pod. All hope is lost. He volunteers for a suicide mission to deliver a nuclear bomb into the heart of the Tet. He seems to acquiesce to her wish to come with him and die together, and then secures her into a sleeping pod because apparently she wouldn’t want to ride shotgun and spend her last living moments talking to her husband (who isn’t really her husband).

“We have a few more days to be together? Excellent. Now get in this box and don’t talk or move.”

When they arrive in the center of the Tet (after 49 Jedi mind tricks his way into seeing the leader – because he wants to see their species survive? What was all that about?), 49 pops open the sleeping pod and, surprise, it’s Beech! He’s there to act as a decoy prisoner and to see the look on the alien’s non-face when it realizes it’s about to be blown to smithereens.

Only, why did 49 put Julia in the sleeping pod then? And where did they get a second sleeping pod from? All the others were blown up when the drones killed the crew members. Theoretically, 49 put Julia in a sleeping pod to drop her off a few miles away at the lake house?

And, again, if it was to trick her into surviving, why would she silently agree to get into the sleeping pod anyway? If he has to stay awake to fly the craft up to the Tet, why wouldn’t she say, “Oh, the sleeping pod? Why do I need it? I’ll just hang out while you fly. No biggies.”

Of course the real reason is that the movie needed a twist ending, and this was the way to get one. Logic be damned, Oblivion put Julia into the sleeping pod for the sole reason of tricking the audience to think she was with 49 when he flew to blow up the Tet. It also facilitated that insultingly happy ending where all the loose strands just kind of came together.


8. Why Didn’t 49 Give the Scavs Directions to His Lake House?

Oblivion Waldau
“Just give me the address, and I’ll plug it into Google Maps.”

They’ve been living underground, scraping the bottom of civilization for food and shelter for decades. You’ve just fought alongside them to fend off an attack from the real enemy, and you’re going to fly away on a world-saving suicide mission without telling them where your secret oasis is?

That’s cold, 49.

At the end of the movie, there are little twins running around, and we’re told it’s 3 years after 49’s sacrifice. The trees rustle, Julia’s hackles are up, but it’s only the Scavs, supposedly finding habitable land after three years of wandering around looking for it.

What? He couldn’t leave them a note?

9. What Happens to All the Other Jack Clones Now?

Among the Scavs who are probably pissed at 49 for not making a map before he flew off with an inexplicably sleep pod-dwelling Beech, is Clone 52. We met him earlier when 49 fought him, 52 shot Julia, and then he disappeared completely because it was time for the next scene to happen.

But now he’s back, he looks just like Jack, and Julia can be with a copy of her husband once again! Everyone’s happy!

Except, what about all the other Jack Harper clones that are out there? By their assigned numbers alone, there’s likely at least 50 other Jacks out there still stupidly guarding seawater vacuums and making love to Victoria in their sky pool. The geography is never all that clear, but some of them might even be as little as a few miles away, repairing drones that break along the coast in New Jersey or Delaware.

They are going to be really confused when communication with the Tet ceases, and they’re brought into the fold. Probably about as confused as everyone who went to see Oblivion.
That’s probably not even all the plot problems that the movie fails to take care of. What questions were you left scratching your head over when you left the theater?

Correction: An earlier version of this article intimated that Titan was one of Jupiter’s moons when it’s one of Saturn’s. Apologies to our readers and to both planets.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.