12 minor changes to fix Oblivion’s frustrating story

It’s been a while since I watched a movie as impressive and frustrating as “Oblivion.” The visual design is amazing. I know that kind of talk gets thrown around loosely these days, applied to everything from “Drive” to “The Dark Knight Rises” to “Skyfall,” but let’s be clear: those movies can't hold a candle to “Oblivion,” visually. It’s a work of art.

But the story. Man, this movie hits almost every one of my favorite sci-fi tropes. There are so many good ideas here, but it just never gels completely. I walked out of this film wracking my brain as to how they could nail so much of what makes a movie good but still leave me unsatisfied.

I went to see it again today, and I think I have the answers now. What follows will be massive spoilers, of course, if you haven’t seen the film. So go watch it first. Even though it misses greatness, its ambition and scope are definitely worth a theater ticket. At least a matinee.

My high level goal here is to preserve and improve the three mysteries that drive the story: Who is the girl (Olga Kurylenko as Julia) in Jack's dreams? What are the Scavs up to? And who is Jack Harper (Tom Crusie) really? To remove any of these storylines would require a major reworking of the whole story, and I think you can get quite a lot of improvement out of some small changes. Very well then, here are my 12 changes to bring “Oblivion” from flawed to greatness.

1. Cut the intro

The movie starts with a short prologue of sorts, narrated by Jack, which sets up the story about the attack on Earth, the Scavs, Jack’s dreams, his and Victoria’s (Andrea Riseborough) mission and their planned exodus to Titan in two weeks.

Why the change

The intro entirely pointless and undercuts all the mystery at the heart of the story. It’s easy to imagine this was forced on the filmmakers by nervous studio execs. Every piece of information you get here will be delivered more deftly later in the movie anyway. Cutting it gives us a true mystery of a first act, where the viewer is not only unravelling the puzzling oddities that Jack encounters, but what he’s doing on the planet to begin with. It makes his character more interesting, because we get to discover who he is slowly instead of having his whole personality packaged up for us right at the start. Cutting the intro is the biggest one for me. Simply starting it at the “Oblivion” title card would be a massive improvement. They should ship the Blu Ray this way.

2. Jack should find the Iliad and a map

In the movie, after escaping a trap by the Scavs in the remnants of the New York Public Library, Jack finds of copy of The Lays of Ancient Rome and takes it. This leads to much quoting of a rather boring poem later on. It’s barely relevant to the plot at all.

Why the change

This is the part of the movie where Jack should find something, a strange attractor, if you will, that propels the rest of the story forward. So it shouldn't be a boring book about Rome, it should be the Illiad (I’ll come back to this later), and it should be found in the knapsack of one of the dead scavs, along with some indeterminate food stuffs that seem alien enough. And, some sort of map or drawing of the natural archway that Jack flies through later to get to the cabin by the lake. This plants the seeds of doubt in Jack’s mind: why was the scav carrying a book? The second part of this change is that, rather than have had Jack going to this cabin for his whole five years on the mission, he discovers it in-movie. This ties in to Jack’s surprise in the first flying sequence that Vicka loses Jack’s signal when he’s flying in the ravine. He will use that knowledge later to find the cabin.

3. Add some natural barriers to Jack’s sector 49

Jack can only fly so far before he hits the Radiation Zone barriers that will theoretically kill him if he crosses. In the film it’s a desert area. It should be more defined. For instance, on one side: the ocean, on another a high mountain range (probably the Appalachians) and instead of just a desert, make it a desert with perpetual sandstorm clouds at the barrier.

Why the change

This is minor, but it adds to the atmosphere of Jack’s isolation. We want him to appear visually penned in. It makes everything a little more surreal, which you really want for the mystery elements of the story.

4. Jack finds the cabin while chasing a scav

Jack’s bike gets stolen during the New York Public Library sequence. The Scavs give it back to him later. Meanwhile, after traveling to sector 17 to chase the origin of the signal they picked up, he decides to visit his cabin after hitting a dead end at the Radiation Zone. This is too passive. Jack should arrive at sector 17 to find a scav making a getaway on his stolen bike. The scav drives right into the Radiation Zone, forcing Jack to break off pursuit. It’s here that Jack sees the rock formation from the map he found (see change #2) and decides to go off the grid to investigate, and ends up finding the cabin by the lake.

Why the change

This makes the story more propulsive. Jack’s curiosity leads us to the cabin, which, being new to him, is all part of the mystery he’s trying to unravel. And it keeps the Scavs front and center as the theoretical antagonist. It would also help if there was something signature about the Kingslayer’s (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau) scav armor suit. Like red highlights or something, just so that we know when it’s him or Beech (Morgan Freeman). Note: Yes, I know the character’s name is Sykes, but I think it behooves us all to only ever refer to the Kingslayer as the Kingslayer.

5. The cabin isn’t Jack’s, it's 52’s.

Rather than this be Jack’s secret cabin that he’s been coming to for five years, have it be 52’s instead. We won’t know it’s 52’s place at first. The only giveaway will be something minor, like a coffee mug with a 52 on it. He also finds a ripped newspaper page with a picture of the bottom half of a man’s jaw, and the headline “Still Missing.”

Why the change

It plays up the mystery and gives the plot forward momentum. Too much of the first half of the movie feels like just another routine day for Jack Harper, when it should feel like Jack’s routine days ended when the movie began. He can still find all the same stuff there, still listen to Led Zep and shoot a basketball, but it’s all in a mode of discovery that the audience will enjoy after all the shots of apocalyptic wasteland. Your viewer should be hearing that Zep song like it’s their first time, just like Jack. Plus, this retroactively gives 52 more of a character when he shows up. The 52 coffee mug and the missing half of the newspaper picture will be just enough to foreshadow the clone twist coming later, along with…

6. Jack sees a piece of repairman equipment when meeting Beech

Jack meets Beech and after a quick speech and more of that awful roman poem that needs to go, he’s recruited into helping rig a drone to deliver a bomb to the Tet. Around the part where the Kingslayer shoots Jack to get his attention, Jack should spot a piece of his equipment among the Scavs’ stuff, but with another number on it, like 22.

Why the change

This disorients Jack some more, and adds the other piece of foreshadowing that you need for the clone story.

7. More dialog when 49 meets 52

In the movie, Jack and Jack meet each other with guns drawn, shout a few commands at each other and then fight. They should talk at least a little. Also, when 49 comes back to get Julia and take off again, we should get a quick shot of 52 stirring on the ground so we know he’s not dead.

Why the change

Shouldn’t they have something more interesting to say to each other? I don’t know what that is, but if I ever met my doppelgänger, I hope I’d have more to say than some “Stand Downs!” Plus, it’s another chance to inject a little character into 52, which is important for the ending.

8. Jack plays the flight recorder while Julia heals

In the movie, Julia heals, then wakes up and has a romantic scene with Jack. This is done with some Fade to Blacks that worked in the first act but start to feel slow here. We don’t get to hear the flight recorder and see the flashback to Astronaut Jack’s encounter with the Tet until right before the end of the movie. That flashback should happen here, before Julia wakes up.

Why the change

We’ve already heard from Julia that Jack was an astronaut. Why move this flashback to Act III when it belongs at the end of Act II? This resolves a major mystery right when we need to, and lets us see the terror of the Tet once before Jack has to repeat this flight later in Act III. Intercutting this into the end of Act III deadens the impact that the flashback has, since it’s essentially just filler by that point.

9. Flashback to the Jack clones attacking when Beech tells the story

Beech tells us about the horror of all those clones of Astronaut Jack Harper pouring out of the drop ships. Don’t tease us with such an awesome visual, show us! Flashback to a young Beech watching the clones attack, with a trashed newspaper box in the foreground showing the full image of that piece Jack found earlier at the cabin: a picture of Jack with the headline ”Astronauts still missing.”

Why the change

Because a thousand attacking Tom Cruise clones sounds terrifying and awesome. You can’t talk about something like that and not show it. This wraps up the newspaper bit from change #5, and ties the whole clone mystery together quite nicely.

10. Speed up the pacing in Act III

There’s an awful lot of Fade to Blacks in this section. Beech gives his whole monologue, with the music soaring, then false start, they’re loading the rigged drone onto that tank thing, then false start, the drones attack, Jack is blown across the warehouse while killing a drone, fade to black… You get the idea. Beech’s monologue should be cross-cut with the flashbacks to the clone attacks, the Tet tracking down Jack by his bio signature, and Jack fixing the rigged drone and loading it onto the tank. His “I’m the weapon” line should come right before the clone attack. Additionally, after the fight, Jack should mention that more drones will be here any minute.

Why the change

Act III is no time for lots of soaring music and Fade to Blacks in an action movie. Keep the pace moving up to the big climax. The immediate threat of more drones on the way means they don’t have a choice, they have to send Jack up to the Tet with the bomb as their last chance.

11. Give the Kingslayer his “Braveheart” moment

While Jack heads up to the Tet, there’s some rather half-assed cutting to whatever the Kingslayer is doing down on earth, which is a whole lot of “Oh shit, more drones are coming!” and deer-in-the-headlights stares. Instead, he should get a nice leader moment with the surviving troops.

Why the change

The Kingslayer deserves better, and a rousing speech to his fellow survivors to stand fast in the face of annihilation makes a nice counter to cross-cut with Jack going up to his doom. It makes the Kingslayer a character instead of just a fairly anonymous second-in-command to Morgan Freeman.

12. Jack should reference the Trojan Horse when he meets the Tet

Rather than more quoting of that truly awful poem from the Lays of Ancient Rome, Jack tells Tet the story of Odysseus and the Trojan Horse.

Why the change

Because how the fuck do you have his original ship be named the Odyssey and not make that reference? Jack even tells the Tet, as he reveals his bomb, that this reminds him of an ancient book. Everyone in the theater is thinking about the story of the Trojan Horse at this point. It’s so obvious. I don't know how the writers missed it. Everyone knows that a good hero, like Odysseus, isn’t the biggest or strongest or quickest, but the most clever. It’s the only appropriate ancient story to reference at this point, not more poetry.

Bonus Change

 Vicka should mention early that the unarmored drone has been waiting for parts for their whole five-year missing. This is subtle foreshadowing that the only reason that drone is even there is to kill Jack and Vicka if they’re no longer an effective team. It lacks armor to save resources, since it shouldn’t need any to ambush the repair crew.

Anyway, that’s how I would have done it if I had to polish the script, Mr. Arndt.