By Rachael Kelly (PhD)
Originally published in Infinite Earths (online; December 2013)
[Spoiler alert — this review gives away key plot points]
The great philosopher Terry Pratchett once wrote that, when the final showdown comes, you’re better off facing an evil man. “The evil like power,” he argues, “power over people, and they want to see you in fear. They want you to know you’re going to die. So they’ll talk. They’ll gloat. They’ll watch you squirm. They’ll put off the moment of murder like another man will put off a good cigar” (Pratchett, 1993). Luckily for Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), it would seem that this also applies to moon-murdering alien invaders.
It’s not the movie’s most egregious flaw, but it’s another one of those little moments that jolts the audience out of the narrative just long enough to mutter, “Oh, please,” and that’s not quite worthy of a film with ambitions as lofty as Oblivion’s. True, it hasn’t been blessed by an over-abundance of love from critics (though its $200 million global box office receipts have not been noticeably affected), drawing the sort of reviews that call it “equally ambitious and gormless” (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky for rogerebert.com), “bafflingly solemn, lugubrious and fantastically derivative” (Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian), and “a stylised remix of superior sci-fi ground-breakers” (Kevin Harley for Total Film). And, to be fair, Oblivion is all of these things. But it’s also not quite the sum of its parts, and whether that’s a good thing, an indifferent thing, or a bad thing is largely, perhaps, a question of perspective.
The movie, which was released in cinemas in April and on DVD in August 2013, began life as a graphic novel, written by director Joseph Kosinski but never finished, and its print-media origins peek through from time to time. Most notable is in the opening expository speech, delivered in voiceover by Cruise’s Jack as we meet him and his partner/lover, Victoria “Vika” Olsen (Andrea Riseborough), preparing for another day as the last man and woman on a devastated, post-apocalyptic Earth. That the sequence succeeds is largely due to the momentum afforded to it by French band M83’s effective soundtrack, and what could have been clumsy, clunky tell-don’t-show storytelling becomes instead something rather hauntingly elegant — a beauty/boredom tension that the film returns to time and again. Sixty years ago, Jack tells us, the moon was destroyed by an invading extra-terrestrial race known as the Scavengers, which precipitated a cataclysmic series of earthquakes and tsunami that devastated the planet. In order to repel the alien threat, mankind was obliged to loose its nuclear arsenal, precipitating a Pyrrhic victory: the Scavengers were defeated, now left to scrabble a living off the irradiated planet’s surface, but Earth was left uninhabitable, and humanity has been obliged to decamp to Titan. Why Titan? Why not, for example, Mars, which is both closer to the sun and, perhaps more importantly, distinctly lacking in lakes of liquid methane? Excellent question, and one that may well precipitate an early bout of eye-rolling, but bear with it: the narrative is actually cleverer than it looks. Not as clever as it thinks, perhaps, but the internal logic actually holds up better than the opening scenes might suggest, and, in the face of some more recent big-budget space operas (naming no names), that’s a win in and of itself.
In preparation for the migration to the moons of Saturn, the remnants of humankind have been evacuated to an enormous orbital space station known as the Tet, from which a cheerful controller, Sally (Melissa Leo), issues daily instructions to Jack and Vika, who’ve been consigned to the Earth’s surface for a little longer to monitor the massive hydroelectric fusion plants that will ultimately power humanity’s great exodus. They’re under constant attacks from bands of marauding Scavengers, or Scavs, who attack both the plants and the mechanised drones tasked with protecting them. Jack’s job is to maintain the drones; Vika’s to act as some kind of futuristic secretarial service, relaying information from a somewhat limited monitoring system that regularly loses visual contact with the one and only thing it’s supposed to keep an eye on (namely Jack), and from Sally herself. They are, as Vika repeatedly assures Sally, an effective team. But Jack, whose memory was wiped along with Vika’s prior to their mission, for purposes of security, has been experiencing dreamlike visions of a pre-war world that he cannot possibly remember, and a beautiful woman whose face he feels he ought to know. And then one night a human ship comes crashing back to earth, decanting a load of sleeper pods into the wreckage. The drones promptly destroy the pods, but Jack, who has flown out to investigate the crash, recognises in one of them the woman from his dreams: Julia, asleep for sixty years, and remarkably reluctant to tell either Jack or Vika just what, exactly, is going on.
It’s no great spoiler to note that the movie appropriates freely from the likes of The Matrix, Moon, Total Recall, and, somewhat bizarrely, WALL-E. (Fair warning — that might not be a spoiler, but everything that follows from this point onwards will.) Many reviews have made a significant feature out of this fact, and it’s difficult to dispute: we’ve got a sentient machine-race subjugating humanity, we’ve got worker-clones who don’t know they’re clones, we’ve got memory-messing, and we’ve got the whimsical, rough-around-the-edges operative abandoned to a dying planet, who falls in love with the relics of humanity in a manner that raises him above the machinelike conformity of his unlikely female counterpart (whose sympathetic arc requires her to ascend to his apex of emotional awareness or else be classed as part of the problem he seeks to redress). Certainly, Oblivion is thematically very similar to Pixar’s feel-good tale of the little robot who could, but to dismiss it as derivative is slightly unfair. For one thing, this would seem to imply that only the likes of The Matrix, Total Recall, et al. engage with themes of memory, machine subjugation, cloning, or the essence of the Self, all of which are staples of the science fiction genre, and, truthfully, Oblivion’s take — both visually and, yes, thematically — is sufficiently distinctive that it is, arguably, no more derivative than any other text that employs the same or similar ideas. There is, as Ecclesiastes 1:9 reminds us, nothing new under the sun, and that includes the topoi of science fiction.
For another, the positioning of the crisis that has led to earth’s destruction is quite differently configured. In WALL-E, humanity itself screwed up the planet through greed, consumerism, and plain, old-fashioned short-sightedness, and our punishment is to de-evolve into morbidly obese space-babies who have to be told what colour onesies to wear. If WALL-E questions the very essence of humanity, it’s from a position of relative hopefulness: there is no imminent danger of extinction, simply the threat of losing what makes us us, and all it takes to undo the damage is one anthropomorphised little bot with endearingly huge eyes who embodies what used to be great about humanity and thereby inspires the great re-evolution. Oblivion’s central conceit is somewhat different, and ties it into a slightly different category of science-fiction dystopia.
Mike Broderick, in his essay Surviving Armageddon: Beyond the Imagination of Disaster, identifies four classes of post-apocalyptic texts: Preparation for Nuclear War and Its Survival, Encounters with Post-Nuclear Extraterrestrials, Experiencing Nuclear War and Its Immediate Effects, and Survival Long After Nuclear War (Broderick, 1993). While all four typically glorify the “nostalgically yearned-for less complex existence of agrarian toil and social harmony through ascetic spiritual endeavors” (and both WALL-E and Oblivion conclude with a kind of pastoral, pre-industrial idyll in which the complicating factors of technological advancement have been foresworn in favour of a re-humanising return to nature), WALL-E, by specifically avoiding the tropologically embedded apocalypse scenario, directly attributes its dystopic future to the actions of humankind and thereby brings it closer to the paradigm of the first three categories (which explore and interrogate anxieties surrounding nuclear destruction in the wake of shifting ideological sands post-World War II). Oblivion, however, inhabits another mode of performing apocalypse, closer to the fourth category, which, by virtue of eliding the cataclysm itself, Broderick argues, goes some way towards exculpating the human race for its own ruin. “The imaginary projections of life in a distant post-holocaust future,” he argues, “bypass graphic scenes of planetary destruction, thus enabling the spectator to evade or dismiss the human causal chain in nuclear warfare and to replace it with an archaic mythology steeped in heroic acts, inspired and propelled by some inscrutable and predetermined divine cosmic plan” (1993; emphasis in original). Yes, Oblivion’s humanity destroyed planet Earth, but it happens off-screen, and the narrative is insistent that Armageddon was unavoidable: we didn’t want the war, the war was brought to us, and our choice became, essentially, Earth or humanity. This isn’t a tale of human against human, of power games and war mongering and fatal hubris, this is a tale of one desperate decision brought to our door by a monstrous Other; had the Scavengers not turned up unannounced, the idealised past of Jack’s visions might never have been lost. Our bombs caused the catastrophe, but it’s not, in the final analysis, our fault. They started it.
As such, the movie’s interrogation of humanness and humanity is informed by an altogether different discourse to WALL-E’s, and one that is, ultimately, less interrogative and openly critical of current human practice. WALL-E was a cautionary tale about a potential future that we’d do well to avoid; Oblivion is a more straightforward tale of “archaic mythology steeped in heroic acts.” This has important consequences for the underlying ideological positioning of the movie, which is free to embody a much more essentialist attitude towards humanity that has important rhetorical consequences for the text — not least in terms of its gender paradigms.
For a start, rather than constructing a back-story of inevitable self-destruction, Oblivion instead positions an idealised pre-war Earth, along with the values, culture and human spirit it embodies. This narrative mode imbues humanity of the then-near future (2017 is the date of the war that wipes out the planet) with the uninterrogated nostalgia of a bygone era that Jack seeks to reclaim through his fetishisation of relics of times past: he wears a Yankees baseball cap, he equips himself with an encyclopaedic knowledge of games that took place in the now-buried Superbowl stadium, he has built a rural getaway in a valley untouched by radioactive fallout, where he listens to old-timey LPs on a record player, and he brings Vika a gift of a potted plant to their pristine hover-home high up in the skies above north-east America. That Vika responds by marching, grim-faced, to the balcony and dropping her present into the void, with an injunction to Jack against risking their return to the Tet with potentially contaminated flora and fauna, is an early indicator of how the movie intends to position both characters. Moreover, it introduces a binary — Jack/attachment to Earth:Vika/attachment to the Tet — that cannot help but attract a gendered discourse, particularly as the movie progresses. Earth, with its strong links to the Us of a present-day audience, with its shared values, goals and aspirations, with its recognisable privileging of the human, becomes strongly affiliated with the masculine, by virtue of Jack’s reverence of the old days and his rejection — which increases in substance as the narrative continues — of the new reality: a rejection that will, ultimately, be completely vindicated. Moreover, when the movie plays its great reveal — that the nuclear victory was a lie, there is no base on Titan, and the Tet, rather than representing the best hope for the survival of the human race, is, in fact, the vanguard of very the alien invasion that has led humanity to the brink of extinction — it emerges that the rag-tag human resistance movement is male-led (in the form of Morgan Freeman’s Beech), and male-supported (by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s Sykes). There are female members, but the two humans who speak for the whole — who represent, in effect, the will to survive and reclaim the planet — are men.
The Tet, on the other hand, is strongly gendered female. The face it shows Jack and Vika is female — Sally — and its values are espoused far more strongly by Vika than by Jack, who wonders wistfully why, if humanity won the war, they’re now obliged to abandon Earth just the same. Vika, on the other hand, can’t wait to leave the planet behind and is horrified by any action that might jeopardise their escape. Moreover, as Vishnevetsky, notes, the composition of the Tet itself references the female reproductive system: “Oblivion,” he notes, “will go down in film history as the movie where Tom Cruise pilots a white, sperm-shaped craft into a giant space uterus… Cruise’s sperm-ship enters through an airlock that resembles a geometrized vulva. He arrives inside a massive chamber lined with egg-like glass bubbles. At the center of the chamber is a pulsating, sentient triangle that is also supposed to be some kind of mother figure. Cruise must destroy the mother triangle and her space uterus in order to save the Earth.” More than that: the “egg-like glass bubbles” contain the developing bodies of a host of Jack-clones, firmly underscoring the uterus metaphor. The Tet walks like a woman and talks like a woman, and its biggest proponent is the movie’s female lead. It’s a gender affiliation that is both unsettling, and essentially undeniable.
Julia, for her part, plays into the paradigm by embodying a kind of pre-war gender essentialism that the narrative posits as the ideal that has been lost: affiliated with Earth/humanity by virtue of the fact that she has not been corrupted by either the Tet or by the war, she becomes instead a kind of helpmeet to Jack, offering her love on terms that enable him to connect with his memories of their life together and thereby access the knowledge of the Tet’s true intentions that allows him ascend to his quasi-messianic status as saviour of mankind. Moreover, she concludes the movie having given birth to Jack’s daughter, with whom she lives in the agrarian idyll posited by the earlier scene in which Jack lamented the need to permanently vacate the planet, thereby promising a gender-appropriate hope for the future. She cannot be humanity’s saviour, because that role must go to Jack — established from the opening scenes as the Doer to Vika’s (female) Facilitator — but she can become the mother of the new, free generation that follows Jack’s noble sacrifice. Indeed, the text repeatedly underlines the dichotomy between Julia-as-idealised-past and Vika-as-problematic-future, most notably when Vika’s loyalty to the values espoused by the Tet results in her own death. For the idealised past to be resurrected, the problematic future must be defeated — and the ideal allowed to flourish in its brave new world.
It’s a troubling counter-narrative to a film that is, I would argue, smarter than its negative press would lead one to believe. Moreover, though it pains this gender theorist to acknowledge as much, it is possible to watch and enjoy the movie in spite of its uncomfortable ideological discourse, and in spite, indeed, of its many “Oh, please” moments (such as, for example, when the Tet fails to blow Jack — who is, after all, eminently disposable — out of the sky the minute it realises he’s lying and possibly there to destroy it. Lucky for him, it espouses the Pratchett mode of performing evil). For one thing, it’s shot with a visual flare that is both strikingly beautiful and indicative of Kosinski’s singular vision for his movie, and, though there’s not always the substance to back up the style, sometimes, in all honesty, one is too busy marvelling at the scenery to care. Perhaps the central themes have been played out before, but Oblivion forges them out of a script that is intelligent enough to construct its blind alleys with the same care and conviction that it applies to its true narrative core, so that the twist, when it comes, is convincing enough that it doesn’t, unlike many recent rug-pullers, leave the audience feeling played or, worse, betrayed by a build-up that ultimately makes no sense. And, while it’s unquestionably at least thirty minutes too long (any movie that has viewers surreptitiously glancing at their watches during the closing act is a movie that’s in serious need of some judicious pruning), this is partially a side-effect of being in possession of what many big-budget modern science fiction movies lack: namely, a functional brain.
The heart, unfortunately, is slightly harder to locate, but you’ve got to admire the effort.
Bradshaw, P (2013, April 10). Oblivion Review. Retrieved October 20, 2013, from TheGuardian.com: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/apr/10/oblivion-review
Broderick, Mike (1993). “Surviving Armageddon: Beyond the Imagination of Disaster” in Science Fiction Studies, No. 61, Vol. 20, Part 3 (online: http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/61/broderick61art.htm)
Harley, K (2013, April 10). Oblivion. Retrieved October 20, 2013, from Totalfilm.com: http://www.totalfilm.com/reviews/cinema/oblivion
Pratchett, Terry (1993). Men At Arms (London, Corgi)
Vishnevetsky, I (2013, April 18). Oblivion. Retrieved October 20, 2013, from RogerEbert.com: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/oblivion-2013