Note: this article contains spoilers from Oblivion from the outset.
Reviews for Oblivion have ranged from enthusiastic to dismissive so far, with some critics expressing a surprising amount of outright irritation towards Joseph Kosinski’s latest film. Lifeless, derivative and lugubrious have been a few of the words used to describe it, while movies including WALL-E, Moon and 2001: A Space Odyssey have been repeatedly cited as Oblivion’s manifold points of reference.
Without getting too far into an impassioned defence of Kosinski’s film (for what it’s worth, you can read this site’s verdict on Oblivion here), it does seem as though the accusations that Oblivion is an exercise in style over substance may be slightly wide of the mark.
The constraints of a review generally mean that plot points and ideas can only be discussed in general terms for fear of spoiling things, but this article aims to go a little deeper, and explain why, at least in my opinion, Oblivion is far from a handsome yet empty vessel.
Are you an effective team?
In a lengthy introduction, Tom Cruise’s Jack Harper outlines the story behind Oblivion’s devastated Earth. A war with invading aliens resulted in the destruction of our Moon and a decimated population; in Harper’s words, “We won the war, but they destroyed half the planet.”
With the Earth’s surface an irradiated ruin, Harper’s one of several soldier-repairmen who swoop down from their cloud bases and fix the hovering droids which keep the remaining aliens (called Scavs) at bay. Most of Earth’s surviving population now live on the Tet, a gigantic ship in Earth’s orbit, and Harper, along with his desk-jockey work partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), have a few more weeks before they can join them. Once the final preparations have been made, the Tet will then set off for a new start on one of Saturn’s terraformed moons.
Gradually, however, Harper learns that all is not it seems. The unexpected return of his wife Julia (Olga Kurylenko) stirs up suppressed memories of his past, and Harper realises that everything around him is an elaborate construct. The Tet isn’t a last refuge for humanity, but the conquering aliens’ mothership. The Scavs are actually the human survivors of the war, forced underground and held there by the powerful droids which Harper has been maintaining.
Harper is himself almost as artificial as those droids; he and Victoria are clones of astronauts captured by the aliens during a space mission decades earlier. The aliens have harnessed thousands of these Harper and Victoria clones to monitor and repair the machines, while gigantic hydro rigs suck the planet’s resources dry out at sea.
Armed with this knowledge, Harper finds himself siding with Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman), the leader of the human survivors, and using his unique ability to control the droids in order to turn the tables on the alien invaders.
I want mankind to survive. This is the only way.
There is much in Oblivion’s story and plot twists that is familiar from other sci-fi touchstones. The unexpected return of a loved one and the use of a woodland house recalls Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. That Harper’s a clone is, yes, something we saw in Duncan Jones’s Moon, which itself follows a genre staple that stretches back to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
Moon was an existential drama about a man coming to terms first with his own loneliness and isolation, and then making peace with his artificial twin. It was poignant, thought-provoking, and had at its centre a career-best performance from Sam Rockwell. The way Oblivion deals with the concept of cloning is very different from Moon, and its use of the genre staple is much closer to a Philip K Dick novel. Oblivion’s plot developments are not unlike the 1956 book, The World Jones Made, or any number of Dick’s novels where the protagonist discovers he’s a pawn trapped in a false reality.
In Oblivion, the Harper clones are stuck on an artificial treadmill of work and shallow relations. He and Victoria live together in a luxurious yet sterile condominium-cum-workstation among the clouds, where they have sex but display few signs of genuine affection for one another – much like the promiscuous, drugged-up populace of Brave New World in fact.
The arrival of Julia reminds Harper of the sort of life he’d secretly been pining for: an ordinary house on earthly soil, a family, a meaningful relationship. Oblivion’s philosophy is laid out in Julia’s lakeside speech (and one of the script’s strongest moments): “We’d grow old and fat together. We’d fight and get drunk. Then we’d die and be buried in a meadow by the lake. But we’d always have each other…”
Later events make clear that clones are extinguished if they’re no longer “an effective team”, which means that, until Julia arrives, Harper has been reliving the same superficial grind. Only by breaking the aliens’ chokehold can he experience life in all its fullness: passion, parenthood, kinship, and ultimately death.
What are you looking for in those books?
It’s possible there’s something else buried in Oblivion’s sci-fi fable, too – something which, depending on your interpretation, could be seen as quite subversive.
Pare away the science fiction surface detail, and what’s left? A story about a loyal soldier manipulated into fighting an unjust war against primitive people. Expected to follow orders without thinking (“Don’t ask too many questions. All part of the job description”), Harper keeps the wheels of the war machine turning, unaware that his masters – represented by the homely drawl of Melissa Leo – are stripping his home planet of its precious resources.
Not unlike Jake Sully in Avatar, Harper eventually sides with the insurgents he was unwittingly helping to repress, and together, they use unconventional tactics – turning droids into improvised explosive devices, and eventually, a suicide bombing – to bring this inhuman war machine’s reign to an end.
For a film widely dismissed as superficial and meaningless, these are heavy themes. And viewed like this, the parallels between Oblivion’s events and the recent war on Iraq (at least, as described by its critics) become clear, and are underlined further by the drones themselves, which could be seen as a sci-fi analogue of the contraptions currently roaming the skies in the Middle East and elsewhere.
This is purely one person’s interpretation, of course, and for some, Oblivion will remain as empty and ponderous as its most vociferous critics have suggested. But if there’s one pertinent message that appears to be buried in Oblivion, it’s that the voices of authority aren’t necessarily as benign and trustworthy as they appear, and that individual thought and investigation are vital means of preserving freedom.
That, for me, is a more thought-provoking sentiment than I’d usually expect to find in an expensive multiplex blockbuster.
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