Tom Cruise’s new movie Oblivion has met mixed reviews largely because some thought it too derivative drawing copiously from Sci-Fi corpus; or its script, too thin. I disagree. Although some of the story’s devices are very familiar, its narrative encapsulates deep allegory about political oppression and the liberating consequence of personal enlightenment. Oblivion is one of the best recent flicks heading into the summer and it’s a wonder to look at.
Our protagonist, Jack Harper, played by Tom Cruise, is a technician stationed on a post-apocalyptic Earth—the apocalypse, we’re told, being caused by an alien invasion only successfully staved off by the widespread use of nuclear weapons. The planet is now poisonous and radioactive—in addition to the entire terrain torn asunder because the aliens took out the moon wreaking gravitational havoc on Earth’s landscape, which now, more or less, resembles what the lunar surface used to look like before being crunched into a orbiting debris field.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
During Jack’s patrols in his elegant streamlined all-white spacecraft, we see the Earth as a desolate wasteland, skyscrapers buried, whole cities gone. But supposedly we won the war. There are huge harvesting machines sucking the oceans dry to feed fusion reactors for humankind’s new home on Saturn’s moon, Titan. Jack, a.k.a. Tech 49, is there to fix the machinery when it breaks down. He has a lovely comrade, a communications officer named Victoria stationed with him overseeing his missions. They operate as an “effective team”—a meme oft-repeated and emphasized by their mission control officer, Sally, who periodically checks in from an orbiting space station called the Tet. “Tet” is short for tetrahedron, its shape; and also, head, which we will understand later. It is explained our effective team has had their memories wiped for security purposes to deny remaining pockets of alien resistance any potential access to sensitive information should Jack or Victoria be captured.
The Innocense of Ignorance
The analog of Jack’s state of mind—for all intents a blank slate—is primordial. Or, as we soon find out, a veil of deception, as things are not exactly what they seem. He is beset by recurring dreams of a mysterious woman and something stirs inside about the ravaged planet. The Earth still feels like home even though he knows it’s not—humanity’s home is now on Titan. He violates orders by loitering during missions, exploring the rubble of the past, searching for something.
When a spacecraft crash lands answering a beacon supposedly triggered by the alien resistance, Jack, true to form, disobeys orders and goes to investigate. He is shocked to find the robotic drones he’s been repairing killing the human survivors of the crash. Jack saves one of the survivors who, incredibly, happens to be the exact woman from his dreams. He returns to base with the lone survivor, Julia, and upon arrival, his partner, Victoria, starts to question Jack’s commitment to their mission—and to her.
As the story unfolds, we learn Jack and Victoria have been deceived by the alien force. Only the aliens are not pockets of resistance remaining on the ground, but rather what Jack and Victoria think is Mission Control. The Tet is not a manned space station like they’ve been led to believe, it’s a powerful machine-mind plundering the resources of solar system after solar system with its army of drones and water-sucking harvesters. Jack and Victoria have unwittingly assisted it in its current apocalyptic endeavor—the complete expropriation of Earth’s resources resulting in a massive genocide on the entire planet.
The mysterious crash survivor, Julia, strikes a deep chord in Jack eventually pulling him through a portal of revelation leading him closer to the truth. It’s a transition Victoria rejects. She refuses to face the fact that the drones they’ve been servicing are actually murderers, and in her hesitancy, is quickly dispatched by the alien machine. Jack and Julia narrowly escape to the planet only to be attacked by what they believe to be the alien ground force. But the rabbit hole only deepens. We learn the enemy resistance on the planet is really the last vestiges of humanity, organized as freedom-fighters, on the verge of extinction. This plot-twist is offered through an archetypal scene of our protagonist awakening into personal enlightenment.
Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, or Hero’s Journey
Jack, unconscious, is spirited away along with Julia to the secret camp of the human freedom-fighters, only he still thinks they’re the enemy. He is awakened in a dark cavernous chamber by Malcolm Beech (played by Morgan Freeman) who begins to explain what is really going on. In mid-sentence, Beech flips the lights on to reveal the group of human freedom-fighters gathered in an ascending semi-circle around Jack. Jack is metaphorically reborn and remade into his true-self, representative of an inner journey of discovery, embodying both an external and internal transformation. It is a rite of passage and as a newly aware creature, Jack sees the world with different eyes. What was formally seen as the enemy, is now an ally, his friends and family; and Julia, the girl from his amnesiatic dreams, is really his wife—the truth literally revealed through enlightenment.
Sacrifice, Virtue, Love
Jack is awash in love for his wife, who he now remembers, and is filled with a motivation to recapture his dignity through an act of passion and justice. After he is quickly inculcated back to his truthful identity, he takes the fight to the Tet employing insider information only he has having been a cloned robot working dutifully for the machine-mind. He agrees to transport a weaponized power source the humans acquired after attacking one of the Tet’s fusion-harvesters. Only its a suicide mission. Jack engages in what could be framed as matricide, destroying his creator, which had cloned tens of thousands of him over the last six decades to effectuate its ungodly holocaust. His sacrifice saves what remains of humankind.
The narrative elements of Oblivion delivered through its protagonist depict an indefatigable resolve to throw-off tyranny and oppression and frame the classic hero’s journey as being one of an evolving and ascending being. Director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) successfully builds this narrative arc on timeless principles like sacrifice, virtue, love. The artistry expressed through an effusion of digital mastery is something to behold—be sure to catch this one on the silver screen.