Before a review begins, it is normally considered courteous to inform the reader that this article may contain spoilers. In the case of Oblivion, this is not necessary. It is so chock-a-block with clichés and borderline plagiarism, that you’ve actually already seen Tom Cruise’s latest outing before you’ve even smuggled drugs into the cinema to help you get through the next 2 hours. I mean… what?
Speaking of Tom Cruise’s ‘outings’; it’s more common-place for men his age to take trips to the sea-side, stand on wind-swept piers and reminisce about their wasted youth, rather than chasing women young enough to be their children through gun-fire and explosions. Quite how director Joseph Kosinski managed to keep Cruise’s Zimmer-frame out of shot for a full action-packed 126 minutes is beyond me, but the special effects department must have had a hand in it. Anyway I digress.
The film, which in my opinion should be called Independence Moon: Legacy, by Tom Cruise’s standards is not really that bad. What it is is an eclectic greatest hits album, collecting various tropes and conventions of the Sci-fi genre (right down to the “futuristic” outdated 1980s techno-soundtrack)and combining them relatively successfully to do what any decent sci-fi should: pass comment on global events now through futuristic metaphors. It is kitsch, camp and clichéd, but it just it’s well-paced and shiny enough to hold your attention for the duration, even though you can guess every twist and turn before it happens.
The action takes place in the year 2073 on a post-apocalyptic Earth, which we are told humans destroyed in order to defeat invading aliens, bent on pillaging earth for its natural resources. Humanity has apparently retreated to a moon called Titan somewhere or other – but we might as well be told they’ve gone to live on Endor, because (spoiler 1) it’s so blatantly a lie. Jack Harper (is it just me or are all Tom Cruise’s characters called Jack?) is a technician who takes care of hydro-rigs that are sucking up the last of earths water to make electricity to send “home” to Titan. It will leave the planet completely dry and bereft of life – but he and his unadventurous partner/lover Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) couldn’t give a flying one, because they’re “going to Titan” when it’s done.
As Jack goes about his work, fixing drones which defend the rigs, “Scabs” (allegedly remnants of the invading alien force) skulk in the shadows, occasionally scuttling across the frame or lolloping around on all-fours. When they finally strike, they bring down part of a human-space craft containing a crew in collective cryo-sleep. Suddenly, drones show up and begin systematically wiping out the innocent people – how strange. Jack manages to save one, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), who eventually turns out to be his long lost wife and oh my God I literally cannot be bothered to walk you through the rest of the plot because it’s written by numbers.
Jack joins the Scabs, who are human and led by Jaime Lannister and Morgan Freeman, Victoria dies to give him motivation to fight the evil aliens who were his bosses all along (not to mention because the writers can’t be arsed to work their way out of the fact he has two women on the go now), Jack discovers he’s a clone, fights his replacement and some drones, has sex with Julia, then puts her to sleep and takes a bomb into the Independence Day mother ship with Morgan Freeman, they both blow up, and win the war, and then Jack’s next clone settles down with Julia and their child. And breathe.
Now, I appreciate that sounds dumber than a bag of hammers, and it clearly has no replay value, as I can hardly bring myself to revisit the plot in order to simply summarise it for you – but here’s the thing – there are some serious points that the film makes, and that we can make about the film. For all its crimes, Oblivion provides a case-study for a number of key political issues, so rather than write it off as ‘a bit of silly fun’ as a certain backwater rag seemed to, I’d like to bring a couple of points to your attention.
Firstly, the film is marvellously unsubtle in drawing parallels to modern imperialism. Most obviously, whilst plundering NATURAL RESOURCES the OCCUPYING FORCES use DRONES to kill INNOCENT PEOPLE in a way some might point out is reminiscent of the US and UK in AFGHANISTAN. It’s a blatant reflection of the indiscriminate bombing campaigns that the West has continouously carried out in the so called war on terror – which has resulted in corporations cashing in on ill-gotten oil and lining their pockets via contracts for rebuilding operations. If you’re reading this, Barrack, we’re on to you!
More subtly, the process of othering displayed makes an interesting point about the way we in liberal-capitalist society are bombarded by images painting people across seas and borders as inhuman, savage and without mercy or reason. The way that the monstrous “Scabs” appear to scuttle and crawl as Cruise’s character describes their supposed inherent evil presents the viewer a vision of the world through the eyes of the brainwashed and the deceived. As soon as Jack Harper learns that they are actually humans (the oppressed), rather than aliens (the oppressor), the “Scabs” take upright stances, speak English, have families etc. They are humanised in our eyes, through Jack’s experiences.
The film also makes an interesting point about the exploitation and the conflicting consciousness of members of an exploited class.
Jack is exploited to the extent that he and Victoria (originally on a NASA exploration mission) have lost ownership of their memories, even their own genetic code. They have become objects, rather than humans, tools to be used to obtain natural resources and protect colonial ownership of the planet. They are in the eyes of their masters, as “inhuman” as the “Scabs” themselves, a point further made as the alien drones almost kill Jack by accident on several occasions.
Through his life experiences, Jack becomes increasingly aware of his being used, and more and more sceptical about retiring to Titan/Tunbridge Wells/Heaven. However, his co-worker Victoria becomes increasingly reactionary. Despite a growing pile of evidence that she is being exploited and lied too, she refuses to believe what is in plain sight – taking comfort from the myth that keeping your head down results in reward, and informs on Jack. Their boss sends a robot to terminate them both. Victoria then, is the McDonald’s worker who – regardless of pay cuts, sexual harassment and work place bullying – refuses to consider unionising because “you can only earn better conditions through hard work.”
Unfortunately though, I must also point out the churning techno soundtrack is not the only outdated and backward aspect of the movie. Whilst Oblivion presents interesting metaphors of imperialism and class relations, it also finds itself a slave to far less progressive gender narratives.
As already mentioned, Tom Cruise continues to chase women a good deal younger than him in a way that you can imagine LA executives would find repulsive or comedic if it were an older woman chasing young men. However, that’s not the only way in which Hollywood’s institutional sexism seeps out. Catty comments about age aside, Oblivion naturalises a gender binary.
Women – or as they could be more accurately described here, ‘plot devices’ – either serve men directly or as motivation for the causes those men take up. Andrea Riseborough (who after her complex performance in Channel 4’s The Devil’s Whore (2008), you have to feel is criminally wasted here) serves as an angsty house-wife to Cruise’s maverick technician. When it turns out he was somehow genetically betrothed to Olga Kurylenko’s character instead, Riseborough, for the sake of expedience as much as anything else, is obliterated in the blink of an eye.
When she is re-cloned, her regenerated self is naturally cautious and unwilling to explore the world below, just as the previous incarnation was. This somewhat negates the fact she was the genetic copy of an ASTRONAUT and lapses instead into the lazy gender binary – whenever Cruise was cloned, he was an action man of one form or another, whenever Riseborough occurred, she was the stay-at-home mum, regardless of the fact they surely shared certain adventurous traits as inter-planetary explorers.
And when this binary is hinted as being defunct – when it is challenged by Olga Kurylenko’s character who wants to die alongside the action man – what happens? Cruise drugs her (he does that to women a lot on screen – read into it what you will) and leaves her at home. It strikes me as absurd that in another situation where both characters have pasts as astronauts, only one of them can be trusted to choose to vaporise themselves for the sake of humanity. Silly girl, explosions are for blokes.
So what have we learned?
To conclude then; I don’t think this film is perfect. It suffers from being crushingly predictable – to the extent it was physically painful revisiting the plot for this review. Like many sci-fi’s, it falls into the trap of assuming that women are naturally docile or naïve, and that techno will be the music of the future – even though it died a long time ago, and is never coming back. Never.
However, having borrowed so much from the broader genre, it also has a great deal of value to say about modern capitalist society – that it is exploitative without bound; so much so that you might even lose ownership of your own genetic code, so much so that private industry colonise far-flung peoples and paint them as monsters to sanctify their theft.
Oblivion might not be a ‘classic’ then, it might conform to a backward set of gender norms without second thought – but through its critique of imperialism and capitalism it also shows how the assumptions, lies and fabrications that construct such backward thought can be challenged, and overcome. For that reason, I’d actually recommend you see it. But only once.