- Oblivionby Joseph Kosinski
In From IBM to MGM: Cinema at the Dawn of the Digital Age, Andrew Utterson describes how the computer’s association with cinematic production throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s prompted filmmakers to ask of it several fundamental questions: ‘What are its defining characteristics? Is it a machine to be embraced or feared? What are its implications and ramifications?’ (14–15). These questions remain relevant, although with the widespread adoption of computer systems in nearly every aspect of sociocultural life they seem to have lost much of their immediacy. Successful films such as The Matrix(Wachowski brothers US/Australia 1999) simultaneously demonise and valorise computer systems and their infiltration of everyday life; yet when the sequels to this film started breaking down this binary logic, exposing the far more insidious methods by which digital technology destabilises identity and history, audiences and critics were generally disappointed. Oblivionspeaks much the same language, and although it was not a huge box-office success, it nonetheless generally manages to juggle the demands of being a Tom Cruise action adventure and a critical piece of speculative sf. In short, Oblivionis a polished, overtly precision-engineered production about the danger of precision-engineered products.
Cruise plays Jack Harper, who, along with his colleague and lover Victoria ‘Vika’ Olsen (Andrea Riseborough), seems to be one of the last two people left alive on Earth. Humankind has won a hard-fought victory against an alien invasion but the planet has been climatologically devastated as a result. Enormous hydro-rigs now suck up seawater and convert it into energy to help send the survivors of the war – currently all residing in the Tet, an orbiting space station – to a new life on Titan. These hydro-rigs are under constant threat from the remaining aliens, called ‘Scavs’, even though their efforts at sabotage are all but in vain thanks to the powerful fleet of defensive aerial drones protecting the rigs. Jack and Vika’s job is to service these drones, Jack going out into the field to manually repair damaged units, Vika providing logistical support from their sleek glass apartment above the clouds. Their Tet-based commander Sally (Melissa Leo), an infinitely cheery Southern belle seen only on a black-and-white computer screen, oversees their work.
Inevitably, all is not as it seems, a state of affairs that may be inferred [End Page 290]from the recurring dreams Jack has of a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) he does not remember in a pre-invasion New York he could never have experienced. These dreams feed Jack’s deep-seated unease about abandoning Earth, a place he has far more connection to than the eager-to-depart Vika. Most troubling, however, is the casual reference in Jack’s opening voice-over to a mandatory memory wipe, an allusion which should raise questions about the reliability of our narrator, his role in this world and even the make-up of the world itself. Sure enough, the second half of the film reveals that the alien Scavs are not aliens at all, but surviving humans. The Tet itself is the alien invader, and has cloned the astronauts who decades ago made orbital first contact, producing an army of Jacks and Vikas. Now the war is won, these amnesiac clones help it suck Earth dry of resources and unwittingly kill the last remnants of humanity.
Numerous reviewers have rightly commented that the film increasingly relies on ideas from other sf: the uncertain nature of identity evokes the fiction of Philip K. Dick, the last-repairman-on-the-planet scenario is inspired by Wall-E(Stanton US 2008), the intersection of clones and late capitalism duplicates the concerns of Moon(Jones UK 2009) and the explosive denouement is taken wholesale from Independence Day(Emmerich US 1996). However, as derivative as elements of it may be, Oblivionnonetheless offers some intriguing perspectives on the perennial theme of technological dependence and the precarious state of human identity within such a regime.
Working in the same conceptual territory not only as director Stanley...