“Oblivion” and Earth’s Horatius

Oblivion, directed by Joseph Kosinski

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods?

-From Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome

Oblivion tells the story of Jack Harper (played with action hero aplomb by Tom Cruise), a “drone technician” two weeks from retirement in March 2077. An extended voiceover at the beginning of the movie over scenes of decimated DC and New York City tells us that invaders called “Scavengers” seeking to harvest energy from the Earth destroyed the Moon. The demise of the Moon threw off the tides, caused earthquakes, tsunamis, and general mayhem that resulted in famine, fire and flood. The “Scavs” invaded, resulting in nuclear war made Earth uninhabitable. Humans won the war, Harper tells us, but lost the Earth.

We are told that the surviving humans escaped the wreckage on the “Tet,” a large triangular ship on its way to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. Only Jack and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), or “Vicka” as Jack calls her, are left to maintain drones that protect large machines that create fusion energy out of the Earth’s water to sustain the colony on Titan. The two remaining humans are “an effective team,” with Vicka directing from their home that looks like a Malibu beachfront palace and reporting to Sally, their Texan boss high in the Tet, and Jack venturing out into the wasteland of Earth to do drone repair and prevent the remaining Scavs from stealing their technology.

Jack and Vicka had to undergo a memory-wipe five years prior to “protect” them from their memories of before the war, but Jack has been having nagging flashbacks of a pre-war trip to the Empire State Building with a beautiful woman. He often wakes up from dreaming about her looking through the binoculars out onto Manhattan. In the midst of their mundane life, an undetected Scav beacon brings an old human spacecraft down to Earth carrying someone from Jack’s past, the woman of his dreams (Quantum of Solace‘s Olga Kurylenko). The entrance of this outsider is the catalyst to reveal the truth of Jack’s world. Everything he had been told was good is proved false and those who he was told were his enemies are really his allies.

Oblivion is full of so many twists that I started to think it would spin out of control or fall into a number of sci-fi cliches. The arrival of the mysterious woman, Jack meeting someone unexpectedly familiar (a scene that reminded me of the fantastical indie film, Moon), and the heroic deed at the end follow familiar tropes but are executed with enough creativity to stem groans of “seen it before.” The plot is aided by the excellent visual effects, which help the audience enter the world with little suspension of disbelief. The smudge of the destroyed Moon in the background stood out to me in particular and adds to the eerie, post-apocalyptic atmosphere.

The quotation from Macaulay’s Horatius is the mantra throughout the movie. We find out that Jack is a curious drone technician. He keeps books and raises plants (away from Vicka’s stickler gaze) and has a secret bucolic hideaway that resembles the old world. He finds Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome on one of his drone recovery missions in the ruins of the New York Public Library and after a narrow escape from the Scavs, he takes the book home and reads that verse. After all is made known and his real identity is restored, Jack is faced with a choice: should he die for Earth, the home he loves, or escape to live his life in peace while evil reigns? “How can man die better / Than facing fearful odds”? Like many an action movie, Jack’s choice to sacrifice himself reflects the ultimate purpose of love as laying down your desires for the sake of others. Without giving too much away, the ending even suggests an element of resurrection.

On a broader scale, science fiction tales like Oblivion are satisfying because they reflect what all people know is good. The narrative of awakening to the truth, overcoming evil, and sacrifice are tropes that, to borrow a phrase from J. Budzisziewski, we can’t not know. No doubt enters the viewer’s mind that Jack’s decision to die a “better” death by “facing fearful odds” is the noble choice, or that the might that destroyed Earth did not make right. Narratives can be more effective than simple propositional argument because they do not operate on the false assumption that human beings are solely rational creatures. Even a fantastical world like post-nuclear apocalypse Earth in Oblivion can only operate by God’s good design and metaphysical dream of the world.

  • gdwitt

    I loved the movie but have only seen a few mocking reviews that keep referring to “sci-fi cliches.” You movie reviewers should keep in mind that many of us haven’t see the cliche’s your aware of. Don’t ruin a great movie with your here we go again sighs.

  • Patrick Murphy

    You did a fair critique. Personally, I liked it. I usually judge movies by their ending compared to its build up. I use the nurse’s view of endings in the movie “Misery.” “He didn’t get out of the cockadoody car!” This ending is apropos.

    But I agree with previous post regarding Sci-fi cliches. There might be a reason so many are used repetitively, they’re good statements. Didn’t Solomon say there’s nothing new under the sun?

  • Thorneel

    One of the best movies to never get an award, it will be remembered long after the likes of ”Gravity” will be forgotten.

  • Craig Lee Burket

    “Oblivion” borrows an idea from Vernor Vinge’s 1999 novel “A Deepness in the Sky”: Commander Jack Harper IS the “Frankish Orc”, aka Director of Human Resources Anne Reynolt: http://books.google.com/books?id=GUUvxumMf6kC


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