Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Oblivion

Beware that this post discuss important plot points, including the ending of the film.

Oblivion is the kind of film which it is easy to criticise, or even ridicule, for its obvious nods to earlier films, its many illustrious precursors from which has borrowed this and that. I said something myself to that effect on twitter. But then I thought better of it because there is nothing wrong with showing awareness of the history of the film one is making, and since it is easy to imagine Joseph Kosinski (who came up with the idea for Oblivion and also directed it) having been in love with science fiction since he was a little boy and now, when in a position to make his own contributions, he wants to acknowledge that. Most films borrow heavily from what has come before, but it is particularly transparent with films like this. Since I really liked Oblivion I see no reason to quibble about it and will instead focus on the good things. It was well-paced, sharp and focused, with the humour thankfully kept to a minimum (without being self-important) and with spectacular visuals. It was a treat for the eyes. I also liked the importance of art in the film; books, music and paintings.

The sociologist Jane Jacobs once wrote:
We need art /.../ to help explain life to us, to show us meanings, to illuminate the relationship between the life that each of us embodies and the life outside us. We need art most, perhaps, to reassure us of our own humanity.
which is actually exactly how it works in Oblivion. The two main characters, Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are not humans, they are clones, but this is not apparent. There are two things that makes Jack in particular human. First his memories. Victoria is less human because she has no memories, but Jack has the same sensibilities and (repressed) memories* as his origin, the ur-Jack. The other thing is his interest in art. When he finds a book he picks it up and reads it. He listens to music, he saves paintings. Through art his humanity is reassured, and consequently life on earth. But does this make all his clones equally human, as human as the first Jack, the original. The ending of the film puts this in sharp relief, whether intentional or not. When "our" Jack is killed in the end, and a new Jack appears, is there a difference between the two? The film seems to suggest that they are the same.

One thing I was wondering as I watched the film was whether Kosinski or anyone else ever thought of switching the gender roles. Now the woman is staying at home, watching a computer, while the man is out and about, fighting and repairing drones. There is no reason why it could not have been the other way around, no reason except traditionalism or possibly sexism. Having the man at home and the woman out on the field would have made the film more original than it is now, and more fun. (Or having women in both parts.) Maybe they thought about it, but felt that it would damage the film's financial success. If so, was that an accurate assumption? I do not know.

Something I do know however is that there was a ridiculous mistake towards the end, a mistake made by the humans who were hiding underground. When they were ready to go off to the final battle they opened the door to their cave and was immediately attacked by the drones waiting outside. What kind of madness was that? They have lived in mortal fear of these drones for 60 years, but now, when they are about to strike back, they seem to have forgotten all about them. Why did they not, for example, open a peephole, for a look outside first? I understand that the filmmakers wanted to have an attack but it could have been handled in many different ways so as to remain plausible (for example by having the drones hiding and not appearing until it was too late for the rebellious forces to spot them). Such unnecessary silliness is something that is all to common in films, and it can only be explained by laziness on the part of the filmmakers. It is not there because the genre demands it, and it is not there because the story demands it. And it is not me being silly for questioning such a thing in what is after all a science fiction film. I am only asking the film to adhere to its own laws, its own reality, which is that these fighters would not go out without making sure it was safe to do so. It is a small thing, but I get annoyed because it is so common and so unnecessary.

But even so, Oblivion remains one of the highlights so far this year.

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*Our memories are for me a key aspect of what makes us human, and that defines who we are as individuals. We are, partly, what we remember.

3 comments:

  1. I'm so glad that we're on the same page about this one! I really embraced it, much I think thanks to the spectacle of it. It looked gorgeous. And it also had some good old twists and fun, mindbending sci-fi ideas. It wasn't just cowboys in space, it had some brains too.

    Strangely enough I didn't notice how oldfashioned in terms of gender equality while I watched it. Sometimes I react to those things, sometimes I just filter it away since I'm so used to it. I've stopped seeing it becuse if I looked at it, it would be a constant annoyance. But when I had it pointed out to me afterwards, I couldn't but agree of course. I too would have loved to see the roles reversed. But I guess they could't have Tom Cruise running around in every scene then, and I guess that was one of the big selling points about this film. Few, if any, female actors have that level of stardom.

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  2. So is the movie to be interpreted as a picture of the eternal divide between the Two Cultures? Couldn't technology be interpreted as much a part of human culture as paintings?

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  3. Are you invoking C.P. Snow? Well, I think that film can be interpreted as thinking technology is somehow un-human but few probably think that, when pushed on the subject. Technology takes so many forms that we often don't think of it as such in our daily lives. Besides, most forms of art demand some technology in order to come about, and to be enjoyed (like the record player in the film). So yes, technology is very much part of human culture, and a good think too.

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