American film (2013). Universal Pictures, Relativity Media, Monolith Pictures. Directed by Joseph Kosinski. Written by Karl Gajdusek and Michel Arndt from an unpublished Graphic Novel by Kosinski. Cast includes Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Melissa Leo and Andrea Riseborough. 124 minutes. Colour.
In 2017, Earth at great cost beats off an Invasion from space by the Alien Scavengers/Scavs, a civilization hungry for natural resources. In the course of the War, Scavs destroy the Moon, and Earth itself is transformed into a radioactive wasteland (see Holocaust). Leaving scattered Scav units to be mopped up by human teams housed in the "Tet" (for tetrahedron), a vast Space Station in Earth orbit, Homo sapiens migrates to Titan (see Outer Planets). This is all backstory.
Fifty years later, a few human units still make sorties into what by now has become a lifeless Ruined Earth. One of these teams comprises Jack 49 (Cruise) and his lover Vika (Riseborough), both of whom have been subject to Memory Edits, and both under the supervision of the glassily overcontrolling Sally (Leo) in Tet. Their overall mission is to maintain the Scav-hunter drone-Weapons and to protect the fusion power generators that beam power to Titan in order for the human race to survive, and which seem to be located in or adjacent to the ruins of New York. Jack, who suffers memory flashes of an emotional encounter with a strange woman in the Empire State Building (see Icons), enjoys an occasional secret break from duty in a sylvan enclave where he has built a lakehouse. He now picks up a signal leading him to co-ordinates where a pre-invasion Spaceship now crashes, and inside finds inside a Stasis Field chamber the strange woman, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), who knows his name. The two are soon captured by Scavs, and the plot turns.
The Scavs are human survivors, led by Malcolm Beech (Freeman); the Tet is an alien outpost; Jack is being duped to repair the drones, and his drones are dupes whose job is to complete the genocide of Homo sapiens. Complicated and obfuscating action routines delay, for a time, the longed-for conclusion. En passant Jack learns that he is one of a large number of Clones and that, in his original version he was (and in a sense still is) Julia's husband on a NASA mission (along with Vika) to investigate the sudden appearance of Tet in the solar system. From this point, it does not much matter who lives and who dies, with stasis fields and cloning magically available; the important task is to destroy the Tet. CGI effects are duly ratcheted up, and "our" Jack dies heroically. Years later, Julia and her small daughter, who live in the lakehouse Keep, are discovered by more human survivors, among them Jack 52, who may not know he's not Jack 49 (we don't much care). They reunite. Homo sapiens is safe again.
As a tale of Invasion, with human Clones tricked into hunting down all remaining humans so that Aliens can have their way with planet Earth, Oblivion clearly and consciously namechecks all the great Paranoia sf films of the 1950s. But Morgan Freeman's blackness, and Tom Cruise's eerie dislocatedness from normal human affect (as though his character was in fact Posthuman), liberate viewers from too painful a bondage to a bad past. The film itself is almost entirely incomprehensible on a first viewing, not unexpectedly, as it is not easy to work out when Cruise is clued or clueless, flattening out the moments when his Identity becomes problematic. Freeman is seriously underused. But little of this matters during the viewing experience, as Oblivion is conceptualized and mounted with steely precision. It is impossible not to be kinetically aroused, even though it is difficult to remember what for. [JC]
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