Oblivion

“…And how can man die better than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers, And the temples of his Gods.” – stanza XXVII of “Horatius”

Writer/director Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy, and announced for a 2014 untitled TRON: Legacy sequel) kick-starts this year’s apocalypse movies, with a co-written movie based on his own comic book of the same title. After Earth and World War Z are both set to release in June, Elysium and The World’s End in August, and Ender’s Game in November.

Not much can be said about this version of man’s new way of life after an alien war renders earth a wasteland without spoilers, so I’ll have to keep from giving much detail.

Jack (Cruise) is part of a two-person “mop-up crew”, which patrols a radiation-free zone on earth for downed drones and repairs them to their station as guards of gargantuan machines which are mining the ocean’s water for conversion to fusion energy. Jack and his partner, “Vic” (played very well by Andrea Riseborough) have just two weeks before they can join the rest of humanity in the security of space station “Tet”.

For the sci-fi genres of today, little has been left in the vein of genuine surprises. Like the aliens who leap from planet to planet devouring resources like locusts, plot devices of the science fiction setting have been so thoroughly mined, they’ve left only scraps for the follow-ups to eek out a plot. But like a true action/science-fiction genre, Oblivion packs an arsenal of these usual devices, many predictable, but well-used. And although the average fan of the genre needs only scratch the surface with the same curiosity that drives our hero to discover some problems with the plot, it is entertaining throughout, and it has heart.

Jack is a man’s man; hard-working, mostly solitary, content to enjoy a cabin by a lake and recall classic football games. He’s not really looking forward to leaving behind an earth he knows so little about thanks to his memory wipe, but there are questions that drive him. And the questions are driven by something that shouldn’t be present with him: memories of life before the war.

Being a man’s man, Jack keeps these memories to himself, only indulging the audience in some narration at the beginning of the movie. Without giving anything away, since I’m recommending you see this one, let’s just say the undercurrent of Jack’s story is spoken plainly to him, “Memories define us.”

They say the first thing people try to save in a fire is their pictures. We cherish our memories, often looking to them for comfort and sometimes for wisdom. This is exactly my reason for disagreeing with the statement that became a subtext for the movie.

In psychology, we learn that a severely traumatized victim will actually block out the memory of their trauma. We risk even death to save family photographs because we need to tap into those memories we hold most dear. It’s true, these memories have emotional affect. But we chose our memories, don’t we? Jack’s character had his memory wiped clean so mankind could go on living, according to his narration. How do we justify this?

Relationships. One of the most touching moments I saw in a movie was when Captain Miller teaches Private Ryan the trick to recalling the faces of the deceased, through association. It might seem counter to my point, but Miller explained to Ryan that when he wants to remember his wife, he thinks of her gardening gloves. For Miller, that sparked his vivid memory and brought him near to her if only in his heart and for a little while, even while at war. It wasn’t the gloves, of course. But something about them caught the essence of who she is to Miller, and that’s the key. The essence of our loved ones will bring their face to mind like a flip of a switch.

For Jack, it was the pay binoculars he found while on the job that brought back what he’d thought was a dream. Something about that object had been associated with a past relationship, and it suddenly sparked just like déjà vu. I say our memories don’t define us because there’s a will behind them to reach for them, or push them away. There’s a personality present with us, even when we’re too young to form memories.

But before I go beating up on the characters because of their affinity for memories, especially in a time when earth itself is dying, I do understand what they mean to say. Memories are the vehicle through which our loved ones will always reach our hearts. We want this to define us, we allow it to. We even need it to.

With memories, we will never be alone and because of that we can remain exactly who we mean to be no matter the circumstance.

I was expecting an unique look to the film with top-notch effects in an epic landscape punctuated with plenty of action scenes. I was expecting intrigue and revelation to be experienced with the protagonist, as well as a compelling love story. Oblivion had all that, and surprised me with a little something more. The memory theme is an important one, and with the end-of-the-world setting lending itself to introspection, it marries to the plot perfectly. Check this one out! You won’t be disappointed.

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