Warning: contains spoilers for Oblivion throughout
When Tom Cruise’s agent approached him in 2011 about starring in a new science-fiction epic, you can assume the pitch was something along the lines of “You get to fly your own spaceship, endure two different women vying for your affection, and live in a version of Earth mostly populated by your clones.”
The idea of a planet-sized ego also went over well with most audiences, and the film made a $120 million profit while receiving mostly positive reviews.
On the surface, Oblivion appears as an innocent sci-fi adventure: unwitting (but steadfast) hero discovers that world is not what it seems and subsequently frees humanity from oppression.
But it must also be included in the lofty and ancient archives of “hetero-male-sexual-fantasy posing as imaginative storytelling.”
Before we get into the details, I want to be fair to the huge number of people behind its production, and state that Oblivion is a very prettyfilm. Developed from an unpublished graphic novel, the sound and visual production is sleek and emotive; something that is often missing from modern epics. It reminds me of the kind of production design in big-budget ’80s sci-fi. So despite the lack of narrative depth, there are good things about this film.
Let’s start with the film’s setting. Cruise embodies his archetypal role with the unsurprisingly-named “Jack” — an engineer fulfilling a crucial mission. He is tasked with supporting humanity’s retreat from Earth by protecting the fusion generators powering their space-bound efforts. He carries out his mission with steely determination — while still being unable to shake the feeling that something is not quite right.
Enhancing Jack’s sense of unease is Vickers, or Victoria; a stereotypically uptight English communications officer, acting both as Jack’s boss and lover. Even though there seems to be an official hierarchy here, Jack doesn’t seem to pay much attention to it, and we are expected to understand that Jack is a big boy who makes his own decisions, Mom.
Victoria dresses in tight uncomfortable clothes and wears heels despite working completely alone every day in a sky mansion. Perhaps it would make her character too relatable if she wore a stained T-shirt and baggy trousers?
Victoria is a stickler for the rules, and is highly protective (maybe even possessive) of Jack. Somewhat like a mother, you might think (don’t worry, we’ll be coming back to this). She isn’t interested in the world he’s constantly exploring outside their sky mansion, and insists that he remain faithful to both the mission and their cloying and lonely relationship.
Jack is plagued by dreams of a better life: Earth before its destruction, and along with it the face of a woman who inhabits some lost part of his memories. The guilt he feels about these dreams is suppressed by his dedication to the mission.
And then Jack finds Julia. It’s the woman from his dreams; and turns out she’s also his wife. She has literally fallen from the sky surrounded by mystery, and offers a clear contrast to Victoria’s stern and familiar authoritarianism. Jack, of course, is enraptured. And Victoria isn’t happy.
It is hinted that Victoria has also harboured memories of Julia and Jack’s relationship, and has always known that this day might come.
Jack’s natural inclination to discover more about Julia and her origins, at the cost of his relationship with the woman he’s spent the past five years spending every waking day with, leads to Victoria making a “her or me” ultimatum that, of course, results in her fiery death.
Now that Jack is free from Victoria’s grasp, the true enemy is revealed — the distant but all-powerful “V” in the sky, whose grandmotherly personage “Sally” is the perfect blend of apple-pie charm and beating-stick ruthlessness.
Turns out the Big V is not actually humanity’s control station, but an enormous, soulless artificial intelligence that is sucking the Earth dry of energy, and manipulating brainwashed clones of Jack and Victoria to complete its nefarious objective. Just when will Jack be free of these oppressive women?
Jack has to literally beat one of his clones in a fist fight, therefore establishing himself as the most dominant Jack. It’s a perfect analogy for male insecurity. Fuck all those sexual competitors who exist solely in our heads, right boys?
Julia, Jack’s true love from the times before all these manipulative females managed to get their hands on him, is moved by the illicit homestead that Jack has built in a secretive valley, and gives off mega settling-down vibes.
But Jack’s got more important things to do than establish a family right now! He jets off to the Big V with a plan to take it down, and in the process decides to ignore his wife’s foolproof idea for saving humanity, instead putting her life before all others (how sweet) and going on his own special, unlikely suicide mission.
At this point I should mention that Jack is joined on this suicide mission by his father figure, a weary yet defiant man played by Morgan Freeman, whose somewhat familiar manipulative behaviours have inspired (rather than enraged) Jack.
Jack gains entry to thesparse, desolate and monstrous innards of the Big V by feigning compliance with her evil schemes. Once inside, and just before setting off the bomb that will destroy her once and for all, Jack quotes a poem, declaring he is doing this “… For the ashes of his fathers [showing blatant preference for his male ancestors], And the temples of his gods.” The womb — oh, I’m sorry — the Big V responds with “I created you Jack. I am your god.”
To which Jack deftly replies “Fuck you Sally” and obliterates them all.
Phew. I think the Freudians in the audience really felt that one. A man both desiring a return to the womb while also seeking to destroy the “Big Other” in the sky? It’s beautiful, complex, and somewhat harrowing…
The film ends with Julia starting a life on Earth (with a child — my god Jack must have potent semen). And although presumably a whole planet of Jack-clones will now be vying for the attention of this woman who has been plaguing all their dreams, only the Jack who dominant-Jack literally beat in a fist fight is permitted to fulfill the father role.
So to recap: what happens in Oblivion is that the male protagonist frees himself from his mother’s possessiveness to explore his romantic destiny, becomes the superior male amongst competition from himself, and takes his mother-creator with him into oblivion while leaving behind his beta-male self to co-care for his genetic progeny, presumably resulting in a future where Jack’s potent semen conquers all and everyone loves their dads.
Credit and thanks to Li, who pointed out all the “mommy” stuff in this film that I completely missed. Resultant psychoanalytic assumptions about my blind spots can be sent to my twitter @rjpsmith.