“Oblivion” is a sweeping sci-fi epic that, because it stars Tom Cruise, elevates its deeply personal material to a level of expectations few films can realistically achieve. With a title like “Oblivion” it’s challenging to ignore the baggage Cruise brings to the role. The film seems to ask: What does it take to obliterate Tom Cruise?
The setting is, like “Star Wars,” entirely subservient to the characters – nothing happens in the world that isn’t connected to the relationships on screen, which means there’s little back story provided if it doesn’t serve the plot. But whereas “Star Wars” could stretch some logical elements with it’s sci-fi/fantasy setting, “Oblivion” has all the trappings of hard sci-fi, which invites stronger scrutiny. Unfortunately the setting doesn’t hold up under closer examination.
The year is 2077, and Cruise plays yet another Jack, Jack Harper, Tech 49. He and his lover and coworker Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are the only two humans left on Tower 49 in what used to be New York City on what used to be Earth, destroyed 60 years before in a war with the alien Scavs. With Victoria at the Tower and Jack in the field, they work to repair the spherical drones, ED209-inspired robots that move lightning fast and are armed to the teeth. The drones keep the Hydrorigs safe, giant upside down pyramids that suck up the ocean and eventually send the water to the mother ship called the Tet. Victoria looks forward to finishing their mission in two weeks and returning to the relocated home of humanity on Titan. Jack isn’t so sure, and as his back story is revealed it turns out he’s a lot more like Cruise himself.
But as the trailers blatantly give away, the Scavs aren’t whom they appear to be. Most incongruous is the fact that Jack and Victoria have their minds wiped “for security reasons.” Being in the New York sector triggers memories for Jack, and he is haunted by dreams of Julia (Olga Kurylenko) whom he met at the Empire State Building. When he finds out Julia’s real, everything changes.
“Oblivion” drips with symbolism. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the highly stylized visuals of the drones, or the dragonfly like ship Jack flies, or the perpetual dawn that suffuses every frame. But the crux of the story revolves around the Tet – a relationship between three points. The Tet is a physical object – a tetrahedron or four-sided die as gamers know it – and that design is also part of the Hydrorigs. Point upward the tetrahedron is a pyramid that inspires, builds and ascends. Facing downwards, it’s threatening, ominous, dagger-like. Visually, we know something is wrong with the Tet just by its appearance.
There’s more symbolic Tets too. The delicate balance between Jack – distant, distracted, pining for former Earth – and Julia – clingy, needy, her eyes perpetually dilated in adoration of her man – is turned into a three-point tetrahedron with the arrival of Julia, who has a much more substantial connection to Jack. The Tet becomes a wedge between them, driving them apart with the past even as it connects them together by a shared tragedy in the present.
The Tet is also short for “teth,” the ninth letter in gematria that spells the name of God in the Tetragrammaton. It is the building block of man’s comprehension of the divine, and Jack’s relationship with the rest of humanity and the alien invaders pivots on unmasking false gods.
This is not a film that will advance women’s rights. Every female character is subservient to Jack, and he is undoubtedly the top of the tetrahedron. But both women act as his foundation (if only in a deeply-gendered role of lover) and when they are removed he falls with them.
“Oblivion” has enough twists to play with viewers’ expectations, but each twist begs more questions with few answers. This doesn’t necessarily detract from the enjoyment of the film’s central tenets, but it can distract anyone expecting sci-fi world-building instead of a three-act play.
Despite Cruise’ involvement, the film is a thought-provoking if occasionally frustrating tale about what it means to obliterate oneself. What does it take to obliterate a towering presence like Cruise? “Oblivion’s” answer is more of him.
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