Tom Cruise's latest sci-fi actioner mashes up all sorts of things. And some of them aren't even alien. It's clever and mindless. It's fun and foul. It's instructive and destructive.
The year is 2077, and Earth has seen better days.
A few decades back, an alien force attacked the planet. And while the good guys (that'd be us) apparently won, the aftermath is pretty grisly. The moon's been crushed, and terra firma has been torn apart by both natural catastrophe and nuclear fallout. It seems as though civilization has decided to pack it all in, board up the place and move out.
Jack and Victoria are, essentially, part of the planet's cleanup crew. As massive machines syphon up precious water (which is converted into fuel, we're told, for a trip to Saturn's moon Titan), the two work to protect the machines from the remnants of the opposition—known colloquially as "scavs." Fearsome, orb-like drones do most of the actual defending, mind you. But they can be a bit cantankerous, and it's Jack's job to keep the things up and running. Victoria, meanwhile, serves as a communications conduit between Jack and their bosses who are already holed up on a massive spaceship.
It's not particularly glamorous work. In fact, it can be downright depressing, given the dilapidated state of the surroundings. Victoria's ready to join the rest on the spaceship and be on her way to Titan. But Jack, he still has some affection left for 'ol Mother Earth. In fact, he's found some pockets of the place that seem downright homey—beautiful, even.
Plus, he's having some weird dreams.
Jack dreams of a world before the war. Of a city untouched by holocaust. Of a building—the Empire State Building—towering over a teeming antwork of bustle. Of a woman he's never known but still seems so familiar. So vibrant. So loving. So alive.
He's not supposed to be having dreams like this. His employers even erased his memory before he took the job to make sure of it. He's a cog—a drone himself, of sorts. He's got a job to do, and Jack, despite his odd emotions, is determined to do it.
Then one day a vessel crashes to the ground—an old, prewar vehicle of some sort. Jack sees it fall and, over Victoria's protestations, goes to investigate. There, in the wreckage, he sees capsules holding humans—men and women in deep sleep. And through one of the windows, he sees the woman, literally, of his dreams.
The discovery jolts Jack with a host of questions: Who is she? Do I know her? Does she know me?
And why do the drones seem so eager to blow her to bits?
Oblivion's major characters all have good intentions. Everyone wants to do the right thing, as they see it. (What's right sometimes turns out to be horribly wrong, but that's largely beyond these folks' control or even knowledge.) Victoria wants to do a good job and in so doing get herself and Jack to Titan in one piece. The scavs, we learn, just want to survive (and we can't really quibble with them for that). The strange woman—Julia's her name—wants to uncover the truth of this unfamiliar world in which she's found herself.
Jack is as well-intentioned as anyone. He wants, simply, to help humanity survive. And because he keeps that strategic goal always in mind, it allows him to switch his tactical objectives when necessary and become the hero humanity needs him to be.
In the end, Jack and others show a willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for a greater good. And we see that with courage and perseverance, life can go on in even the most trying of circumstances. We also get a good look at the power of love between a man and his wife ... a power and a pull that extend beyond even unfathomable obstacles.
Jack is a book lover, and every now and then he'll pick up an old tome in his travels. The line from one such work, Lays of Ancient Rome by Thomas Macaulay, features a stanza that holds particular spiritual resonance for Jack (and serves to emphasize his sacrificial heroism):
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods?
Later, Jack quotes the lines to a fearsome alien entity. It retorts, "I created you, Jack. I am your god." (Jack does not take kindly to that bit of presumption.)
[Spoiler Warning] Jack is a clone who retains memories of his original template. Now, the very presence of a clone can be deemed spiritually torturous, and how it's dealt with here could spark a good deal of thought and discussion. And the filmmakers seem to anticipate such discussion—probing the concepts of what it means to be human, to be a person. Is it a matter of simple biology? Or is there more involved? The movie ultimately suggests there's more, though it does not necessarily follow a Christian worldview. "If we have souls," we hear Jack say, "they're made out of the love we share, undimmed by time, unbound by death."
Jack is romantically involved with Victoria. They share a bed and shower (we see her from the back and side, revealing part of her breast). It's implied that they have sex in a private pool after Victoria disrobes and dives in. (She's in shadow as she sheds her dress, but she's seen fully from behind; her nude body is more illuminated under the water.) She then pulls a clothed Jack into the water; he takes off his shirt while swimming, and the two kiss and twine underneath the surface.
In the complexities of Oblivion, Jack is, in a way, married to Julia. We see them kiss and hug, and by way of a child born later, it's suggested that the two also have sex. (She leads him out of the frame, and the next morning they wake up in the same bed.)
We see naked adults floating in artificial "wombs."
Most of the violence is either perpetrated by or directed at the mechanized drones. Several people are blasted by them—zapped right out of the movie, as it were. (We don't see dead bodies, and there is very little blood or gore.) One man is knocked into a wall by a careening drone, but recovers in time to shoot it.
Jack deals with several nonlethal but painful encounters. He engages in a firefight with scavs in which he's nearly dragged into a gaping crevasse and suffers what must be at least a 20-foot drop. He's hit in the head with a rifle butt, leaving his face bloody and a lingering cut on his nose. A melee involves kicks and punches and an incapacitating choke hold.
It looks like Julia is about to be executed, with a gun put to her head. And in another scene she's shot in the stomach. (We see her bloody shirt and a blood-covered hand that was on the wound.) She's healed with an effective-but-painful surgical tool. (We hear her screams.)
Drones are demolished. Stuff blows up. People die in a nuclear blast. There's talk of starving to death.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word and five or six s-words. Milder exclamations include "b‑‑ch," "h‑‑‑" and "p‑‑‑ed." God's name is misused four or five times, often with "d‑‑n."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Somebody smokes a big ol' cigar. Others use or brandish futuristic syringes with drugs in them. Jack and Julia recount the dreams they had for their married life, including how they'd "fight and maybe drink too much."
Other Negative Elements
Julia vomits up "breathing fluid."
"Everybody dies," Jack tells an adversary. "The thing is to die well."
Oblivion is a clever sci-fi thriller designed to show us that there are things worth living and dying for. That while we may feel insignificant at times—just one of several billion people crawling around on Planet Earth—we can still live lives full of meaning and purpose.
Oblivion also reminds me of some of the flimsy films I used to watch and enjoy in my teens and early 20s. It's meant to be a fun popcorn muncher, and (never you mind what I just wrote in the last paragraph) its philosophical ponderings are as much window dressing as anything.
That's never license to check your brain at the box office, of course. In fact, it could be argued that the question of Jack's and Victoria's discernment skills—related to whom they're listening to and taking orders from—might be the movie's central source of tension. It's a concept that makes me think about why we write these Plugged In reviews to begin with. Because there's much to discern here—not in the sense of rejecting or accepting out of hand, but weighing carefully and thoughtfully.
Oblivion's violence isn't extreme, but it is pervasive. Its sensuality isn't obscene, but certainly it's impossible to ignore. Its worldview is both strangely affirming and subtly corrosive. And that puts this flick in something of a broad no-man's-land when it comes to thoughtful moviegoing, perhaps a bit like Earth circa 2077. This isn't a bad film, really—and yet it's more of a war zone than you might think.