Sunday, May 5, 2013
Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski, 2013)
From the director of the super-slick Tron: Legacy (and also that Halo 3 commercial, which this almost plays out like the aftermath to). Very cool, stylish look. Moody, epic score by M83. Story is deceptively thin and hits a lot of familiar beats, but at least one plot twist took me by surprise. Recommended.
Longer, SPOILERY Thoughts:
The opening narration, wherein the protagonist, Jack (Tom Cruise), bemoans that his committed partner (in every sense of the word), Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), is too shallow and uncomplicated a match for him, as he is meanwhile haunted by dreams of an unknown other woman, had me almost immediately groaning. So it's going to be one of those stories, eh? A veiled rationalization/justification for why men stray from their significant others? Sure enough, the first act largely amounts to an episode of him playing hooky from his wife (which we understand he has been doing regularly, probably for years), and we are obviously expected to be on his side, since she's all mechanical and unromantic—more like an uncool boss than the super-hot and affectionate lover that a stud and poet like Jack deserves (never mind that she is super-hot and shows plenty of affection). Fortunately, for sci-fi reasons, it's not as simple as all that. Turns out his real wife, from before he was mind-wiped by a hostile alien entity, is Julia (Olga Kurylenko), the woman from his dreams.
Not that surprising a twist. And neither is the revelation that Jack, mind-wiped Earth custodian tasked with repairing the drones that fight alien invaders called "Scavs," is actually being manipulated by the real aliens, while the Scavs are actually the human resistance force. The trailers pretty much blew that twist, although I'm guessing most moviegoers would have seen it coming anyway. Even if it hadn't been done before, I think we've all been conditioned, in the post-Shyamalan era, to be on the lookout for "the big twist" before it happens (somewhat ruining the movie-watching experience, I'm starting to find), and when the guy telling the story admits to having been mind-wiped, that's usually a good reason to doubt anything we're being told.
The movie's most unexpected twist is the one that seems to make the least sense—that Jack is actually one of many clones of the real Jack, the astronaut who, 60 years ago, made first contact with the aliens, who then captured him and made clones of him to do their bidding. It's a cool, potentially game-changing moment, when we first realize that there's more than one Jack. And yet it ultimately feels like an unnecessary twist, raising new questions late in the game, without answering any of the dozens we already had. Why exactly did the aliens need to clone Jack? If they needed more humans to work for them, couldn't they have just captured or bred some? Or why, if they were determined to have a bunch of clones, couldn't they have just come up with a story to explain it to the Jacks? I mean, would it have been any harder to swallow than the cover stories they were already using to explain the last 60 years to the mind-wiped Jack?
The cloning element also raises Oblivion's only truly profound philosophical question, which it is wholly unprepared to explore to any satisfying degree: What becomes of "identity" in a world of clones? When Jack, our Jack, realizes that he is not the original, but only a clone of a man likely long dead, Julia assures him that he is the man she knew and loved. He possesses those memories of the life they shared, as well as the original Jack's heart and personality; collectively, we might understand these to make up the soul, and so the original Jack's lives on through his clone. But isn't that too easy? The second Jack we meet, Tech 52, also has those same memories and feelings. Would Julia deny that Tech 52 is as much the man she married 60 years ago? If so, on what grounds? If not, then how would she choose which Jack to be with (supposing the choice had presented itself)? Or would she? In fairness to Kosinski, this probably is a philosophically unanswerable question. I foresee such advanced cloning as inevitable, however, albeit in a distant future, and I truly believe that the development will be a tipping point for many of humanity's most long-held philosophical and spiritual ideas regarding identity and the soul. When humanity eventually comes to that bridge, I predict we will cross it, giving up certain convictions in the process.
To return to an earlier point, I suppose our existing, largely accepted notions of monogamy, "true love," etc. are quite problematic, often reaching their own tipping points. How does Jack choose between Julia and Victoria, having spent significant portions of his life with each? We could probably guess he'd choose Julia (and not because she's legally his actual wife), but I hope everybody can agree that he'd also be kind of a jerk, if he simply ditched his longtime partner (even if he didn't end up in that situation of his own will) to get with the woman of his dreams. But, in fact, he never does come to a point of having to choose. The decision is conveniently rendered unnecessary, just as with Julia's having to choose between Jacks.
Oblivion's ending, not nearly as thought-provoking or memorable as those to Dark City or The Matrix trilogy (other stories that spring to mind of humans taking back their freedom from aliens/machines they didn't know took it from humanity in the first place), really has more in common with something like Independence Day, but it also reminded me just how unsatisfying (perhaps, in hindsight, even deeply depressing) I found the ending to The Matrix Revolutions. I went into that movie prepped for a heroic slugfest finale, and instead I got something that left me with possibly a more pessimistic view on life in general. And so it was that, as Jack went on a suicide mission to take on the AI mastermind in Oblivion, that pessimistic side of me felt so sure that, instead of following through with destroying the villain, Jack was going to deal, and I was going to come away feeling depressed all over again. Instead, Oblivion's ending is like the "alternate happy ending" to The Matrix Revolutions, and if it's perhaps a bit easy and simplistic, at least, for that moment, it made me want to cheer. I'll take that.