1970s science fiction was known for plenty of things, including a pervading sense of loss and weariness, a fading of a formerly utopian and optimistic view of the future, and a relentless quest to examine one’s small part in an ongoing disintegration or devolution of things. These points reflected a lot of the zeitgeist of 1970s America, which explains why they fell out of favor so totally during the years after. But after a long enough time, almost anything becomes ripe for re-examination, especially in genre fiction. And that is certainly the case in director Joseph Kosinski’s dreamy, almost operatic, 2013 post-apocalypse adventure, Oblivion.
The story is in 2077, six decades after Earth won a Pyrrhic victory over invading extraterrestrials that left the planet devastated. The remainder of humanity has colonized Saturn’s moon of Titan, leaving behind a skeleton crew of technicians to oversee the enormous resource harvesters that are draining the oceans to fuel the human colony on Titan. One of these techs is Jack Harper, who lives with his lover/housemate/communications officer Vika. Together, Jack and Vika repair the combat drones that protect the harvesters from the Scavs, remnants of the invading alien army. It is lonely work, and for Jack, dangerous. For he is plagued by fragments of memories from the days before the war, and a sense that not everything in his carefully planned life is what it seems to be. He maintains a secret hideaway in the wilderness where he dreams of another life he cannot possibly have, and when he discovers a downed spacecraft containing within it a number of human astronauts in cryogenic sleep, Jack’s reality accelerates into a dangerous game of survival. Who are these unannounced spacefarers? Why is Vika suddenly so suspicious of them? Why is Jack and Vika’s mission controller Sally so concerned about their effectiveness as a couple? And to what end are those harvesters really working? As Jack’s world begins to fray, he becomes part of a conflict that is much more far-reaching than he imagined, and both more grandiose and more intimate than he is truly prepared for.
Much of Oblivion is a study of near-solitude, as we watch Jack make his rounds. By day, he has plenty of time to go out and fear for his life while investigating downed drones. The Scavs are no joke, and they strike and fade with frightening speed and stealth. But apart from those terrifying moments of uncertainty, Jack has long stretches of time where he simply watches over an empty world, observes enormous floating machines as they literally boil off the world’s oceans, and wonders what part he really has to play in all of this. His promised reward is an eventual trip back to Titan. But at day’s end, his return to a pristine, almost antiseptic home above the clouds with a pristine, almost antiseptic companion should easily match any comforts Titan could offer. And yet, they don’t. The entire story is a deep dive into a kind of existential unease. Everywhere we look are the ruins of former Earth. Everywhere Jack goes is a reminder of both what has been lost, and what must be left behind. And every day, Jack finds one more reason to disregard all of it. We feel for him; he is essentially a castaway on his home planet who is supposed to be happy to leave, and yet can’t understand why his home is worth abandoning, even after all it has suffered.
There is a huge turn in the middle of the story, as a third character—the astronaut Julia—enters the picture. Jealousy, suspicion, paranoia and betrayal all become the coin of the realm as Jack must, for the first time in his life, pick sides in a way that will forever close off entire aspects of his identity. It is easy to demand that somebody choose one side over the other. It’s a whole lot harder to be that person and not only be made to choose, but to do so without fully understanding why.
Eventually Jack does understand the why of things, which is when the story considerably simplifies from angst and mystery to outright conflict. Here, Oblivion shines too, with consistently outstanding music, pacing and action sequences that just look spectacular. Much credit goes to Jack’s mosquito-like airship in which he spends so much of the movie flying, as that craft is so cool, it’s practically one of the characters. As the action amps up, we get plenty of flash and bang to offset the movie’s tranquil first half, but ultimately, this movie isn’t about chases and blasting things. It’s about asking ourselves who is really our enemy, who is really our friend, and what is really our mission. It doesn’t take a guy stuck on a futuristic, wasteland Earth to suffer those kinds of questions. Most people suffer them every day of their adult lives. And most people never really get the answers they are looking for, either. Those who do tend to regret it.
It would have been interesting to see Oblivion as a short movie that concludes before its big mid-story reveal, when all we have to go on is Jack’s quiet, nearly content-free life of menial task resolution. But the second half of the movie is where we are hit with a much heavier question about the degree to which we are the architect of our own downfall. There comes a point when Jack encounters an enemy that is once both strangely alien and familiar to him, and as he fights for survival as well as for understanding, he experiences a moment of truth about himself, the Earth and humanity. Whatever the reason for the planet’s destruction, whatever the reason why he suffers from half-memories and dreams of of another life, one thing is certain: We have done this to ourselves. We’re good at that.