Notes from Underground


Facing fearful odds:

“Oblivion” as a reactionary parable



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With its depiction of clones, drones, and environmental exploitation, "Oblivion," a new sci-fi movie starring everyone's favorite Scientologist, represents an intriguing product of the contemporary Zeitgeist of the imagination. Like 2001's "The Last Samurai," this latest Tom Cruise vehicle has the durably dapper, square-jawed star (honestly, has the man sold his soul to Xenu in order to strike a Dorian Gray-like bargain never to age?) adopting the mores of a traditional culture to fight an alien invasion. In both movies, the open embracing of seppuku, or death before dishonor, features prominently in the climax.

This review will contain spoilers, but anyone who didn't feel particularly inclined to take in this movie, after seeing the rather mediocre and pedestrian-looking trailer, should read on. I'm not saying "Oblivion" is a great film, by any means, but it is a shockingly, and fascinatingly, subversive one. And I mean "subversive" in the best possible way. "Oblivion" is, in fact, rife with brazenly anti-feminist, anti-cultural-Marxist thematic overtones. At a climactic moment, when a male character puts a bitchy and controlling female alien deity in her place with a pithy profanity before striking a mighty blow for justice and rushing forth to meet his eternal destiny, any red-blooded man living in our tyrannically feminized and rigidly misandric age will feel a swell of cathartic satisfaction. (Personally, I've found myself replaying this line in my head and smiling with appreciation several times since I emerged from the theater.)

But the film isn't perfect; far from it. Worst things first: The storyline is needlessly convoluted and not always engaging; the pacing plods; Cruise's performance is, as usual, slightly off-putting, his delivery all too often veering toward the shrill and manic, and his manner at times coming across as irritatingly petulant. (Then again, perhaps I'm just jealous; after all, the guy barely looks a day older than when he slid across the floor of his parents' house in "Risky Business" three decades ago, and his abs and pecs, much on display, are to die for, if you're into that kind of thing ...)

Aside from its star, and the baggage he brings to the role, there are a few other noticeable shortcomings on display. As with a dozen or so other, better films set in a Phillip K. Dick-esque future ("Blade Runner" and "Total Recall" come to mind), things are not what they seem. Aliens have wiped out much of the world — or have they? Man has emigrated to Titan, a moon of Saturn — or has he? The good guys might in fact really be the bad guys, and vice versa; how mind-blowing! Etc.

On the surface, Cruise's character, Jack Harper, appears to be a technical engineer sharing a bed and a home with Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), his lovely and alluring redheaded domestic companion, who is also — technically — his boss. Jack, however, has begun to question the appearance of things. He is being sent down to a desolated Earth from orbit to repair and supervise drones that protect certain crucial energy reactors from hostile alien scavengers, or "scavs." The handsome couple, who live in a plush and spacious glass house far above the surface, will soon be relocated to mankind's new home on Titan once their tour of duty ends. But when a ship crash lands and the only survivor is a bewitching brunette who claims to be Jack's long lost wife Julia (Olga Kurylenko), the façade begins to unravel.

To skip over the particulars, and thus keep spoilers to a minimum, suffice it to say that the base on Titan doesn't actually exist, the hostile aliens have already won out, and the "scavs" are in fact the last pockets of human resistance on the dessicated wasteland of the Earth. Moreover, Jack and Vicky are actually clones created by "Sally" (stay tuned!) from the prototypes of two astronauts she captured from a doomed space mission several decades ago.

What is interesting is the way the movie posits the alien hierarchy as exclusively female. Jack is responsible for the grunt work, while Vicky is his supervisor; she in turn reports back to alien queen bee Sally, who appears in the guise of an attractive fiftyish woman with a sweet Southern accent whose seeming affability disguises a cagey aura of murderous menace. Sally (Melissa Leo) refers to Jack dismissively as "the temp," never by name, highlighting her blithe condescension toward masculinity.

But Jack noses out the facts, much to the chagrin of Victoria, who would rather remain in the dark on the matter. That is to say, the man asks questions, voices concerns, grows restless, and eventually defies the powers-that-be; the woman, out of a desperate desire to maintain domestic safety, accepts the status quo, and even deliberately turns away from the truth when it is thrust into her face. The masculine thirst for knowledge, however unpleasant that knowledge may be, wins out over the feminine drive to safeguard one's security.

Further, Victoria's entire position is based on usurpation, something metaphorically comparable to a feminist undermining of traditional domestic roles. Jack, we find out, was actually married to a different woman entirely; Sally has set up the Victoria clone with a sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy, letting her have the man with whom she was always infatuated, provided that she keep him in line for the greater benefit of helping the alien race wipe out humanity and suck dry the Earth's resources. We get the clear sense that Vicky has made herself complicit in this role as facilitator of the destruction of her race; her story, tragic as it is, nevertheless shows her to be a collaborator in the aliens' nefarious designs.

Vicky ultimately sells Jack out, but he manages to escape to the Earth's surface, accompanied by his rediscovered wife from a previous life. The two join the ragtag rebels, led by stalwart Morgan Freeman, whose trademark soaring vocal cadences induct Jack into the manly world of resistance. Several times Freeman cites a rousing line of verse from Thomas Macaulay:

How can man die better than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his gods?
Indeed, the notion of a "good death" features prominently in the discussion. Not all deaths are created equal, after all, and giving one's life in defense of one's heritage and homeland is the best way to go, if you've gotta go (and we all do!). When Jack finally does give his life, he redeems his manhood, and not uncoincidentally also strikes a blow against Big Sister in the Sky.

He is striking back against the alien being who has stolen his manhood and rendered him a deracinated, emasculated servant of a hostile, invading force bent on the utter destruction of his people. It is not hard to see the rich metaphorical significance to the present plight of our civilization, or the layers of applicability to current circumstances, in a form only moderately disguised. In more ways than one, those who oppose the current state of things "face fearful odds." Perhaps, like Jack, we will someday seize upon the means and summon up the guts to fling our own alien overlords into fearful confusion.  Ω

April 25, 2013

Published in 2013 by WTM Enterprises.

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