Sunday, April 21, 2013

Oblivion (2013)

This is the first new release I've seen since Roger Ebert died. I'll miss being able to turn to his review.

I found Oblivion a pleasant movie, offering tepid enjoyment. I was never bored, but never engrossed either. The most interesting characters (Victoria and Sally) had static roles, both emotionally and physically. In the lead, Tom Cruise, as Jack Harper, was likable, but unoriginal and Morgan Freeman has gotten to the point where he is only asked to play himself, a commanding type, rather than a person.

We're told that scavengers came and destroyed Earth's moon decades ago. The planet began dying and everyone evacuated to a space satellite, Titan. The evacuees still have water stations on earth that need to be protected from alien scavengers out to destroy humans. There are drones roaming the earth, killing the scavengers and protecting the water supply. Jack Harper is a drone repairman, Tech-49, sent to fix those drones knocked off line by scavenger attacks.

His memory has been wiped clean for this job, so that if the scavengers capture him he won't be able to tell them anything. I'm not sure why he would trust a government that would wipe away his mind. He has dreams of fleeting visions, a woman whose face he knows, but whose name he can't remember. He recalls being with her on top of the Empire State building, now a ruin.

He lives in a high tech module, used as mission control by Jack and his lover/coworker, Victoria. She communicates by video with "Sally" their director based on Titan, while Jack is in the field repairing drones and occasionally being attacked by scavengers. Each day Sally asks Victoria if she and Jack are "an efficient team?" Each day Victoria assures her that they are. And we're left to ponder what this mechanical phrase means, as Jack does. Victoria's memory has also been swept clean and she does not seem to be plagued by the inchoate memories that haunt Jack. He still thinks about what she won't. They will be going to Titan in two weeks, to be reconnected with civilization and she can't wait. A picture of the happy couple decorates the module, Jack's face leaning into hers. Jack goes through the motions of romantic intimacy, but he can't muster enthusiasm for a return to Titan -- a place he can't remember because his mind has been wiped clean. Instead, he feels an inexplicable tie to earth and doesn't want to leave it. Victoria has little patience for his sentimentality. She never leaves the module, doesn't see the remnants of Earth and doesn't want him to do anything to ruin their scheduled return to the new world that is waiting, light years away from the big blue marble's corpse.

Sally has specific assignments for Jack and he's not supposed to go off course, especially not into areas marked "radiation zone." Still, sometimes when he leaves on his daily repair missions, Jack cuts off radio communication with Victoria and pokes around Earth's ruins, collecting artifacts. He moves through long-abandoned structures, piecing together the world that fell apart. The whole planet is ground zero. In a crrumbled library, he uncovers a large globe, a representation of what used to be.

He builds himself a little home, a shack near a still running stream. Snuggled in a patch of green grass, he makes his own museum. He stores his finds there (sunglasses -- though not the Ray-bans Joel Goodson wore in Risky Business). Books. Poems he recites in his head. Vinyl records, a stuffed monkey. He turns on the music, sits by the water and tries to remember the things he can't fully forget. He nurtures a plant and, when it blooms, he brings it back as a gift to Victoria, to brighten their module which is beautiful, but completely artificial. They eat tube and powdered food by candlelight and luxuriate in a pool, which is merely a basin attached to their space home. He yearns for something real, but Victoria immediately tosses the plant out. It could be full of toxins. He knows the rules, she scolds.

On the job, he narrowly eludes scavengers and gets the feeling that they want to capture rather than kill him. He finds this puzzling, but Victoria simply says that whatever they want him for, they can't have him. He's hers and they will soon be leaving together. For Titan.

One day he follows a scavenger signal to a space ship wreck. It's the Odyssey and there are still survivors, in a place where Titan ordered Jack not to patrol. He's exploring without authorization and without back up. The downed crew members have been encased in protective capsules for 60 years, with breathing fluid in their lungs to keep them alive. He recognized one of the survivors as the woman in his dreams. When Titan drones follow him and kill those who lay sleeping in the other capsules, Jack protects the woman's with his own life. The drones can't shoot her, without killing him, so they back off. He takes the remaining capsule back to his module and he and Victoria revive the woman, Julia, who recognizes Jack, but is shocked when they tell her that the ship went down 60 years ago and the world she knew has disappeared. Victoria's possessiveness with Jack causes Julia to withdraw further. The two engage in silent rivalry. Jack senses the tension, but doesn't admit he recognizes Julia.

He asks Victoria if she ever has memories, thoughts that creep past their forced amnesia? Does she know Julia? Victoria doesn't answer, except to say she wants her gone by morning. If he found her through a scavenger signal, there's no telling who she is or who she's working for. But she's human, not alien, Jack counters, which makes him wonder why the drones who are supposed to preserve human life, tried to kill her? Victoria's not interested in such questions. She only wants to get through the night, then get rid of Julia.

At dawn, Jack finds Julia gazing out of the window and into the universe. She tells him that she needs to find out what happened to her ship. There's a flight recorder on the wreck and she needs to go recover it. He would do the same, she says. She needs to know what happened on her last mission, for herself and for him too. He leaves with her and a panicked Victoria wakes to find them gone.

When she speaks to Sally, she covers for Jack and, without letting Sally know he defied orders by patrolling out of bonds, she nervously explains that she's just lost his signal and wonders if Sally can send back up drones to search for him. Are you and Jack an efficient team, Sally asks. Of course, Victoria assures her. They're great! Sally says she will send the back up drones.

Back on earth, Julia and Jack recover the flight recorder, but are captured by scavengers, who moved them to their headquarters, an abandoned library. They tie Jack up. At first they keep themselves shrouded in darkness (for reasons that serve the drama, but not the story) and Jack only hears Beech's (Morgan Freeman's voice) but then the lights are on and he sees a group of bedraggled humans surrounding him. The masks and gear they wore when he caught brief glimpses of scavengers were just uniforms designed to help them avoid drone radar. It gave them an alien appearance, but Beech assures Jack that they're as mortal as he is. Jack insists that all the humans are on Titan, but Beech says that there is no Titan. He's been lied to. He's not working for earth's survivors. He's working for the race that wants them all dead. Beech has a disabled drone. He wants Jack to use his technical repair skills to reprogram the drone and send it back up to "Titan" to kill the aliens and save surviving human refugees. He saw Jack scavenging through the planet's rubble, saving things, relating to the civilization that had been, and Beech thought he could make Jack understand that the "scavengers" were not the enemy. Jack refuses to listen, to believe and Beech's angry assistant (Jaime from Game of Thrones, who barely has 2 minutes of screen time) who thinks Jack's not worthy of trust, wants to kill him immediately. When they put a gun to Julia's head to threaten him, Jack begs for her life, before he's knocked unconscious. When he comes to, he's surprised that Beech gives him back his space bike and his gun and let's him go. Beech hopes that Jack will return to help them, to prove Jaime, uh, Sykes wrong. As Julia and Jack leave on the bike, a bitter Sykes asks Beech what makes him think that Jack is different. "She does," Beech answers, his gaze on Julia.

When they visit the fallen Empire State building, Julia tells him he proposed on the Observation Deck. He put a ring in front of a telescope viewer and bade her to look through it and see her future. The missing memory pieces come flooding back to Jack. His thoughts finish the story that Julia is telling him. How she said yes. The ring he gave her? She still carries it on a necklace around her neck. She pulls it out to show Jack and they embrace.

Meanwhile, Sally's drone has located Jack and Victoria can locate him on her monitor. She sees Julia in his arms. When he and Julia return, she locks them out of the module. Speaking into her earpiece, she tells Sally that Jack has broken the rules. He's found a survivor who has compromised him, impaired his judgment, made him unstable. Are you and Jack an efficient team, is the inevitable question. "No, we are not." I don't know what effect Victoria thinks this will have. Is she really willing to have Jack killed because she saw him hugging Julia. She hasn't even given him a chance to do much more than that, but she sense that even before he found Julia, he belonged to her. "It was always her," she tells Jack. Sally's drones come to the module and they fire as Jack begs Victoria to escape with him and Julia. She won't and is ruthlessly killed by the drone. Then, to his shock, unconcerned with Victoria's demise, Sally asks Jack to come to Titan with Julia. She can be his new partner, after she's been prepped (i.e. had her mind erased) of course.

Jack and Julia flee. They run out of fuel and see a downed drone. A repairman comes to fix it and when Jack tries to approach him the man attacks. As they wrestle, Jack sees that he is fighting himself. The man is identical to him, only he's Tech 52, not Tech 49. Jack tries to call out words of reassurance to the mirror man, but he won't listen. Each struggles to disarm the other. The guns go off. Jack is only able to distract the other him when the lookalike sees Julia and has the same partial memories of her that Jack did. I think this might be helpful. If the replica loves Julia like Jack does, can't Jack use this to gain to gain his cooperation?

When his twin is caught off guard by the sight of Julia Jack knocks him out and ties him up. It is only then that he realizes that a stray bullet has hit Julia in the stomach. He moves her into a nearby cave and decides to take Tech 52's space ship to try to get help. The space ship recognizes him as its owner "Jack Harper" and flies him back to his module, Module 52, which is identical to the one Jack just escaped. It even has its own Victoria, with the familiar photograph on display framed by their love. Given a second chance to save her, Jack asks this Victoria to come out into the field with him. Let him show her earth. She refuses. She's tired of having this conversation. He knows the rules. He does and knows she won't break them. He gets the medical kit and leaves, returning to doctor Julia. The doppelganger has broken loose from his bindings and is nowhere to be found. Jack leaves with Julia, but is disheartened to realize he is only a clone.

When they encounter Beech again, he tells Jack that Titan created 1000 Jacks. All of them had his technical and leadership skills, but none of them had his soul. Before technology improved and they built the robot drones, Titan sent these Jacks to hunt the scavengers. The scavengers avoided or destroyed them all, but then Beech saw Jack, this Jack, cherishing the rubble, saving old books, risking his life for Julia's and knew that he was different. This Jack didn't only have knowledge. He had a heart. The heart of their commander, the original Jack. Jack was one of them. He was sent on a mission with Julia -- and Victoria -- and their ship went down. Knowing that Titan is the enemy, Jack works with the scavengers to build a drone that will destroy it.

On a break, he takes Julia to visit his shack by the stream. She reaches for him, but he insists that he's not who she thinks he is, just a copy. The man she married is dead. Julia demurs. His memories are Jack's. His memories are theirs and they still live. And this place . . . it's just like the place he described to her once. He told her he'd build her a house by the meadow, where they would grow old and fat together. How romantic of him, Jack laughs. He told her they would die there and the world would forget them, but they'd be together. That's what he said. "I remember," Jack replies. They make love. In the morning he says he'd wanted to live in that shack forever. He still can, Julia exclaims. No, he has to fight Titan with Beech. "Promise me we'll be back," Julia makes him pledge, before they leave for battle.

As Jack and the scavengers finish the drone, they are attacked by Titan drones before they can launch it. They ward off the Titan robots, but lose their own. Beech is devastated. He says he wishes he could have gone up to Titan with the drone. Jack says that would have been a suicide mission, but Beech said it would have been worth it just to see the alien master's face. They still have a space ship. Jack could fly up to Titan in that and destroy it that way. But Titan -- whatever it is -- will never let him through. Julia says that it will if she goes with Jack. After all "Sally" invited him to bring Julia up to Titan before, so that she could be transformed into his new "efficient" partner. Jack protests that he won't let Julia go to her death with him, but she insists.

He puts her back in her capsule and then we see him load a capsule onto the space ship and take off. As he flies, he listens to the flight recorder from Julia's crashed ship and has flashbacks. He learns that HE was the pilot on that ship and Victoria was his co-pilot. The other crew members were in their capsules in back, while he and Victoria were in the cabin. Victoria leans in close to a surprised Jack and snaps a picture of them together at the dashboard. It's the same picture from the modules. It looked like he was nuzzling her in the photo, but now we know that was a facade. His head turned into her face for the length of the snapshot, only by accident.

This makes me wonder if Victoria's memories were erased after all. She wanted him then just as the Victoria clones did. She might have had the same niggling memories as he did, but since they recalled a world where he belonged to another woman, she was happy to repress them. As a replica, she felt need and jealousy, but not real love. She was soulless just like the Jack clones that Beech described.
Now, listening to the flight recorder, Jack relives the last minutes that Victoria -- and he -- lived as humans. They were going to Titan with their crew, but as they neared they discovered that they were under attack. At that point, fearing for Julia, Jack decided to eject the sleeping compartment with the crew members. It would return to earth. If he survived, he would parachute down to join the other survivors later. He orders Victoria to get into one of the capsules. She refuses. She insists that she will not leave his side. There's no time to argue. Jack runs in back and bids adieu to the sleeping Julia. "Dream of us," he murmurs, as he ejects her.

He takes his seat next to Victoria and as they head to their fatal encounter with Titan, the flight recorder ends abruptly.

Back in the present world, Jack is once again flying to meet Titan. As his ship passes through the alien antechamber he sees human clones in glass containers, floating like fetuses. Jack clones. Victoria clones. When the real Jack and Victoria were killed 60 years ago, "Titan" preserved and endlessly copied their dna and trained/tricked them into continuing to ravage the planet that Titan had taken over. Titan appears to be nothing but a massive, geometrical black box, speaking with "Sally's" disembodied voice. It demands to know why Jack has come. He says that he is bringing the survivor to Titan, just like Sally wanted. But Sally's sensors show that his heart rate has quickened. "Oh, it's just because I'm glad to see you." His body readings reveal that he's lying. Why has really come. Sally, it, demands to know the truth and Jack must answer with drones trained on his ship, ready to fire. He says that he's come, bearing this survivor, because he realizes that it's the only way to save their species. Unaware that Jack now knows that the scavengers are his true species, Sally checks his vital signs and sees that his answer is truthful, believes that he still believes that Titan inhabitants are human.

As Jack opens his ship, Sally realizes that the "survivor" in his capsule is not the one she expected. It's Beeches, who has happily traveled there to witness Titan's death, even if it means his own. He and Jack fire and Titan explodes. Flames and debris rain down onto the earth and the scavengers below rejoice. Beech's mission to free them has been accomplished.

Alone at the shack by the stream, Julia emerges from her capsule. A flashback tells us that when Jack switched Beech's capsule for hers and left her to live, he touched the glass that encased her sleeping soul and said, "dream of us." Just as he had before ejecting her sleep capsule from another ship, sixty years earlier.

Three years pass and Julia is gardening outside of her dream shack, a toddler by her side. Through narration we hear Jack say he's been searching for her, wondering if she thinks of him, sees him in the child. The little girl points and when Julia looks up she sees scavengers. They have found her. This only makes me wonder why she didn't get in touch with them before. She knew there were other human survivors. Why raise her child outside of remaining civilization, when she could have searched for them. For that matter, I know Jack loved his little love shack and all, but why drop her off there in isolation, to give birth alone? The scavengers at least had technology in case of an emergency. Maybe he reasoned Titan drones could find her in that location, because they had already intercepted the scavenger headquarters and would return -- should he and Beech fail to destroy them.

Anyway, as we hear Jack narrating, we see him emerge from the scavenger crowd and move towards Julia and the child. "Who is he?" The little girl wonders. It's Jack, but not Tech-49, not the clone who died with Beech. This is Tech-52, the one who fought Jack, was tied up and then escaped. He says that he knew he would find this house, because he knew Jack 49 had built it. He built it because that's what Tech - 52 would have built too. Jack is him. He is Jack. "He is me."

Fine, but when Jack 52 was doing the voice over and wondered if their child reminded Julia of him, how did he know that Julia was pregnant? I don't think she was far enough along for even the other Jack (#49) to have realized that, when he left on his death mission. Are there other clones on earth, besides the two we knew about? What about the Victoria in module 52? What became of her? I suppose I might find the answer to small questions like this if I read the comics, from which the Oblivions screenplay was created, but I'm not intrigued enough by the story to explore further. I'll take the happy ending offered and leave Jack and Julia at that.

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