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Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) spends most of his time wandering about the safe zones of his perimeter on the now desolate earth, ruined in a hard-fought war with extraterrestrials. Years earlier, the “Scavengers” came and destroyed earth’s moon, hurling the planet into chaos. Earthquakes and tsunamis ravaged the population, and during the upheaval, the aliens attacked. With no choice, man used the nukes and though they won the war, they lost the planet. Those that remained built the Tet, a massive space station that harbors survivors before the migration to Saturn’s Titan.
Jack’s job, along with a series of high-tech, well-fortified flying drones, is to protect the enormous ocean-based fusion energy generators providing power to the Tet from the last bands of “Scavs” trying to destroy them. He lives a lonely life with his working partner and lover, Vika (Andrea Riseborough), waiting for their term to end so they can join the others on Tet. They have two weeks to go. But there is a problem: Despite a mandatory memory wipe five years earlier, Jack is haunted by visions of a beautiful woman. Who is she?
One day, he detects a beacon from atop the now nearly buried empire state building sending landing coordinates to an orbiting spacecraft. When he dismantles the beacon, a pre-war vessel crashes nearby. He investigates and finds working stasis chambers with sleeping astronauts, one of which, to his surprise, is the woman in his dreams. Right then, a drone rushes to the site and begins firing. Jack is able to save only her, barely escaping and making it back to his domicile. He and Vika revive her. When she wakes, she calls him by name.
Oblivion is a taut, high-concept sci-fi thriller that has more than a few surprises. Outstanding special effects and powerful performances all around, the story is challenging and forces viewers to question a lot of what they are seeing. Marred only by an unnecessary (albeit brief) narration, the film is thought-provoking, beautifully shot and directed. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
Things have gone horribly wrong. Whatever Jack thought was true, now appears to be otherwise and he is learning that the Tet and the female commander giving him daily instructions are not to be trusted. The beautiful woman, Julia, and Jack are on the run and have narrowly escaped an attacking drone. Their tiny craft and the pursuing drone have crashed in the dunes near the restricted zone.
The film to this point has been straight-forward sci-fi action with lots of suspense and a few revealing thrills. We’ve learned that “Scavs” are not in fact aliens, but the last remnants of the human resistance. But now, as the scene unfolds, we learn something even more shocking, and it elevates the premise into more than sci-fi. We’ve suspected something was off about the memory wipe because Jack’s dreams have been echoes of his past. But what he meets on the other side of the dune is wholly unexpected.
Clones in film are nothing new. I wrote a post on Moon, which is entirely about cloning. Even aliens cloning humans has been done. I can go back to classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers to see its origins. Not all are evil aliens either, such as the beautiful John Carpenter film Starman, which features an alien cloning a man to explore life on earth as a human. In Oblivion, we learn that clones are used as workers and fighters to fend off the humans trying to take back the planet. Much like Sam in Moon, we have come to identify with Jack and enjoy him as a person, so it’s shocking to see that he is not who we thought he was. And equally so for him.
No matter what the movie is, if it stars Tom Cruise, it automatically becomes that: a Tom Cruise film. Few actors share this level of renown. Even more so, his name is a brand, it carries an implication of success and marketing that over the years has probably caused more harm that good. Expectations for blockbusters with every release meant his movies became bigger, more expensive, and imaginative with every new title. He was a cash cow for the studios. So it was big news when Eyes Wide Shut didn’t break the domestic $100 million mark as his previous five films had done before.
Cruise is best known for his action and humor. He’s not played the ladies man, despite his good looks, and stuck mostly with success to roles that allow him to play the hero, if not a little cartoonish to boot. His biggest moneymaker is Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. And sadly, that is how we think of Cruise–a moneymaker. Apart from some very impressive dramatic roles in Born on the Fourth of July, Magnolia, and the aforementioned Eyes Wide Shut, all of which are among his least financially successful movies, Cruise has played it close to the hip in casting himself as a certain type. And that type has sold a lot of tickets.
With Oblivion, Cruise returns to the well and plays a man who fights to right the wrongs of a bigger power. It is familiar to us and because so, it is comfortable for the audience. We have no fears of the outcome because it’s Tom. Tom always wins. We can sit back, enjoy the spectacle and stuff our faces with popcorn. There’s no need to think . . . until we meet Tech 52, the Jack clone, and we, like Jack, learn that the number on his jumpsuit isn’t just a station identifier, it’s his place in the clone line up.
So let’s pause for a second here think about this situation. Meeting your clone. The idea of a clone sounds, well, let’s face it, friggin’ awesome . . . at first. Our minds immediately jump to Michael Keaton and the overlooked comedy, Multiplicity because that is probably how it would be and I’m incurable film dweeb that can only relate to anything if its been in a movie I’ve seen. I’d have my clone doing all the crap stuff I don’t want to do while I enjoy the finer things in life (which for me would be decidedly less classy than what the sentence implies).
Of course, that would be the fantasy. It’d mostly likely end up with me in a South American prison while me clone empties my already limited bank account and runs off with my lady. Geesh, you know what? I hate clones.
Anyway, this being a Cruise film, naturally, the two clones fight. We suspect the idea is to be amazed at how two Cruises could be fighting each other, but no matter how good special effects get, nobody ever thinks a fisticuffs between two people played by the same actor is anything more than a trick. It’s not like someone in the audience suddenly thinks, “Wow, I never knew Tom Cruise had a twin brother!” Well, maybe someone does. And truthfully, why not? Who wasn’t surprised when we found out one of the coolest special effects in Terminator 2 indeed involved Linda Hamilton’s non-acting twin sister. So huh? Maybe Cruise does have a twin!
Back to That Moment. The meeting and confrontation between the two clones is the turning point. All at once, we realize the most terrible thing has happened. Humans did not win the war. The nukes didn’t work, and there is nobody but the “Scavs” left. Mankind is reduced to pockets of hiding rebels, living in caves, trying to survive in a desolate, alien-infested world. Grim stuff.
But in this same meeting, we witness something that flickers by quickly and might be missed the first time viewing. Tech 52, when he sees Julia, has a flashback. And it’s exactly the same as Tech 49’s.