Yes, it’s been done before, about a future where we find ourselves striving for control against the computers we created to make it easier on ourselves. But “Oblivion” has a little different twist on the old premise, and it’s slick and well-made, which makes the viewer suspense/deception more acceptable.
The premise is that 60 years from now, there will be good news and bad news for planet Earth: the bad news is that we’ll be invaded by hostile aliens. The good news is that we’ll win the war. The bad news is that we had to use the nukes, which pretty much devastated the planet. The good news is that a colony of survivors lives in a space station. The bad news is that there are still some rebel hideouts in the countryside which need mopping up. The good news is that we have experienced pilots like Jack (Tom Cruise) to fly the scouting cruisers and maintain the drones that the rebels keep trying to sabotage. Jack and his lovely wife Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) live together on a kind of futuristic watchtower, where they are in constant communication with the mothership, the space station. Their contact is Sally (Melissa Leo), who gives Jack his assignments and encourages Victoria to believe that it won’t be long now until they get to live on the mothership and someone else will be given this remote assignment on the desolate planet.
We like Jack not only because he’s a loving husband and a resourceful pilot but also because he nurtures just a bit of the rebel in himself. He’s got a secret hideaway, near the radioactive “danger zone” – a little cabin in the woods, the kind of place that lives in the fantasy world of most guys: an isolated, rustic place with a fresh supply of running water nearby. A few purloined books, to enjoy at leisure moments. A functioning fireplace with real wood-burning logs. Maybe a few silly mementos. Nothing too clean or neat (in contrast to the glass-enclosed watchtower high-rise). A hideout, really. Jack probably couldn’t even explain why it’s important to him to maintain it. Any more than he can explain why he keeps having these flashback memories of some other woman in his life.
(He’s aware that all the veteran pilots had to undergo a memory-erase for security purposes, and to avoid post-traumatic stress disorder, shortly after the war ended.)
As viewers, there’s something comforting about realizing that the head of the resistance movement is Morgan Freeman (character name Beech), sitting there smirking with an aviator cap and goggles, smoking a cigar, with that deep, resonant voice, and that instantly endearing familiarity. When Jack is captured by Beech, the subsequent interrogation awakens Jack to an alternate reality, which has him questioning some of the premises he’s been force-fed by the mothership.
So what’s real and what’s revisionist history? Ah, that’s for him to discover and for us to guess. What the machines will never understand is how we humans long for inconsistency and randomness (not to mention admiring nonconformity), and that rebellion is a hard-wired part of our human nature. All the way back to Adam and Eve.
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.