What will we do when earth is no longer habitable, either because of environmental pollution or because of an annihilating war? Several films this season imagine a dystopian future in which humans have to leave the earth to survive: Oblivion, with Tom Cruise; After Earth, with Will Smith; and Elysium, with Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. All have seemed promising. The first to be released is Oblivion, and it is satisfying in all the ways you want a film to satisfy — the acting is good, the special effects are thrilling, and the story is meaty enough to maintain the interest of philosophical viewers.
The film opens in a bleak, silt-covered New York where earthquakes and tsunamis caused by the destruction of the moon have made the landscape completely unrecognizable. Occasional bits of rubble tell us this was once the public library or the Empire State Building or Giants Stadium. I imagine that an ancient Roman returning to the Forum today would experience the same sense of loss, seeing the great temples and marketplace reduced to a few broken columns. The voice of our hero Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) explains, "We won the war, but we lost the planet" (while defending it against alien invaders). The anti-war message is pretty clear: there are no victors in a nuclear war.
I couldn't help noticing the similarities to Luke Skywalker's battle at the end of the first Star Wars movie. That set the benchmark for special effects, and we haven't seen fundamental changes, even after 35 years.
A skillfully written exposition quickly brings us into the story. Humans have moved to a moon of Saturn, but a few "techs," such as Harper, have remained behind to oversee the creation of energy cells from seawater that will be transported to the new community, and to patrol the area for scavenging aliens called, appropriately, "Scavs." Jack is the ground tech, and his wife Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) watches the computer screens from their sky-high tower home to warn him of potential danger. "Security and maintenance," Harper admits wryly. "We're the mop-up crew." A modern-day Crusoe and Friday or Adam and Eve, they are the only people on this part of earth.
Several exciting skirmishes with the scavs give Cruise fans the thrills they expect in an action movie. He even ends up with the scar across the bridge of his nose that is becoming as much a trademark as his footrace through most of his movies. Adding to the assignment are wild chases through the canyons of broken buildings while being pursued by rogue drones. But I couldn't help noticing the similarities to Luke Skywalker's battle at the end of the first Star Wars movie, back in 1977. That set the benchmark for special effects, and we haven't seen fundamental changes, even after 35 years.
What sets this film apart is its subtle references to history, literature, and philosophy, especially to the image of the cave in Plato's Republic. Jack is careful to stay inside the perimeter of safety, away from the radiation-tainted grids identified by their computer screens. Victoria watches carefully, warning him if he strays too close to the boundary. Who holds the truth? How do we know? Plato asked that question millennia ago, and the question remains.
What is really on the other side of the perimeter? Victoria turns out to be the "Adam" in this reverse Eden, so obedient that she won't even accept a flower that Jack brings her from outside the tower, because it is forbidden. Jack is the "Eve," always pushing the limits to satisfy his curiosity. He cannot coax her to join him. Victoria's kind of blind compliance is essential for tyranny to succeed.
The opportunity to contemplate the conflicts between man and machine, nature and science, and free will and obedience makes this a thinking person's action movie. It is sci-fi of the best caliber. But as the movie ended and the credits rolled, I overheard the person behind me say cynically, "That was a one-timer." I guess we can't all be thinkers.