This article was first published as a Film and Bible Blog article in Culturewatch. © Tony Watkins, 2012.
For discussion material on this film, see my Damaris Film Blog discussion guide and additional questions for reflection in my Film and Bible Blog article.
Warning: This article contains plot spoilers.
Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and Victoria ‘Vika’ Olsen (Andrea Riseborough) are stationed in a tower 1000m above the surface of a ravaged Earth. It is sixty years after the moon was destroyed by an alien ship, which unleashed immense destruction on the planet. Humanity won the ensuing war, but nevertheless had to evacuate the virtually uninhabitable planet for a colony on Titan. Now a vast operation to extract vital resources from Earth is nearing completion, but gangs of surviving scavengers (‘Scavs’) pose an on-going threat. Jack serves as one of the last repair technicians for the drones which defend against the Scavs, while Vika is his communications officer, maintaining contact with the operations centre in the ‘Tet’, a space station in orbit high overhead.
After five years, their tour of duty is almost over. While Vika can hardly wait to leave to join everyone else on Titan, Jack is reluctant. He feels a profound bond with Earth: it is home, despite all that has happened. This connection is reinforced by images that flash through his mind: they feel like memories, yet they can’t be, as he and Vika had their memories wiped before their tour of duty commenced. With just two weeks to go, Vika picks up a strange signal coming from somewhere in their sector. When Jack investigates, he discovers that the Scavs have set up a homing beacon. It’s not long before he learns what it was for: something from space crashes to the ground, and in the wreckage he finds pods containing humans in a suspended state. Jack is horrified when a drone arrives and starts destroying them, but he manages to rescue one. It contains a beautiful woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko). But how does she know his name? And why are the Scavs trying to capture, rather than kill, him?
Oblivion contains ideas which are familiar from other science fiction films. In particular, it echoes one of the key ideas in The Matrix (1999): a central character whose understanding of his existence is at odds with reality. Like Neo (Keanu Reeves) in The Matrix, Jack has a ‘splinter in his mind’. It is not so much a feeling that something is wrong with the world around him, as a sense that something is wrong within him. What Jack believes to be phantom memories of an earlier time and place feel very real to him, and he can’t explain it, or even admit it, to Vika. Neither can he tell Vika just how deeply he feels the attachment to Earth; to admit that he feels like it’s home is one thing, but the idea that he has actually built a sort of home would be too much for her.
In the normal course of events, Jack would never discover the truth about who he is and where he fits into the world. Like Neo, and like Truman (Jim Carrey) in The Truman Show (1998), he may be troubled, but he nevertheless accepts the reality with which he is presented. So do most of us, most of the time. As we go through life and accumulate insights into the way things are, we gradually construct and refine a mental map of reality, which is our worldview. Much of the time this worldview mapping is a subconscious process: we experience things and we learn things from others, and little by little our understanding of the way things are is reinforced until we find that we have a very fixed way of navigating through life. When something doesn’t fit with this, we tend to rationalise it away. We forget that our worldview maps, like some old map of the world, are incomplete or are decidedly sketchy in some areas, and we overlook the fact that something which doesn’t fit may be the key to new understanding. As with Thomas Kuhn’s famous notion of paradigm shifts in scientific theories, a new idea will only be considered seriously when there is a significant accumulation of difficulties with the established framework.
In Truman’s case, his determination to find the love of his life eventually enables him to overcome the obstacles placed in his way to prevent him from discovering the truth. Both Neo and Jack, however, only realise that their mental map is woefully inadequate because of intervention from outside: both meet people who prompt more questioning (Choi and Dujour knock on Neo’s door; Julia tells Jack, ‘You are not who you think you are’), and others who spur them to action. Neo meets Morpheus, while Jack is captured and taken to Malcolm Beech; both men are challenged to follow the evidence to discover how their mental maps of reality are wrong. ‘They lied to you,’ Malcolm says. ‘It’s time to learn the truth.’ Jack’s pursuit of truth means daring to go into an area he has believed to be dangerous, where he discovers something that challenges his entire sense of identity: his doppelgänger, dressed identically, performing an identical role with identical equipment, except with a different zone number on his jacket.
As we discover more about Jack’s origins, it seems a little surprising that he does not simply accept his situation at face value and unquestioningly obey every instruction from Sally. Why is he unlike Vika in this respect? Presumably the answer lies in some defect in his manufacturing process, but we never discover what. Until the very last scene, in fact, it seems that only Jack number 49 has a love of old books and memories of the original Jack’s life. Whatever the cause, the effect is that Jack not only feels a connection with the old Earth, he also has the courage to seek out the truth, wherever that might lead him. This is what marks him out as special to Malcolm. Despite the scepticism of the Scav second-in-command, Sykes (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Malcolm intuitively knows that Jack will be determined to find the truth and will be brave enough to face it. We suspect that Vika would respond differently: if she was presented with the same challenge, would she respond in the same way, or immediately report in to Sally?
Jack’s courageous self-sacrifice to liberate the last remnants of humanity is inspired by lines from Macaulay’s poem ‘Horatius’:
To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods.
These lines speak to him, and embolden him, because heroism is somehow in his DNA. The Scavs, too, have great courage in the face of fearful odds, because it is part of being human. This is not to say that everyone is brave; some people are clearly braver than others, but we recognise it as a quality of humanity at its best. So is the urge to find truth. Not everyone is passionately concerned for truth, but, again, we recognise truthfulness – and determinedly seeking for truth – as a quality of humanity at its best. According to the Bible, such qualities are inherent in human beings because we are made in the image of the God who created us; we are ‘like him’ (Genesis 1:26). ‘Image’ is not about us looking like God, who is spirit (John 4:24), but about us sharing something of his attributes. It is why we are also relational, rational, moral beings. Yet the tragedy is that all of these qualities are corrupted or suppressed within us, as we are also beings who have rejected God’s authority over us and turned our backs on him. So we are often fearful, and we suppress the truth because it is more comfortable for us to live a lie. We take the easy route, like Vika. Presumably Jack would have done so, too, had the Scavs not intervened.
The Bible’s depiction of our situation as human beings suggests some interesting parallels with Jack’s existential crisis. From beginning to end, it shows that the physical reality which is our daily experience is not all there is; there is another dimension to existence because the entire cosmos is the creation of God who is above and beyond our four dimensions of space and time. Its worldview map has, as it were, coastlines and entire continents that are missing on the maps of many people. It also suggests that we don’t simply fail to notice that we should have something else on our maps, but that we deliberately suppress the idea, and refuse to draw in that area of the map. The Apostle Paul wrote to the early church in Rome:
But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. (Romans 1:18–20)
Jesus Christ also accused people of refusing to follow the truth. He equated knowing the truth with knowing him: ‘You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (John 8:31–32), but his hearers denied that they needed to be free or to change their thinking. Later, he identified himself as the personification of truth: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6). Paul and Jesus challenge us to pay attention to the splinters in our mind that should alert us to another dimension of reality, and to have the courage to pursue the truth about God. As for Jack, the cost of doing so may be considerable, but it is infinitely preferable to living a lie.