What does it mean to bare witness? Is it simply to record an event, to interpret an occurrence, to prove that someone or something existed? Philosophers have speculated that the sole purpose of mankind’s existence is to bare witness to creation. If no one were here to observe and record, what would be the purpose of the creation in the first place? Jack Harper finds himself in that predicament as he shoulders the role of The Last Man. He is not the last man on Earth, nor is he the last of the human race, but he shoulders the burden of the Last Man, and that burden is to bare witness. There was a war, a terrible, devastating war, and now mankind has to leave the planet. Harper has two weeks left at his position and then he has to leave Earth behind and join the others. Man was created, man walked and worked the Earth, aliens came and obliterated that, and now Harper has to record all of this on his way out the door.
Oblivion takes place in 2077, sixty years after the war for Earth was fought and won. The Scavengers (or Scavs) came and destroyed the Moon and tried to take over the planet. Mankind used their trump card, nuclear warheads, and won. This victory came at a steep cost as the nukes obliterated the planet. Almost all traces of life were wiped out with the exception of a few pockets of nature here and there. The surviving human race has been transported to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, where they have started over. Of course, it takes lots and lots of energy to colonize a moon, let alone travel to it, but that has been solved by a couple of giant hydrogen fusion plants that convert the oceans into energy that is zapped up to the main space station. Guarding these plants from the remaining Scavs are drones, sphere like robots that look like the pods from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Protecting and repairing these drones is Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his partner and lover, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough).
Harper and Victoria live and operate out of a house that is thousands of feet in the sky. Build out of glass and metal with clean, sleek, modern lines, it looks like something John Lautner would design. Using traditional gender roles, Harper’s job takes him out of the house and into the field, whereas Victoria stays behind and operates things from the home. Further compounded, Victoria is terrified of anything from the planet and fears contamination and wants nothing more than to join the others in space. Harper loves the planet, has nostalgic memories that come to him in the form of dreams (or are they memories), and doesn’t want to leave. He has found something on the surface that he desperately wants to show Victoria, but she refuses to leave the safety of the house.
What Harper wants to show Victoria is a cabin he found. A small pocket of nature has survived destruction: grass, trees, a lake, fresh running water that he drinks from, the garden of Eden. Here he stores the relics of humanity that he has recovered from his various trips to the surface. A Yankees cap, a record player with some choice LPs, a stuffed gorilla doll, a basketball hoop, etc. He doesn’t know it yet, but all of these relics are connected. The visions that he is having are not dreams, dreams don’t burden or haunt quite like this, they are memories, long repressed, that are burning to get out. Returning to the cabin is a return into the mind, a place where those memories are buried and hidden. He is drawn to the cabin not simply because of it’s back to nature mentality, but because this where he has to go if he wants answers.
True to most sci-fi movies, the plot is heavy with a various amount of twists and turns that keep the audience guess right up to the very last frame. One assignment takes Harper into the headquarters of a small human resistance led by Morgan Freeman. Another assignment brings Harper to investigate a suspicious crash, a series of capsules containing humans in cryo-stasis. One of the pods holds the girl from Haper’s dreams (played by Olga Kurylenko). He rescues the girl and brings her back to the house in the sky. The twists and moments of revelation are genuinely surprising, and are not worth spoiling here.
The twists and turns to the plot will no doubt be dissected and analysis by those who care. They hold up to scrutiny quite well, almost welcoming them. Alfred Hitchcock called these “Icebox Scenes”. A good movie is one that gives you a piece of information and you go with it, hook, line, and sinker until you get home, open the icebox to get some ice cream, stop, and go “Hey, wait a minute!” Not everything makes total sense, but as long as it makes sense while you are watching the movie, then it’s doing its job. The more you scrutinize this and that, the more the flaws will reveal themselves, and that’s okay. Just as long as it happens at the icebox.
Oblivion is a good sci-fi movie that plays off a lot of other good sci-fi movies. It lacks true uniqueness, but that is forgivable, not many movies are truly unique. As long as a movie doesn’t insult our intelligence or waste our time, then it is doing a pretty good job. Oblivion does not commit either of these sins, and manages to get the story engaging through a variety of twists and turns. Cruise shoulders the whole production, and does a very good job with it. All the performances are good, but Cruise really makes you care about his character. He is a movie star and watching Oblivion reminds us how captivating he can be.