You saw another new movie?
Yeah. I was playing poker and they had a movie theater in the casino and I was like, “why not?”
An exhilarating tale of adventure.
I saw one for Superman and some other one that I already forgot. It looks OK. It is a Zach Snyder movie and I liked The Watchmen and the zombie movie. It was an interesting display of brand management, because, as you know, Superman is kind of dorky, or at least childish, while the demo you’re really after is adolescents and dim adults. So they make this big ta-do about how they don’t call him Superman anymore. Like how your friend Dougie started announcing, “I go by Douglas now,” after he started college. One of the characters tries to dub him Superman and is interrupted and then the title rushes up, announcing “Man of Steele” and then the “S” pops up, implying that the “S” stands for Steele now. Though, Superman has already told Lois Lane that the “S” is actually a symbol back on his home planet. I think he said it means, “it’s OK, my people don’t need to use condoms.”
Oh yeah, now I remember. The other one was for the new Star Trek, which looks like a pile of shit. I might stay away from new movies for a while, though this one was interesting.
So Oblivion. How was it?
First, let me sketch the story because I’m going to be talking about it a lot and I want you to understand what I’m talking about.
I’m probably going to stop reading about 1/4 of the way through, but OK.
Tom Cruise is with this English chick. They live in this giant, awesome sky house above the surface of the earth. The earth has been ravaged because an invader blew up the moon and that caused a lot of tidal waves and earthquakes.
Blew up the moon? Like this?
Yeah. Actually, that bit captures a lot of the mentality presented early in the film. Anyway, they are told that the invaders were “Scavengers” who came to steal the earth’s resources. That the “Scavs” have been defeated, but have pockets of resistance left on earth. They’re told that earth is mostly uninhabitable and that most of humanity lives on Titan.
They are on earth, in their skyhouse to oversee these giant, hydroelectric machines that send power back to the other surviving humans. The whole operation is overseen by The Tet, which is this big space station type thing. The English chick communicates with The Tet, and Tom Cruise keeps things running on the ground. He mainly flies down to the surface in his ship to keep the drones up and running so that they can kill The Scavs. but sometimes he fights The Scavs himself.
The big reveal of the story is as follows. The Tet is actually the alien invader, The Scavs are actually the surviving humans and The English chick and Tom Cruise are actually clones of the astronauts who first encountered The Tet. They have been brainwashed into helping it in fighting humanity. And, of course, it is The Tet, a Borg-like, self aware machine, that is extracting the earth’s resources.
Wonderful. Now how was it?
Well, initially, I was almost overwhelmed by how how trite it was.
You can be overwhelmed by triteness?
In this case, yes. Every single thing that happened was something I had seen before. And the borrowed thing would transparently set up the next thing that was incredibly predictable and also borrowed. It was as if someone vacuumed up the entire contents of Universal Studios and then put everything into an enormous plastic ball pit and then dropped me in the middle of it.
So, what are we talking about here? Pastiche? Allusion? Plagiarism?
So you hated it?
I don’t know. Maybe this is a movie beyond good and evil. Like, we are not talking about a Tarantino movie, or a derivative Hong Kong movie, or even a Hollywood movie that rips of HK movies that rip off Hollywood movies. This might have been a step past all of that. At least part of this is just a product of my own diseased mind. But at the same time, god knows how many similarities to other movies I missed. So for every similarity that I imagined there were probably two things I was just… oblivious to.
The drones the good/bad guys use are straight out of robocop. The villain is a lot like the Borg. There is lots of Star Wars stuff. The Scavengers, who Tom Crusie starts off fighting, are like sand people. His ship is like Boba Fett’s ship. His landing pad is like Lando’s in Cloud City. Morgan Freeman plays Laurence Fishburn who played Morgan Freeman in the Matrix. Clones of Tom Cruise in bubbles are shown in such a way as to resemble the baby in 2001 and there is quite a lot of 2001/Kubrick type stuff. Tom Cruise deals with his boss via video and she’s a lot like Max Headroom. The alarm on the rebel base is the exact sound of a car alarm. The one that threw me for a loop was a thing out of Herzog’s Fata Morgana, where Tom Cruise is wearing goggles out in the middle of a desert landscape centered around two grounded ships.
Oh just wait. I’ll show you crazy. Anyway, Fata Morgana is sometimes described as a covert science fiction film, while Oblivion is, of course an overt science fiction film. And both are loaded with these images of debris in the desert. Here are some relevant pictures from Fata Morgana. Take it or leave it.
I will leave it. What else did you misinterpret?
Well, part of this overwhelming density of triteness is not just stuff from specific movies, but also cliches and tropes. Like, right away, we meet Cruise, then we meet his English woman, because everyone has to have a “thing” to make them pop out immediately. Then we meet the boss from The Tet, who is a lady with a huge Texas accent. And she’s just like, “Weeeellll, gooood mornin’ breaker breaker good buddy I got two smokies on my tail. Burn one, take it through the garden and pin a rose on it and give me a cup of mud ya’ll.”
And then Cruise hops into his Boba Fett ship and he has a little doll that he talks to like Wilson in Cast Away and is like, “here we go again!” and his co-worker/spouse is like, “you’re a lose cannon!” and he’s like, “yeah, but I get results” and she looks away and says wistfully, “Mason Storm.” Then he has to repair a drone but he doesn’t have the right equipment so he fixes it with some bubble gum.
Did the bubble gum thing actually happen?
Yes. And this is just relentless. Everything is some kind of cue or cliche or is borrowed from somewhere else. Everything. And everything that happens leads to something completely predictable that follows. The events of this part of the film are like a series of knock knock jokes.
So, there was expository dialog here and there?
Oh yeah, just a bit. At the very beginning Tom Cruise shoves the phrase “mandatory memory wipe that we underwent five years ago” into some poor sentence. Something like, “I need to do some laundry and hey, remember that mandatory memory wipe we underwent five years ago?” And, of course, at that point, you know that his boss is going to turn out to be the bad guy and the bad guys will turn out to be the good guys, etc. etc.
What about the music?
That was really bad and generic too. I was so caught up in this rush of symbols, tropes, cliches… I thought I was seeing the matrix behind The Matrix. And so I thought, “what is this music supposed to convey?” And the answer is that it is supposed to tell you that this is a very expensive movie, with lots of softly glowing computer screens and really slick looking CG. It had no content beyond that. It was the orange/teal color scheme of music.
So it still sounds like you hated it.
Well, maybe it’s just because I haven’t seen a movie like this without Rifftrax for a while. But I thought perhaps this high density bombardment of Hollywood language was by design. It was as if someone collected french fries from 20 different fast food restaurants and used them to build a sculpture of Michael Jordan. But you don’t know if they just love everything that is empty and vulgar, or if they are trying to make some kind of statement.
So, which was it?
Maybe the latter. If you look at the rest of the film, I think it’s meant to be fairly subversive.
Well, all of these movies are supposed to be subversive. “Oh, ‘they’ are trying to control you, reality ain’t real, blah, blah, blah.”
True. This one seems a bit more direct and specific about it though. And it’s called oblivion, right? What is that in reference to, if not the state of existence depicted in the first part of the movie?
OK. So tell me the “hidden meaning” of the Tom Cruise, summer movie, Oblivion.
Well, you’ve got the pretty generic stuff about a malignant hierarchy. The Tet sits at the top, absorbing everything of value for itself with no regard for the future as it pits subservient citizens against an “other,” distracting and exploiting them both.
So The Tet is like George Bush, John Kerry, Exxon, the lizard people, whatever. The people atop the current establishment who manufacture wars, destroy the environment and get rich off it.
Yes. All while floating above the fray, just as The Tet floats above the earth.
Hey, you know the stairs in that picture look like DNA. Is that the lady clone? Maybe the stairs symbolize… DNA.
Yeah. That’s all I’m really saying here. Some thought went into this film. I’m not saying the execution is on par with Kubrick or anything. Also, some of the other images are drawings they used for the film. That’s because studios hate making many photos from new movies available because they don’t want the free publicity. And so the only available images that correlate to what I’m saying are the drawings the images are based on.
OK, back to the “message” of the film. That’s just kind of how things are to a great extent. I’m sure powerful people gained from bullshit wars in 17th century England too.
Sure. Another point that is pretty universal, and not all that earthshaking, is that The Scavengers are literally dehumanized in the eyes of Tom Cruise by The Tet. He is made to think that they are aliens. And they look like aliens because of the equipment they wear to evade detection by the drones. He is told that the Scavs are responsible for the damage to earth, starting the conflict and harming Cruise’s interests, though the truth is that The Tet is willfully responsible for all of it. And, of course, he even has a slur for them: “Scavs.” When he actually encounters them, he realizes that they are human, like him, that he has been manipulated into hating him. They both just want to live in peace. His real commonality is with The Scavs, and the one who is the source of his suffering and problems is The Tet.
So, you think this is a veiled 9-11 Truther film or something? We’re told to blame the Arabs/Scavs for attacks that were really perpetrated by The Tet/U.S. government?
No. At least I hope not. I just reviewed Room 237, about Kubrick’s The Shining. And, as I said there, I don’t really believe in these kinds of unambiguous art puzzles. But I do believe in themes, allusions to cultural patterns and realities and that a film like this can be meant to evoke certain ideas. Kubrick does all of that and, let’s not forget, these filmmakers have a massive boner for Kubrick.
So, you had a theme in The Shining about Native Americans and the atrocities committed against them. Indian burial grounds. The phrase “white man’s burden.” Crap like that. What crap does this movie have?
Well, the villainized Scavs look middle eastern in their clothing, largely because they live in the desert. Cruise fights them directly but the main weapons used against the Scavs in the film are drones. And that’s what they are called too. Not “thunder wings” or something, but drones. The reason The Tet, which shows the face of a cheerful, friendly, likable Texan (caugh, caugh, Bush, caugh) wants to invade and destroy the Scavs is to extract their natural resources. It’s not oil in this case, but water, which is processed through giant devices that are called “rigs” in the film.
And this lead me back to the first part of the film, the sculpture of Michael Jordan made with fast food french fries. Perhaps that whole depiction is so dense with cliches and cues on what to think and expect, and is so glossy and superficially appealing because it represents the facade Cruise/the viewer is presented with every day. The luxurious sky house they live in, elevated thousands of feet above The Scavengers who live in squalor. The ease, predictability and detachment of their existence. In particular, that fatuously cheery Texas drawl, was there to make Cruise and the English chick feel trustful and comfortable with what they were doing. All of these things take on a new light, once it is revealed that they are clones being used by The Tet to oppress and exploit their fellow humans and to help destroy their own planet. They are not particularly privileged at all, but are given the illusion of superiority and privilege until they are used up, at which point they are discarded and replaced with other clones. And as Cruise and Morgan Freeman succeed in infiltrating The Tet, its fake, folksy persona falls away with the accent and a more insidious voice is revealed, belonging to a hungry red eye.
And what happens then?
Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman kill The Tet with a suicide bomb.
Are you kidding?
No. They have drone set up to deliver the a nuclear bomb, but it becomes damaged. So they develop a ruse by which they can deliver the bomb personally and blow it up, killing The Tet along with themselves.
Wow. And what happens then?
Tom Cruise awakes in Paradise.
No. There aren’t 72 virgins. However, a Cruise clone finds its way to this bucolic little patch on the otherwise barren earth where he has a cabin, a pond, a collection of cultural treasures from before the conflict and he is reunited with his wife and meets his child. It’s the place he always hoped to end up. Paradise.
What awakens Tom Cruise to reality?
A book. An ancient text with some key phrases, chosen and planted by Morgan Freeman for him to find, in hopes that it might unlock his mind.
So does the book represent the movie itself? And then, after seeing the movie, our minds become unlocked and we stop blaming everything on some guy in a hut in Afghanistan or North Korea and instead blame the real architects and exploiters of suffering and decide to strap bombs to our chests and blow up congress?