Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Oblivion - An Analysis Of The Sci-Fi Tropes and Inspiration

Oblivion - Bubbleship

When I wrote my review of the the Science Fiction film "Oblivion," I attempted to inform the audience of what type of film that director Joseph Kosinski was submitting for audience approval.  What I was acutely aware of, is that by mentioning some, or any of the elements of the sci-fi genre that Kosinski and his cohorts integrated into his story of post-apocalyptic Earth, that I would be doing the general audience a disservice. However, this article is my observations of the film inspiration that director Kosinski implemented in his film "Oblivion." I base my analysis on about 40 years of film watching, which are filtered and processed by my experiences. Read on at your own risk or pleasure.

 Read the REVIEW

Star Trek - Blade Runner

With the obligatory, warnings in place, I begin with the opening scenes of "Oblivion."  Tom Cruise, awakes and begins giving the audience a version of a "Captains Log," as used in the "Star Trek" universe. While used in a lot of films, I think Kosinski uses it here to get the viewer up to speed faster, while not spending a lot of time showing the destruction of Earth. As Jack Harper, Tom Cruise tells us that 60 years before, the Earth was attacked by an alien race known as "Scavengers" or just "Scavs." During this "War of the Worlds," the Moon was shattered, and floods and earthquakes ravaged the planet. During the war, the humans found it necessary to use nuclear weapons, and have essentially radiated the planet making it mostly uninhabitable. Similarly, in the “Matrix,” Morpheus tells Neo that it was the humans that “scorched the sky” thus forcing humans deep underground. Jack is bothered that the surviving humans, the winners of the war, have left the planet and live on a space station that orbits around Saturn's moon Titan. Jack pauses and reflects on the reasoning for this several times in the film.

Oblivion - Station 49
Station 49 or the Jetsons place

The Futuristic Style of the Jetsons

Jack lives in a "Jetsons" type of domicile, high among the clouds with a decor of simplistic elegance, and a sense of architectural clarity, Taking cues from architect Mies van der Rohe, Kosinski and company creates a future of potential beauty and hope. Mies, if you recall, is the "less is more" and "God is in the details" guy. 

Silent Running - WALL-E

Victoria, or “Vicka” is typical of anybody whose tour of duty is soon to be up; she wants out.  Like 1972's "Silent Running's" Freeman Lowell's (Bruce Dern) fellow crewman aboard the botanical preserve "Valley Forge," orbiting Saturn, Vicka, too is all too willing to abandon the Earth and leave.  Like, Lowell, Jack is a naturalist, he likes nature. In scenes that echo Lowell's lament for a world now destroyed,  he brings Vicka a small plant that he has nurtured, like EVE from "WALL-E," she immediately, without a word or a change in emotion, drops it off the balcony.  While on the ground Jack Harper tends to narrate his activities for Vicka while doing his repair work.  Tending to digress on the history of any particular area, Jack dons a NY Yankees baseball cap and gives Vicka a history lesson gleaned from books that he has found -- or are they memories?

Oblivion  - Farenheit 451
Fahrenheit 451

Farenheit 451 - Star Wars: A New Hope

Science fiction tends to treat books as taboo. The words written in books have stirred men’s hearts for centuries, and in film it does as well.  In "Farenheit 451," the 1966 film adaption of Ray Bradbury's book of the same name, Guy Montag finds inspiration for rebellion from Dickens’s "David Copperfield," a book that he was supposed to burn. In Orwell's "1984,"  Winston Smith remembers a poem that echoes throughout the film as a harbinger of what is to come.  The same can be said about the book Jack finds, while searching for an errant drone ("Star Wars").  

Oblivion - Horatius, The Lays of Ancient Rome
Oblivion - Horatius, The Lays of Ancient Rome
"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 God?"
—       Horatius, The Lays of Ancient Rome

Independence Day

Kosinski calls the space station that orbits around Earth the "Tet."  We don't actually see the Tet until near the end, however, it is reminiscent of the "Star Wars" Death Star, or the mothership from "Independence Day."  Other films that have used the concept of control ships in outer space are "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace," "WALL-E," and the mother of all motherships from "A Close Encounters of The Third Kind."  From the mothership, Sally (Melissa Leo),  Jack and Vicka's superior officer and an emblem of the state directs them and keeps controls the two. Sally is similar to Big Brother, but not quite. Although there are convenient times that the Tet is out of communication range (Line of sight - "Independence Day"), she is the only one that the two ever see. Everyday Sally and Victoria go through the daily ritual of question and response: "Are you an effective team?" "Yes, we are and effective team!"  This daily routine of ensuring allegiance to the state has more of an affect on Vicka as she is the one who participates, while Jack doesn't.  

Oblivion - Sally


Jack and his communications officer/domestic partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), are an "efficient team" that were left behind to protect and maintain the drones. The couple are finishing off their 5 year mission (“Star Trek”), and will join the rest of humanity on Titan. The term "efficient team" seemed to me be more of a slogan, one that a Dystopian culture would use in a way similar to, but more sterile than George Orwell's "1984's" "War is peace -- freedom is slavery --ignorance is strength. " 

After the Scavs remotely bring down a orbiting craft, Jack, against orders from Sally, makes an attempt to rescue any survivors. He is able to save only one, her name is Julia. In "1984," Winston Smith meets a woman who works in the Ministry of Love and her name is Julia. 

Oblivion - The Tet
The Tet

2001: A Space Odyssey

Looking at the ship as it orbits Earth in a relatively low orbit, one can't help but notice that the ship looks like a floating, stylish tetrahedron.  Once inside the ship Jack Harper and his payload which includes Morgan Freeman as Beech, and a nuclear device, we see that "Sally" is essentially a red eye that looks like HAL 9000 from "2001: A Space Odyssey." Which segue's nicely into the next point.  In Arthur C. Clarke's short story, which the film was based on, "The Sentinel," The Monolith was actually a pyramid shaped object.  Kosinski just turned it upside down -- mystery solved. Another similarity are the drones construction in relationship to the pods in "2001: A Space Odyssey." 

2001: A Space Odyssey pod - Oblivion Drone
Space Pod - Drone
When astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) enters the white bedroom, the audience sees elegant antique French decor with sculptures and fine art. While in the novel's version of the story, Clarke makes references to Van Gogh's "Langlois Bridge at Arles" and Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World." While hostages at Malcolm Beech's Scav base, Julia and Jack notice the Wyeth painting on the wall and they admire it for a moment. Later near the end of the film, Jack makes sure that Julia is given that painting. The drones that Jack and Victoria are assigned to maintain, are very similar in design to the worker pods from Stanley Kubrick's film version. The name of Jack, Victoria, and Julia's exploration craft was named "Odyssey."

Andrew Wyeth - Christina's World
Andrew Wyeth - Christina's World

The Matrix, Paycheck, Blade Runner and the Examination of Memory

Just prior to their deployment at station 49, both Jack and Victoria had their memories wiped.  Author Phillip K. Dick's stories have influenced Science Fiction film for quite sometime. Indirectly, his films inspired Joseph Kosinski as well.  Identity, reality and memory play an important part of his Dick's stories. In this sense, I can name several films based on his stories that play a part in the story crafting of "Oblivion." The first, I believe, is "Paycheck," where Ben Affleck's Jennings character has his memory wiped before taking on a project.  This is done for security reasons in both "Paycheck," and "Oblivion." Secondly, 1999's "Total Recall" has the memory and identity element, where both the protagonist and the audience is left wondering what is real. Finally, in 1982's "Blade Runner,"  Rick Decker has dreams about a unicorn that eventually turns up later in the film. In "Oblivion," Jack Harper has no memory from before the wipe, however, he does have dreams. He dreams of a women walking with him on the observation deck of the Empire State building. I could devolve into a partial rant of the significance of the historic symbol of New York in film, as in "An Affair to Remember," as there is the romance element to "Oblivion."  Alas, I won't.  

Total Recall
Memory and identity play a big part in Science Fiction. Although there is a loose science or pseudoscience involved in the plot, the story is really about people.  "I am always with you, but I don't know your name."  In "Blade Runner,"  as it is in "Oblivion," the theme of memory is central to the plot. When Rachel is forced to confront that the memories that she has or the dreams that come upon her are not real, but products of her programming, and how she deals with this traumatic knowledge. Like the replicants, Jack, and Victoria have memories that have been given to them.  Obviously, the Artificial Intelligence that created them could manipulate their memories. 

Oblivion - Julia as a memory
Oblivion - Julia as a memory
In the cinematic world, having dreams or nightmares about a certain incident is a hint to the audience that there is something going on below the surface. At this point a comparison between Jack's identity crisis and Dom's are related, yet are portrayed differently, more subtly.  In Christopher Nolan's "Inception," Dom struggles not only with his identity, but his own sanity.  Jack, on the other hand, at the onset of the film during his narration of the events of the war, he questions the logic of the winners; humanity, having to flee their homeland?  What sense is that? Why does he dream of this woman? Why does the wasteland that is now Earth, seem more familiar to him? Why do the stories that he reads about seem more vivid in his dreams? In the "Matrix," Neo knows there is something below the surface, that there is a truth about who he really is.  What is the Matrix? What is the Tet? We, the audience, questions who they are? Are the Tet really who they say they are? The same goes for Jack, who also starts to question their motives, as he also questions his own identity.

Oblivion - Julia and Jack - Empire State Building
Julia and Jack on top of the Empire State Building

Unlike "Independence Day," Kosinski doesn't destroy the Empire State Building. Instead, the Empire State building is being used by the Scavs as an antenna  sending a signal out into space, but, for what purpose? Both Jack and Vicka wonder why, as Jack cuts the feed.  After decoding the signal, Victoria, who is online with Jack below, and Sally above, is ordered not to investigate.  "Are we an efficient team?" Jack disobeys orders and goes to check out the area.  But not really, instead, Jack has a secret cabin retreat in the woods. . 

Omega Man and the Aftermath of the Apocalypse.

Like Robert Neville (Charlton Heston), in the "Omega Man," Jack is a collector.  He collects things apparently from his dreams or the latent memories that invade his sleep.  Jack collects many things, however, one items stands out.  While in his cabin of stone and wood, Jack places a pair of Aviator style sunglasses down.  Kosinski lingers on the shades for a moment longer than necessary, to allow the audience to pick up on the "Top Gun" reference. Jack built a ramshackle cabin in a secluded, scenic area where he can be alone with his books, his record collection, his sports gear and himself. In contrast to the sterile home in the clouds where he and Victoria live, Jack's cabin is a dilapidated structure, that serves a Jack's refuge, where he can commune with nature and be alone with his thoughts. Jack's cabin is almost a living, cluttered, disorganized entity.. 

Jack, at home in his cabin

Scavs and the edge of civilization

The Scavengers or Scavs, we are told are a alien race that attacked Earth in 2017.  Now in 2077, the Scavs are just little more than desert rabble that cause Jack trouble on daily basis.  The contrast between Jack's Utopian, sterilized world of Station 49, and the Earth below is sharp.  On February 1969, "Star Trek" aired an episode called "The Cloud Minders."  This politically minded episode examined how diverse social classes interact with each other.  The elite of that world live in a city in the clouds, while the "troglites" live and work on the surface below. They live to serve those whose status are high above theirs. The Scavs are similar in nature, as they are the despised, they're alien, different.  Scavs are filmed in bits and pieces, in the shadows or extreme closeup, so as not to reveal to the audience their true nature.  Their helmets, similar in form to that in "Predator," has a voice scrambler, making them sound like the more familiar "Sand People," or "Tuskan Raiders" of "Star Wars" fame. I could also draw a resemblance to the survivors of The Botany Bay in "Star Trek's" "Wrath of Khan."  Hooded, masked, in dark armor-clad robes, Morgan Freeman's group of rag tag survivors probably traces it roots further back to the people of Arrakis in Frank Herbert's "Dune."  

Oblivion - Beech and Sykes
Oblivion - Beech and Sykes
Mogan Freeman plays Malcolm Beech, who was a very young man 60 years ago when the world was attacked. He survived and now leads the remnants of Earth's population in guerrilla tactics of hit and run.  Sabotage, and destruction of drones and the Hydro-collectors, are his goals.  Nikolaj Coster-Waldau ("Kingdom of Heaven," "Mama") is Sykes, Beech's tough, no nonsense second in command. Together, Beech and Sykes turn their rage toward the faceless machine by focusing on Jack. After Jack's capture, and the initial meeting between the two, they are face to face on two chairs.  Like Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) in the "Matrix," he tells Jack -- "It's time to learn the truth."  Implied but not spoken, is that Beech can not tell Jack the truth, but can only show him the way.  After giving Jack and Julia the nickle tour of the place, he returns to Jack his weapon, and his motorcycle and points the way.

Moon - Sam and his clone

Moon, clones, and the kitchen sink.

After all is said and done, we, and Jack, come to find that he is a clone.  This is a direct nod to Duncan Jones's film "Moon."  Sam Rockwell plays the sole  maintenance engineer on the Lunar Industries Sarang Mining Base. He and GERT, the Artificial Intelligence that maintains the internal moonbase functions. The two work together to maintain the roving drones that process the moon rock into Helium-3 for shipment back to Earth. Sam, unlike Jack has memories of his life on Earth before coming to the moonbase.  Jack on the other hand, had his memory wiped clean, however, they are both unaware of their identities, and they both perform maintenance functions.  When they do realize the truth, they are both sympathetic to their other selves.  Near the end of "Oblivion," as Jack travels through the Tet, he sees naked, clones of himself in semi-fetal positions,  The similarities here can be from either the "Matrix," as when Neo wakes up, or from "Resident Evil: Afterlife."

Resident Evil - Afterlife
Resident Evil: Afterlife - Alice

Jack and Victoria have a specific area that they monitor and in this area they maintain their drones.  They were told by Sally that the rest of the world is heavily radiated and are off limits -- for their safety, of course.  Like the apes in "Planet of the Apes," they are not allowed in the "Forbidden Zone." When Jack, like the apes travel beyond their limits, they find that is was all a lie.

Planet of the Apes - Forbidden Zone
Planet of the Apes - Forbidden Zone

Oblivion - Drones Attack
Jack and Julia take on the drones
Podraces, the Grand Canyon and A Trip Down the Trench.
When we see Jack streaking around canyons while being followed by three drones in attack mode, most newer generation viewers may think back to a young Anakin Skywalker out running the evil Sebulba in 1999's "Star Wars Episode I: A Phantom Menace." Those who are slightly older may think back to Will Smith's Cpt. Steven Hiller as he flies through the Grand Canyon in "Indepence Day."  Those of us who are somewhat older in body, but young at heart will easily recognize the trench scene in "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope." 

The Hero Dies At The End - But Not Really

I mentioned in my review that: "Science Fiction fans may find "Oblivion's" film references and typical tropes of the genre a little annoying.  Some may find them downright unoriginal. While others may find these nods comfortable and reassuring.  "Oblivion" is entertaining and introspective, but not too much. Unlike Christopher Nolan's "Inception" you don't have to think too hard. You will find that the two hours spent watching this thrill ride stream by,.are entertaining, if not enjoyable."   

I also think that Joseph Kosinski has done a much better job at entertaining an audience with "Oblivion," than with "Tron: Legacy." "Oblivion" isn't perfect, nor is for everyone, but I do believe that those enjoy action films will enjoy the excitement and the beauty that this film provides.  If you weren't too thrilled with "Oblivion," that's Okay too, as there will be no sequel. Either way, I am open to comments and discussion.

Oblivion - Banner

Movie Data

Genre: Sci-Fi, Action, Thriller
Year:  2013
Staring: Tom Cruise, Olga Kurilenko, Andrea Riseborough, Melissa Leo
Director: Joseph Kosinski 
Producer(s): Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Joseph Kosinski, Barry Levine, Duncan Henderson
Writer: Joseph Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek, Michael Arndt
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 124 minutes
Release Date: 4/19/2013

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