‘Oblivion’ continues to divide critics and audiences even today; nothing too polar since the film’s popularity has somewhat been masked by other stellar Tom Cruise outings, but enough to warrant a discussion even now. The audience verdict was much more favourable than what critics had to say about the film. However, the one thing that united the two factions with respect to the film seemed to be the visual aspects. Completely true, since even if the film isn’t a masterclass in cinematography as, say, ‘The Revenant’, or another sci-fi film, ‘Interstellar’ is, ‘Oblivion’ is simply gorgeous to look at, in its virgin landscapes, aerial flights of fancy and the ruins left behind by an all ravaging war.
However, what the two factions also lamented over was the intrepid “lifelessness” of the film, and a clear assertion of style over substance. This may also be stemming from the film actually being based on director Joseph Kosinski’s unpublished graphic novel, and that it clearly has a lot of classics, both literary and cinematic to draw from. However, this is also an unbecoming irony, since the unequivocal best part about a sci-fi film is not the tech part: the machines, the flying cars, the robots, the AI. It’s the humanity.
Agreeably so, ‘Oblivion’ does seem to struggle between intimacy and spectacle, and while it is most certainly a completely watchable film, there is no denying that the film works more as a popcorn entertainer than a head scratcher, which is again a contradiction, because somewhere beneath all the blitz and fury, there is a good film dealing with complex ideas and I dare say, even philosophical themes. Which is what we are going to discuss in this write up.
The Ending, Explained
In order to get to the ending, we need to understand the many tropes involved in ‘Oblivion’, who director Joseph Kosinski had no inhibitions stating was inspired from 70s and 80s sci-if films, and quite honestly, it shows, especially from the choices of music and score. There clearly is a protagonist here who is a cog in the wheel and is about to discover an important piece of information that is going to change the fate of the world he lives in and is unknowingly oppressed by.
In doing so, the film also borrows from a number of classic dystopian novels and films, including 1984, Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ and of course, the Replicant scenario from ‘Blade Runner’. In our attempt of moving towards the ending, let’s first decipher what we are told in the beginning of the film, and what is discovered as the total truth by our protagonist, Jack Harper, tech 49.
The Lie We Are Told
As the film begins, we hear in voiceover from a disillusioned protagonist himself about how the Earth was ravaged in the war between humans and its extraterrestrial invaders, the Scavengers. The film begins roughly 60 years after the invasion took place, and the Scavengers as they are termed by the humans, attacked and destroyed the Earth’s moon, causing the effects of lunar gravity on Earth to go berserk, resulting in a number of natural calamities.
What followed was a full-blown war between the humans and the scavengers on Earth, leading to humans deploying nearly all their nuclear resources and weapons. It is told that the war was won, but the planet was rendered an uninhabitable, barren landmass, with no resources to sustain life, and many places pushed to a perpetual nuclear winter. Looking towards a new future, the humans look to transport the populace to Saturn’s biggest moon, Titan, until which time, they are all aboard a mysterious floating pyramidal ship, in orbit around the Earth, called the Tet, awaiting transportation.
Gigantic machines called Hydro rigs are charged with draining the planet’s significant water bodies and oceans for the purpose of producing a steady flow of renewable energy through fusion to sustain humans on Titan. During this time, a team of surviving humans, Jack Harper and Victoria ‘Vika’ Olsen are charged with guarding the hydro rigs, and servicing and maintaining large combat drones, designed and assigned to fight off any remaining scavengers back on Earth.
Within the duo, Jack takes care of the on-ground work and is the tech partner, while Victoria maintains contact with the mission control in Tet headed by Sally, the mission director. The two undergo a mandatory memory swipe every five years, something which the two seem to know about. The film opens with two weeks remaining for the duo to be called back to Tet for transportation to Titan, when the Hydro-rigs’ work was complete.
The Truth We Discover
Through Jack’s journey and his discovery of the truth, the most significant revelation and the film’s main twist turns out to be how humans never won the war against the alien threat, and that the Tet wasn’t a ship containing the surviving human population to be transported to Titan. The Tet was the alien threat that appeared and destroyed Earth’s moon, setting the events of the film in motion. Presumably so, the threat was never organic, and Tet seems to be some sort of AI threat that had thousands of Jack and Victoria clones do their bidding on Earth.
The scavengers too weren’t some alien threat, but the surviving humans on the ravaged Earth, aware of the truth and attempting to overthrow their alien overlords, even sixty years hence. They are in constant tussle with the killer drones charged with eliminating them, in an attempt to scavenge its parts, especially its nuclear fuel cells in an attempt to craft a nuclear bomb to be carried aboard the Tet, to destroy it. In that, what the Hydro Rigs too are doing is draining the planet of its resources, sucking the planet dry quite literally. The way they plan to get the bomb aboard the Tet is to have one of the drones they captured carry it, to be re-programmed by the technician Jack Harper that they have been monitoring in Sector 49.
A big part of the Scavengers’ plan to overthrow the Tet and the alien invaders involved seeking the help of Jack, the technician they monitored in Sector 49. It is to be presumed that the Scavengers monitored a lot of the technicians (Jacks) in different sectors, before zeroing in on the one in Sector 49.
The reason for the same is the perceivable humanity that the Scavengers find in this one, since it is revealed that this Jack, Tech 49, often switched off his comms and ventured into a secret “earthly” habitat that he had maintained, his own sanctuary where he enjoys living by the lake, indulging in essential literature, including ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and ‘War and Peace’, and listening to classic rock. Their approximation on this Jack also served to be right, since this Jack, tech 49, was the most human among all of them, as a testament to which he frequently dreams of the black haired woman and the viewfinder atop Empire State Building.
When Jack is captured and the truth about the Scavengers is revealed to him, he is allowed to venture into other zones, designated as irradiated and restricted zones by the invading forces to prevent any of the multiple technicians across multiple sectors from crossing into another and discovering the truth for themselves. Jack does so, along with Julia, and learns the truth about himself and the invasion after crossing paths with Tech 52, a clone of himself, and after travelling to the tower for the same sector and discovering another clone of Julia for that sector, thereby deciding to side with the Scavengers.
The first part in Jack’s realisation of the truth is his discovery of Julia, the same black-haired woman from his dreams, as one of the survivors of the ship that crash landed, following a transmission sent out by the scavengers using the Empire State Building’s antenna. The woman soon reveals to be his wife, and Jack regains part of his memories of being married to Julia before the invasion. They recover the flight recording that Jack later listens to on his way to the Tet for the final part of his mission, learning the full truth about himself, including what the Odyssey mission was sixty years ago.
Jack Harper was aboard the same ill-fated ship as the captain piloting it along with co-pilot Victoria on a mission to find life on Titan, when they were diverted to the alien object, Tet. The program was headed by NASA in 2017, with Sally as their mission director on Earth and several other astronauts on board in stasis, to be awoken on Titan. However, as they approached the Tet, the pyramid began drawing them in strongly despite reverse thrusters employed, and seeing a certain doomed fate, Jack undocks the ship’s sleep module, also containing Julia, to return in orbit safely around Earth.
Jack and Victoria hold hands as the Tet opens up and sucks them in, with the film not revealing their fate in exaction, but heavily implying that the original Jack and Victoria from 2017 were no longer there, and had been cloned thousands of times to override Earth as tech and support team Jack and Victoria, aboard various towers of various zones/sectors, like our protagonists in 49. The signal then that the Scavengers were sending that brought the Odyssey’s sleep module back to Earth was a homing beacon, to draw the ship in from the orbit where it had been for 60 years, containing several astronauts including Julia in deep hyper sleep.
The House in The Woods
With all aspects and complexities of the plot explained, we come back to the final few minutes of the film, wherein Jack and Malcolm hatch a plan to infiltrate the Tet on a one way mission to detonate the bomb. After the realisation that the drones that attacked them and the one that the scavengers had captured before wouldn’t work in carrying the nuclear fuel cell bomb to the Tet, Jack volunteers to carry it himself, along with Julia, who volunteers too, after Sally commands Tech 49 to retrieve her from Earth and bring her back to the Tet.
As the two approach the Tet, with Jack piloting and Julia in hyper sleep in her pod, they are let aboard after a series of tests that Jack cleverly manoeuvres through, discovering thousands of his and Victoria’s clones suspended in the Tet’s stasis chamber. Upon reaching the core, where they see a giant eye like structure with Sally’s voice, they reveal the pod carrying Malcolm Beech instead of Julia, and the bomb they had made out of the drone’s fuel cells. The duo detonate the bomb, sacrificing themselves and destroying the Tet, immediately disabling all drones and rigs on Earth.
Julia awakens at the same lake house that Tech 49 used as his sanctuary. It is revealed that she was pregnant, since three years later, she and her daughter are shown to be living at the lake house, when the surviving members from the Scavengers and ‘Tech 52’ Jack show up there. While the film closes there, it would be fair to assume that Julia and Jack 52 would have started a life together, since this clone too seems to have had memories of Julia, and to be connected to the unique memories of Tech 49 in some way, as is revealed by his final speech: “For 3 years, I searched for the house he built. I knew it had to be out there, because I know him. I am him. I am Jack Harper, and I am home”.