Monday, April 22, 2013

Oblivion: Of Machines and Men

Oblivion is a beautiful film. I'm a fan of sci-fi already; give me an alien invasion, sweeping landscapes, a shattered moon, clever plot twists and beautiful people, and yes - I will be entertained.

Having said that, Oblivion ultimately failed to satisfy, and I left the theater frustrated for several different reasons.

First, Oblivion was a poorly written film with an almost comical amount of plot holes. Since the purpose of this blog is to focus on worldviews rather than the art of storytelling, I will leave it to other sites to provide the details.

Second (and more importantly), the movie failed to give meaningful answers to the questions it raised. As Grantland noted, "Oblivion is something you want to be inside of. Upon entry, you'd have plenty of room to notice how hollow it is."  I firmly agree.

Warning: I'm going to give away the plot. You need the backstory to understand a key worldview question the movie addressed in its own charmingly inept way:  What does it mean to be human?

Jack (Technician #49) and Victoria are clones, though neither they nor we realize this when the movie begins.  While they patrol a ravaged earth, they live, love, lust, hope, dream, grieve, empathize - all the things that uncloned humans do. They are told their memories were wiped five years prior for security reasons after earth was invaded by aliens, and they accept this. They do their jobs well in the service of humanity.

When human rebel leader Malcolm captures Jack, Malcolm explains that all is not what it seems. When the aliens (which is apparently only Tet, a sentient alien machine, and all its drones) attacked earth, they captured Jack and Victoria and created thousands of clones. Jack's clones have been fighting humanity's remnant, not saving them. Malcolm claims Tet robbed Jack of his soul when it sent him back to earth as a fighter, slave, and traitor to his own race.

This Jack is different. He has started inexplicably to regain his memory. The more he reads books, hangs out by a lake, and spends time with the original Jack's wife (Julia), the more he "remembers" his life with her.  Though he is only a replicant, he and Julia resume their relationship. After all, if this Jack looks like the real deal and increasingly has the memories of the original, then they are are the same guy, right? **

Jack asks, "Is it possible to miss a place you’ve never been, to mourn a time you’ve never lived?" We are supposed to conclude that since that's not possible, then Technician #49 is, for all intents and purposes, the original Jack.

Jack #49 eventually dies. In the movie's final scene, yet another Jack clone (Technician #52) finds Julia and her three-year-old child which was conceived by Jack #49. (That is not a sentence I ever expected to write.) The little girl asks Julie who "that man" is. Julia doesn't answer, but the obvious conclusion we are supposed to reach is that Jack is her father. Jack #52 gives the movie's final voiceover: "If we have souls, they’re made of the love we share. Undimmed by time, unbound by death."

This brings me to my greatest frustration with this movie: it was very confused about what it means to be human.

The Jack clones are just meat machines, blank slates of DNA and chemicals which Tet programs with information (language, enough knowledge to fight rebels and repair drones, etc). The clones are biologically identical to Jack, but they have no past, no experiences, and no memories other than what Tet gives them.
Even though actual cloning would not pass on the environment, experiences and memories that form a person's character and personality, all the clones are apparently like the original Jack. Technician #49 has accidentally been given what amounts to false memories of another person's life which #49 nonetheless believes to be true.  So mix identical biology and virtually identical memory, and presto - we have Jack again, right? Film Crew Rejects points out the practical dilemma of this :
Seriously, that’s not how clones work. It’s just not. He looks like him, has shared DNA, but boiling a new Tom Cruise will not give that freshly cooked human his DNA-donor’s memories. Same hair color? Sure. Experience of how he romantically proposed to his wife on top of a tall building? No way.

So maybe they stored Jack’s memory information in order to make sure he could, you know, speak English and walk around without falling over. In that case, they initially either give him limited information or they give him his full memory only to wipe it later. If it’s the former (and they had the power to selectively upload memories), why would they upload memories of his wife at all? Just give him speech and movement and repair skills and be done with it. If it’s the latter, that’s moronic.
It's not a coherent plot device, though I give the movie semi-reluctant credit for trying. But here's the dilemma: the assumption that our identity is reducible to our memories and our biology, which in this case are a) digitally stored information and b) replicated DNA.

In other words, self-identity can be captured by a computer and imprinted on a blank brain, thus creating a human person. Identity is in no way transcendent or immaterial. Who we are is fundamentally just bytes of information and chemicals in motion.

The movie tries to create a unity of identity over time based entirely on the intersection of digital and genetic code. If that's true, then there is no "soul" for Jack to lose in spite of what Malcolm claimed. If there is no identity, self, or self-consciousness as it has been classically understood, then people are soulless meat machines.

When Jack Clone #52 eventually finds Julia, he picks up their relationship as if he were the original Jack, because "I know him. I am him. I am Jack Harper, and I’m home." That's clearly not true. If Jack #53 showed up from another post, would he be able to say the same thing?  Could another cloned Victoria show up and claim that Jack #52 had wronged her when Jack #49 left her for Julia?'s review noted that “Oblivion is a technical triumph rather than a philosophical breakthrough."  Indeed. We are more than our biology. We are also more than our memories. Even combining those two things perfectly would not mean the original had been restored. There is something about who we are that transcends biology and bytes. We have compelling reasons to believe that our personal identity cannot be reduced to inexplicable complexity arising from biological and chemical machinery.

The Atlantic Wire was not as kind as Salon, describing Oblivion as having "a heavy and ineptly handled strain of existentialism running throughout, one that poses some interesting questions only to half-answer them in mawkish fashion." By "mawkish" I assume they mean incoherent and implausible.

Before going to the theater, I assumed the title referred to the danger posed to humanity's ongoing existence. I wonder, though, if Oblivion could not just as easily refer to what is happening to the conception of what it means to be human.

     ** I once took my wife to see Sommersby on Valentine's Day (Note to all men reading this: do not - repeat, do not - take this as a plan worth emulating). Richard Gere returns from a war much to the surprise of Jodi Foster, his patiently waiting wife. She thought he was dead. His appearance is certainly welcome - but is he actually her long-awaited husband? He looks like him; he has all the right memories; he makes her happy. He may be an imposter who looks like and served with her recently husband, so Gere could have learned all about "them" because of all the stories he heard her husband tell.
    Should Jodie Foster overcome her doubts and pretend Richard Gere is her husband? Would that be wrong? If they both agree to this noble lie, could they somehow make it true? The movie never truly answered the question, but my wife had a pretty clear opinion about my choice of Valentine's Day movies.


  1. Since for the majority of people who will see it; there are good things to take from it. But then again, not that much. Good review Anthony.

  2. As a tom cruise fan I usually look out for his good ones. Last Samurai was awesome, Ill probably ending up watching it on DVD. I generally look for moral-isms, attitudes and nobility or cowardice in tough-guy films. Many of them are just gore wagons. Your reviews help me to decide on future entertainment. Pretty cool blog.

  3. Thanks, Marvin. I'm glad it's helpful :) Have you seen Cruise as Jack Reacher yet? I'm curious what you thought of that one.