Recently, I watched the science-fiction movie Oblivion (2013; starring Tom Cruise and directed by Joseph Kosinski). It is an entertaining movie with a good mix of action, philosophy, and romance. If anything, the writers and director may have been a little too ambitious, for one can readily see threads from several other movies embedded in the main plot from which they seek to tell multiple stories. Yet, in the midst of all that is going on, there is an important contemporary parable from which we can learn “if we have ears to hear.” This blog will have many spoilers, so you may want to watch the movie before reading any further (it is presently available on Netflix).
In the year 2154, Jack Harper is a patriotic hero of the war against the aliens who invaded earth. Much of the earth is a now a post-apocalyptic disaster zone due to the destruction of earth’s moon and the nuclear explosions that were used to drive off the aliens. Jack is one of the last humans living on the earth and works as Tech 49 to keep the cleanup machinery functioning. Energy from Earth’s oceans is being harvested for the sake of the few remaining humans on an off-earth world called The Tet. The Tet stores this energy and transmits some to a colony on Saturn’s moon, Titan. At least this is what Jack and Victoria think is happening. Victoria is the communications officer who watches over Jack’s dangerous repair expeditions and communicates with Sally, their off-world connection. Victoria and Jack eat, sleep, and work together and appear to have an idyllic life. The work may be dangerous and challenging but they have all the latest technology to help them live well and overcome the obstacles. They have their romantic relationship to give them comfort and connection. Their memories have been wiped in a mandatory procedure designed to erase all harmful memories of the past. When the day’s work is over they retire to their penthouse overlooking the earth and enjoy the best of food, wine, technology, and recreation.
What they don’t know is that they are living a lie. They are oblivious to the fact that the ease with which they live, and even the challenges they face, are a facade of what is really going on behind the scenes. Both Jack and Victoria are clones of their former selves who have been created by the aliens living in The Tet. We are given a brief glimpse of the hundreds of Jack surrogates on The Tet waiting for their opportunity to be Jack. Tech 49 means that this Jack is the 49th clone to be sent out as a technician; and in one scene we see Jack encountering himself as Tech 52 doing the same job he has always done.
Jack 49 lives a largely dutiful life but is haunted by memories of a former existence with his wife before the destruction and cloning. Deep inside his being he longs for a simple way of life where he lives beside a mountain lake and grows crops with a family. For all of its problems, Jack still feels that Earth is his home. Daily he suppresses these thoughts and only occasionally goes to his secret place of solitude where he has set up a primitive cabin filled with artifacts of the past. Victoria shuns such foolishness and stays focused on her work and recreation in the communications tower, only dreaming of the day when she and Jack can retire to the colony on Titan.
Parables and the truth they represent may be hard to understand; but we can agree on some parallels with our contemporary world. Like Jack and Victoria, many live in a routine of work, recreation, and sexuality. As long as life is seen to have appropriate challenges, moments of humour, good food and drink, a comfortable home, and joyful moments of sexuality, we live in happy oblivion to the ultimate questions of life.
George Harrison, in a VH1 Interview, once said, [when]
. . . I think through the Beatle experience that we’d had, we’d grown so many years within a short period of time. I’d experienced so many things and met so many people but I realized there was nothing actually that was giving me a buzz anymore. I wanted something better. . . . You know, I get confused when I look around at the world, and I see everybody’s running around. And you know, as Bob Dylan said, ‘He not busy being born is busy dying,’ and yet nobody’s trying to figure out what’s the cause of death and what happens when you die. I mean, that to me is the only thing really that’s of any importance, the rest is all secondary.
Daily, we live as if this meager existence on this little planet in space is the only thing that matters. Yet, it really is secondary to the question of what happens when we die. Some would say that it doesn’t matter what happens when we die because we can’t do anything about it. But, what if we really can do something to prepare for death? Isn’t it worth a bit of risk to do that which will prepare us for the things that lie beyond this life?
A recurring theme in the movie Oblivion is the concept of a good death. Jack quotes Horatius when he asks, “How can man die better: than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods?” Many would say that the odds are stacked against a God who cares and a world that goes beyond this earthly existence; yet, what of “fearful odds?” They may indeed be frightening; but the alternatives are more fearful yet.
This movie has a message for us. The message is that a life of oblivion will not soothe the bigger questions of life; and we cannot mask the higher callings with the pleasures of this life. Perhaps that is a message worth hearing in this present time before we reach the increased complexities of 2154.