Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Tale Of Two Jacks: Oblivion & Facing Fearful Odds

The first image we see in the film is of a viewfinder atop the Empire State Building; why that? Because we are meant to "view" the landscape of the film and find something hidden within it, and what keeps coming up is a quote from a book providing us with the theme found in these lines from Lord Macaulay's Lays Of Ancient Rome, Canto XXVII, which poetically tells the brave deed of Horatius Cocles defending the bridge from the siege of the enemy:
Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
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 gods.
Why? Of all the books, of all the passages which could have been quoted, why center a film that takes place in 60+ years from now, upon ancient Rome? At least two reasons. First, it was upon the model of the Roman republic that our own fathers founded this country; secondly, an important word is within the passage, a word shared with the The Hunger Games: "odds." In The Hunger Games, President Snow tells the Games' contestants, "May the odds be ever in your favor," and, in the second film, Catching Fire, we see graffiti in the trailer stating, "The odds are never in your favor."
So what does this mean?
When the film opens, the year is 2077; in  2017, the earth was attacked after the moon was destroyed, which set off the balance of nature, causing massive earthquakes and tidal waves, destroying much of the earth including human life on earth; nuclear weapons had to be used, and since the earth was left uninhabitable, only the "scavs" (the aliens who attacked the earth) are left and everyone else has gone to to Saturn's moon Titan, where the remnant of humanity lives, stopping off at the Tet, a space station where they prepare for the journey; but none of this is true. "They lied to you, Jack," Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman) tells Jack, because the "scavs" aren't aliens, they are humans, it's the ones appearing as "humans" that are the aliens, there is no human outpost on Titan, and the Tet is an alien space ship sucking earth's resources dry before moving onto another planet to consume (very similar to The Host). Jack and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) were the last remnant of the Odyssey space crew--which included Jack's wife, Julia Ruskokova (Olga Kurylenko, much more on this below), and who Jack sent into Delta sleep, orbiting the earth for their safety--and it's from Jack and Victoria that the aliens of the Tet cloned thousands of Jacks and Victorias to maintain the drones who would protect the fusion reactors sucking up earth's oceans to energize the Tet. Joining forces with Beech's resistance group (as in Total Recall and, again, The Host), Jack takes the fuel cells of the drones to create a bomb to blow up the Tet and save the earth for what is left of humanity.  
Horatius defending the bridge reminds us all of civic duty, because he's not a patrician, or a general in the army, he's only the Captain of the Gate, and recognizes that he has the free will to choose his fate and he does so for the sake of love of country. What Horatius does, he does for his fellow man, he does to insure Rome will survive (consequently, today--April 21, is the celebration of the legendary founding of Rome in 753 BC , by brothers Romulus and Remus).  In spite of the thousands of enemy soldiers coming to attack Rome at this gate Horatius defends by holding them off, he survives (the battle is rather like 300) and he makes this sacrifice for "the ashes of his fathers" (symbolizing the founding fathers, the traditions and culture of Rome) and the "temple of the gods," (his religion and beliefs).
This was the best image I could find of the "power stations" (upper-left side of the image) the real aliens use in Oblivion. It's a nuclear power concept, so the stations require vast amounts of water--earth's oceans--to keep the core cool and the energy supplies the Tet station with all its needs; the scavs (who are really humans but Jack is told they are aliens) are always trying to sabotage the reactors (the reactors are sucking up all earth's water, and you can clearly see it in the ships buried in exposed dirt) so the real aliens have drones to protect the reactors and it's Jack's job to service and repair the drones and ward off scav attacks on them. Why? Why does the Oblivion narrative include these details as part of the internal conflict? One of the reactors has an internal core meltdown; where have we heard that concept recently? The Chernobyl Diaries and A Good Day to Die Hard.  Why would this be brought up? It's an interesting point, and a little known one, that socialism/communism is actually terrible for the environment; why? In capitalism--where there are plenty of abuses against the environment--the government is there to tell companies to clean up their pollution and prosecute them; when a country is socialist/communist, it's the government making the pollution and there is no one there to enforce the government to follow the laws it has passed, an important point made in Murray Feshbach's Ecocide In the USSR;  Chernobyl is just one example of the Soviet Union's destruction of the environment.
Isn't that why Americans go to war and make the ultimate sacrifice for our country? One must construct an argument concisely before one can understand the arguments being made against it; in other words, "odds" of something happening or not happening do not matter, you do something because you believe in it, not because of the success rate. Jack's reading of this poem and other materials is what makes him stand out to Beech from the other dozens of "Jacks" on earth repairing drones because Jack has processed what is going on; he may not have control over much, but he does control himself.
Christina's World, Andrew Wyeth, 1948, Museum Of Modern Art, New York. Why, of all the art work in New York--where Oblivion takes place--would this painting be the one the film shows several times (there is a "art gallery" the scavs have where they keep all the art and books they have rescued, so any other work could have been used and they want us to know that). There are two types of viewers seeing this painting when the film shows it to us. The first is the un-implied viewer and the second is the implied viewer. The "un-impled viewer" is the viewer who knows nothing about this work of art, maybe they don't even know it's a famous work of art, but created solely for the purpose of the film. In the film, Julia--Jack's wife--says it reminds her of home, and this provides the viewer who is unaware of the work's background and history, a sense of "home is in sight, we just need to go a little further," and that's confirmed by the last images of the film, when Julia and her daughter are playing in front of the cabin by the lake, and Julia works in her vegetable garden, she's home. This is sufficient for the um-implied viewer, they don't need to know anymore; to someone who has an idea, however, that this is a famous work of art, and there must be something else going on for the film to show this painting, we can say it reminds us of World War II, when Jack keeps saying, "We won the war, but lost the planet," because Christina's World was Wyeth's commentary on how post-World War II America was: we won the war (against communism and Imperial Japan) but we lost so much to win, we were desolate and paralyzed. Christina, the girl in the image, was paralyzed from polio, a disease many of us today know nothing about, but ravaged America in the late 1940s and early 1950s, if not killing thousands, leaving them crippled and disabled for the rest of their lives. For Wyeth, America was like this bone-thin girl (you may click on the image to enlarge it for closer inspection; look at her right arm and left ankle, it's as thin as the images of prisoners' bodies in concentration camps America and the Allied powers liberated) abandoned in a field with no way to get herself to the safety of the house (although the house itself is probably abandoned from close analysis). Oblivion suggests that America is in the same position for us today, that our country is like this sickly, paralyzed girl, abandoned. And I agree. Oblivion's framework of interpretation is that our country has been left this way from the aliens sucking the planet dry of resources and killing off our species (again, as in The Host) and, since our country happens to be lingering in a never-ending recession, we have to ask, what are the causes weakening our country so much? Who has caused America to be so diseased that we can't recover from it? For my complete analysis on the film, please see Christina's World & Our World for more.
What are the exact reasons why we can call this a "pro-capitalist" film instead of an anti-capitalist or pro-socialist film? As we have seen, socialists have been utilizing the same concepts as capitalists and mirroring them back to accuse capitalists of what capitalists accuse socialists, however, that one of the books Jack has is Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, which compares London and Paris shortly before and during the French Revolution when the peasantry of France killed the aristocracy. Like the "aliens" killing off all the humans, A Tale Of Two Cities depicts the same kind of event staged by the peasantry as staged by the "aliens."  But how can we definitely say the Obama socialist movement is the "alien" concept to America in this film and not traditional American capitalism?
Competition.
The event pictured above happens in a flashback towards the end of the film, in the year 2017. Why 2017? If you saw the successful documentary Love Him Hate Him You Don't Know Him: Obama's 2016, you know the the dire predictions made in the film about what America would be like if Obama won the the 2012 election and had another four years to wreck the country. In this image, Jack Harper (left) and Victoria (right) are manning the Odyssey space craft on a deep space exploration that was re-assigned to observe an alien object that entered the atmoshere, the Tet. Fearing what could happen to the rest of the crew that are in hibernation mode (including Julia) Jack launches them away from the ship, sending them into orbit as the Odyssey is captured by the Tet; Jack and Victoria are cloned by the Tet. What is so important about this particular shot is that--during this scene--we see Victoria (Vicca for short) wearing a Union Jack patch on her space suit (the British flag) and we wouldn't know she was British otherwise, giving rise to a controversial point in the film we will discuss below.
What drives the free markets of capitalism and innovation we, as Americans prize so highly, except competition? The theme shows up in the "classic game" of the 2017 Super Bowl Jack remembers when a quarterback recovered his own fumble and threw a Hail Mary, hoping someone would catch it, and a third-string rookie catches the ball in the end zone, winning the game; that is what makes it a classic, because the odds are against the team winning, but the quarterback's act of faith in his team members after he committed the fumble, and a unknown rookie rising to the occasion to catch the ball makes this--not only a classic game in football--but a perfect example of how American capitalism works. Why is this moment of the film so important? Because of what is going to happen in November.
Why does the dog show up while Jack is working on the drone in the football stadium? Doesn't this somehow ruin the beauty and nostalgia of the scene, this mangy mutt showing up and nearly getting blown to bits by the drone? The dog demonstrates two things: first, that Jack Harper cares about other beings. He could have let the drone blow the dog to bits and hey, no big deal, because that's kind of how socialists have vilified capitalists, that we don't care about anything but ourselves. Jack is obviously at risk of being shot at by the drone in trying to protect the dog, so when we see Jack being so protective of the humans in the crashed spacecraft, we aren't surprised because he protects and defends life which socialists don't do because they support abortion, euthanasia, rationed health care and the outright killing of all opposition parties. Secondly, the dog appears at this particular moment because dogs symbolize loyalty. Usually in art, specifically French art, if a bedroom scene is being depicted between a man and woman, there is a little dog somewhere in the background, because the dog communicates that this is an affair, not the marriage bed (the dog being used to illustrate unfaithfulness, rather than loyalty). In this sense, we can see Jack revealing how he is loyal to the memories he still has of the game and the role that game plays in his own identity (he must be remembering the game because the score was one of the last topics of discussion prior to the Odyssey being sucked into the Tet, and the Tet erased his memory, so like his memories of Julia that come back to him, so the memories of the Super Bowl come back to him, illuminating where his loyalty and faithfulness lie). Remember, one of the Scavs sees him during this scene, and he's not behaving like one of the clones, and that's because sports and competition bring out the best in us unlike not having sports and competition, which is the thesis of The Hunger Games (which is against free markets and the competitive spirit inherent in capitalism).
In November, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire will be released and the major plot point is the "destruction of the arena," just like the destroyed arena seen in the image above for the football championship.  The purpose of this football game, and the game being mentioned just before the Odyssey is swallowed up by the Tet, is how game and competition are so closely related to capitalism, and the loss of competition in America is equivalent to the whole country being lost (the theme will also be directly challenged in Monsters University and their parody of The Scare Games). It's the competition with the Tet that forces Beech and Jack to resort to play (a creative interpretation of the odds of a situation to maximize their own meagre advantages) in switching Julia's hibernation pod with Beech so Julia will live and Beech and Jack can detonate the bomb, saving mankind.
Jack is told the "scavengers" are alien lifeforms because the real aliens want the humans destroyed. Why are they called "scavs?" They are made to look like "savages" because of how they live and the clothing they wear, revealing socialists (the aliens) have made capitalists out to look. One way of correlating the scavengers with capitalists is because of where they reside, the New York Library, where all the books are still kept, though in disarray. Socialists in America--as we have been seeing--want to "re-write" the history of America to make it seem that we were always a socialist country, but greedy capitalists turned the tide in their favor; books are recorded history, and history is our collective memory as a culture. Jack is "haunted" by his memories he can't accurately remember because socialists always erase the actual history from a country they have taken over and insert their own narrative in its place, just like with Jack's memory wipe; the books, however, refresh his memory just as the study of history refreshes our memory. The erasing of our memory by re-writing history and making America out to be the guilty one all the time is the primary means of the aliens being capable to telling the lies: you can't give someone a new truth if they know what the real truth is, and the aliens can make Jack believe the drones are there to protect him instead of destroy him because he has forgotten what has always happened in history: you give some absolute power and it corrupts absolutely. Total Recall, Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters, The House At the End Of the Street, Rise Of the Guardians and The Amazing Spider Man are just a few of the films reminding us that if we let go of the narrative of our history, we don't know who we are and if we don't know who we are, we can be controlled by others.
This idea of a "competition-free world" were no one has to compete for anything leads us to examine a recurring phrase in the film: "Another day in paradise." Why does Vicca and Jack say this, does it look like they are living in paradise? Jack's little cabin on the lake might be paradise, but is the "modernist apartment in the sky" paradise or a prison? Vicca certainly never leaves it. This little catch-phrase is important because it provides us with yet another warning about the "utopia" promised by socialists (Journey 2 the Mysterious Island, Stoker, Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters, Wreck-It Ralph and The Secret World Of Arrietty). It's never another day in paradise, it's a prison of utter mind-control, lies and self-extinction just as it is in The Host: the cost far out-weighs the benefits because, if it were "another day in paradise," why would Vicca put so much importance on re-joining the others in two weeks?
There are numerous films mentioned in Oblivion in one way or another, and this is meant to intentionally jog our own memory about the role films have played in shaping America and our own selves. For example, what other famous couple meets at the Empire State Building? Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in An Affair To Remember (and she becomes crippled in the film just as Christina is in the painting above). Jack takes a toy gorilla to remind us of King Kong, and a pair of Aviator sunglasses because that's what he wore in Top Gun. Jack's location on the Empire State Building is identical to where Zeus and Poseidon meet in Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightening Thief, meaning, the top of the Empire Sate Building is where Olympus is, where the giants of capitalism and world history have made themselves. We can't help but recall all those who jumped to their deaths when the stock market crashed, but it also reminds us that when it was constructed, it was the world's tallest building for 40 years, and it is in--what still today--is the capitol of the world, the financial heart of the world's markets. When Jack proposes to Julia and says, look through here and "I'll show you the future," that literally seems to be the US telling Russia, we will show you the future of where you and us are going economically and politically.   
And now for the controversial bit I have been dreading, but appears to be picking up steam as an important argument in films. Jack's real wife is Julia (Olga Kurylenko) even though he has been sleeping with Vicca--which reminds me of the original Planet Of the Apes, as well as the brief scene when Jack, on his motorcycle, rides by the dirt-buried Statue Of Liberty--and Julia being his real wife is the reason he still dreams of her and recognizes her face when he finds her hibernation pod. The film makes it a point that we know Julia is of Russian descent with her name: "Rusakova." When Jack and Julia have retrieved the log from the space ship Odyssey, and Julia has reminded Jack that they are married, Jack returns to his apartment he shares with Vicca; he tells Vicca Julia is his wife and Vicca locks him out of the apartment (keeps him locked out) and then  a drone comes and kills Vicca.
Why is this important?
Vicca is British and Julia is Russian.
There are so many cultural references made in Oblivion that we can be confident the name of the Odyssey space craft refers to events contained in Homer's epic poem Odyssey.  Regrettably, I don't have time to go into that, so if someone was thinking of it, and has some thoughts they would like to share, please do so in the comment section! I will say this, however, Jack clearly wears a NASA patch on his spacesuit before the Odyssey he is on is sucked into the Tet, and Obama has ended funding for NASA human flight missions, wanting NASA instead to focus on the role Muslims have played in science. So, it might be an important point the film wants to make that the very means we would have for knowing about the "alien object" threatening us (NASA's manned missions) has been made impossible by Obama.  
Numerous films as of late depict the destruction of London (GI Joe Retaliation, Star Trek Into Darkness, Red 2, Thor the Dark World) and in trying to understand reasons for it, we explored what events could be triggering this feeling that London is doomed and the answer we came up with--the only answer as reflected by the protests marches and government policies--is that it's entitlement programs and socialism. If you think there is another reason, trust me, I would LOVE to hear it (please leave a comment or email me directly!). Oblivion seems to be suggesting that because Russia has made a greater commitment to free markets and capitalism in its government, it's Russia who is our real ally (our marriage partner) and not Britain who increasingly undermines capitalism in its economy and programs; it's possible to see in Vicca's refusal to remember anything before the "security wipe" forced on them by the Tet Britain's own refusal to recall history as the making of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (please see Amidst the Dead Leaves: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for more) seemed to be an effort at, reminding what the Cold War cost and why it was worth the cost.
Well, have we seen this in other places?
We have.
"Are you an effective team?" Sally keeps asking Vicca to affirm throughout the film and then, in the scene above, when Jack tells Vicca Julia is his wife, she tells Sally, "We are not an effective team." Just as Jack's image "reflects" on the glass, we too must "reflect" on what is being shown: since we can "see through glass" as we see Vicca on the other side, we should be able to see through this scene and what it is saying to us.
In Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, the relationship with Vitaly the Russian Tiger proves "vital" for keeping the "Bolshevik" out of the circus and, we could say that like Edmond in The Chronicles of Narnia who knows the wicked ways of the White Witch because he has all ready fallen for them, so, too, does Vitaly and that's why he's such an invaluable partner in the circus (please see Trapeze Americano & the Capitalist Circus: Madagascar 3 Europe's Most Wanted for more); Britain, like Peter in Narnia, hasn't been punished like Edmond, so he doesn't realize the potential danger the White Witch poses and why he's willing to solicit her help when things get tough (this kind of theme is taken up in Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters as well). This isn't a definite reading of this dilemma the film presents us, however, it is a possibility and, again, if anyone has an alternate reading, I would very much welcome it; I think, however, we are going to be seeing more of London Bridge falling, rather than less.
And lastly, the controversial ending,...
Malcolm Beech first introducing himself to Jack; does the lighted match invoke the up-coming installment to The Hunger Games Catching Fire? Because Malcolm certainly gives Jack a reason to think more deeply on what the world is like and who caused it to be that way, so the match Malcolm lights is not only so Jack can see him but "see" what Malcolm tells him to be true, so the truth will be "catching fire" in Jack's mind, which it does.
The ending is apt to be problematic for a lot of people. We know Jack has died when he delivered the bomb to the Tet with Malcolm Beech and the Tet exploded. Three years later, Julia with her daughter are at the lakeside cabin Jack sent her to before he left, and the other humans from Malcolm's group have found them and with them is Tech #52 (a clone of Jack he fought at one point in the film), who provides a voice over, saying he couldn't forget Julia's face when he (briefly) saw her, and he knows Jack built a place like this, because he knows Jack, and he has spent three years looking for her, and he knew she would be there. Have we seen this before in a film recently? We have, The Vow (please see The Vow & Obamacare for more).
An important question we should ask is, "Why is the 'original' Jack Harper designated as Tech #49, when the Tet replicated thousands of Jack Harpers (as we learn from Malcolm) and the 'Jack' that finds Julia at the end is Tech #52?" These are specific numbers, designating something specific, and since memory plays such an important role in the film, it's possible these numbers refer to our cultural memory, history, and they designate years. A lot happened in 1952: Elizabeth II becomes queen; the United Kingdom becomes a nuclear power; the first in a published series of Man Will Conquer Space Soon by Werner von Braun first appears; Truman nationalizes all steel mills, although the Supreme Court has limited the president's ability to seize private business; the war with Japan and the Allies officially ends; the first international style skyscraper opens in New York on Park Avenue (where Oblivion takes place); Anne Frank's The Diary Of a Young Girl is published;  Eisenhower wins the election to become president; 58,000 cases of polio are reported in the US (Oblivion shows us the painting Christian's World several times and it's from polio that the woman in the painting suffers). A lot happened in 1949, like the voting down of most of liberal president Truman's Fair Deal program which would have accelerated socialism in the US, as well as Beijing being taken over by Communist forces; the Soviet Union deports 92,000 people from the Baltic States to remote areas in the Soviet Union to fulfill the communist agenda for labor; the Red Scare begins with the FBI naming communists in the US; George Orwell's anti-communist work 1984 is published; the Soviet Union tests its first atomic bomb similar to the one detonated by the US at Nagasaki, Japan; China is officially declared a communist country; these are all events which could be tied to the film in many ways, however, what I think his number 49 refers to--and why this is the "original" Jack Harper assigned to this number--is it references 1849 and the California Gold Rush. Even though so many people didn't get filthy rich, some did, and the Rush pumped (by today's standards) billions of dollars into the economy naturally, not a stimulus package, like what Democrats keep doing during the Obama administration.  
The reason this ending is a problem is because Tech #52 (the clone) defies the definition of what a clone is, that it doesn't have any memories of its own or (Jack's memory was wiped, so how could the memories have passed to Tech #52? They couldn't have). Either this is a clone that has malfunctioned, or it symbolizes how there will be "intruders" in the future, that which only looks like capitalism and we will want that because we will miss it but will still be a relic of the past and the alien invasion (because Tech #52 comes from the Tet). This is very possible. On the other hand, I don't think this is the ending the film wants to leave us with, I think--and I admit, I liked the film, I think Tom Cruise did a fabulous job and we all like a good ending--I think Oblivion wants to validate both the sacrifice Jack Harper makes and the life he wants to have with Julia in their little cabin by the lake, their idea of the American Dream. I think (and this is ambiguous, so there is no "correct" reading of the ending, whatever we want to project onto it is valid) that memories and history are so powerful, it will reanimate the future to come back and create a new start, that our relationship to capitalism is the "natural" way our minds and hearts work (Jack having no memory of wanting a cabin by the lake, but him building one anyway and Tech #52 finding her because he would want a cabin by the lake, too).
But, we will all create our own endings.
The artificial wombs. We have seen similar images to this in both Resident Evil: Retribution and Cloud Atlas (of course there was something similar in The Matrix), both capitalists and socialists arguing that the other system is the one that makes people into clones without souls or wills of their own. It's an important issue because we know Jack and Julia--as husband and wife--have spent the night together, and at the end of the film Julia is raising their daughter. This "traditional family" and the child being conceived in a natural womb (Julia's) contrasts to the Tet with its artificial wombs and makes us consider socialism as the "mother" of the state but also the Obama administration's pushing of homosexual marriage (gay couples cannot conceive children naturally) and abortion (where the child is killed within the mother's womb) so a socialist government promoting such practices has to basically "grow" its population from cells (maybe a play on words to invoke a prison?) as we see above. Whereas Cloud Atlas accuses capitalism of using incentives to raise workers up, only to butcher them and feed them back to other workers, the Chinese government must have recognized itself in those images to have deleted them when showing the film to its socialist audience, and Oblivion certainly leads us to expect that, when Vicca and Jack "join the others" in two weeks that--since there are no 'others' to join--they are slated to be killed.
In conclusion, Oblivion was a wonderful film (I gave it an A-on Rotten Tomatoes) and I hope you will get a chance to see it at the theater because there is some amazing imagery and special effects, as well as numerous film references I didnt' have time to thoroughly cover here. I have never been a Tom Cruise fan, but he is in top form in this film--and most other critics have said the same about him--and he brings a intimate warmth and humanity to his character; additionally, knowing you like to really consider films and decode them, this is one that will provide you with much food for thought to keep turning over and over again! Not to mention, many of these elements we will be referring to later in conjunction with other films.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner