The Oblivion of Tom Cruise

by on Aug.09, 2013


I watched Oblivion a couple of days ago. Haters won’t be able to get past its shortcomings or acknowledge its topical relevance beyond superficial references to drones and the surveillance state. Good thing I’m not a hater. Complete and total spoilers below.

This is the story of life as Tom Cruise knows it at the beginning of Oblivion: aliens from outer space destroyed the moon in an unprovoked attack on humankind, humans won the subsequent war but Earth was left mostly uninhabitable, and humans are now siphoning off the planet’s water resources (giant floating fortresses circle the globe, sucking up the ocean) and migrating to a new settlement on the Saturn moon Titan. Earth’s remaining inhabitants, at this point, are alien scavengers, the drones that hunt them, and the human tandems left behind to provide drone maintenance and manage the planetary system of water extraction. Tom Cruise is one-half of such a tandem, performing his duty with a sense of pride and adventure and no sense of history, his memory and that of his partner wiped clean every five years to ensure optimal team performance and facilitate their eventual reunion with the rest of their species on their new home planet/moon. This is the story of life that defines Tom Cruise as we join him in Oblivion.

But the story is bullshit, and deep down Tom knows it, and so do we, but access to knowledge in space-time — and movies — is necessarily chronological. Things happen, and Tom eventually learns the alien scavengers are really humans, his human bosses are really aliens, and he is neither, functioning instead as the biological technology that mediates human/alien. Cloned a thousand times over and deployed across the planet with a minor armada of human-hunting drones at his disposal, Tom Cruise is the figurative and literal end of humankind. But as Morgan Freeman, in his capacity as leader of a rebellious band of human survivors, understands, he is also its liberation. In the role of our onscreen proxy, and with the help of Freeman, Tom Cruise comes to an ontological and empirical understanding of himself as not special, not unique, and not even human per se, but as an operator of life. This is why he tells the first clone of himself he meets “It’s ok, it’s ok,” as he chokes the life out of him. He is not bound by the parameters of life and death, but exists as a localized operator of a nonlocal consciousness and a standardized piece of biological machinery. He exists across time and space, but in the form of right here and now.

Identifying now as a technology of mind and body and infinite immediacy, Tom Cruise becomes politically awakened. He understands a nonhuman consciousness has seized control of the planet and is leveraging our managerial capabilities by exploiting our humanity, with “humanity” defined here as our emotional programming: our inclination toward interpersonal attachments and a sense of collective belonging. He further understands that our programming is conditioned via cultural narratives that cynically invert the human values of a situation, so that we find ourselves spending the daylight hours of our day, every day, managing the machinery of our own destruction: a planetary system of subjugation applied to the extraction and conversion of natural resources. Most importantly, he understands that the foundation of this teleological nightmare engine we call The World is its alleged necessity. Take away civilization as the end point of human existence and the system loses its purpose. What’s left are the basic components of human life: earth, water, sunlight, companionship and time. On screen: a mountain paradise.

It’s this dream of a life of radical simplicity that we see glowing on the faces of Freeman and Cruise at the end, when, deep inside the alien spacecraft lording over Earth, and despite their differences as human original and human facsimile, they’re united by their tenuous grip on a sense of self and species, and their much more confident grip on the trigger of a nuclear device. In the end, welcoming oblivion in the void of outer space, what Freeman and Cruise understand is there is no life and death – in this universe, only subjugation and release.

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