As Deep As Its Witches

Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher ... I mean Harper!  Jack Harper!  in OBLIVION

Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher … I mean Harper! Jack Harper! in OBLIVION

American movies have a tiresome aversion to death.  Considering how violent our movies are, that might seem like a surprising statement, but what I mean is that American movies seem incapable of allowing for something that, by the end of the film, is beyond the protagonists’ control and eventually will overwhelm or kill them.  Case in point:  Oblivion, the big budget science fiction film starring Tom Cruise.  If you haven’t seen the film already and you plan to, be forewarned that I’m going to reveal some significant plot twists, so you may not want to read any further.  In case you haven’t seen it, when Oblivion opens, it seems to be about a couple of humans, Jack Harper and Victoria Olsen, the only human repair crew for giant machines that convert ocean water into energy, on an Earth destroyed by a vicious war with the “Scavs,” an alien race who had tried to take over Earth, the remnants of whom still live on Earth, scavenging what they can to survive.  The humans beat the Scavs, we are told in a voiceover, but the victory was Pyrrhic and humanity was forced to flee to Titan, where the power generated from Earth’s oceans will be transported.

We eventually discover, however, that this understanding is backwards: the “Scavs” are actually the last humans to have survived the war, and Jack and Victoria are clones who work for the alien forces, though at first they don’t know it.  It all seems pretty hopeless for Jack, whose humanity is awakened in him over the course of the story.  So when, about three-quarters of the way through the film, he finds himself at his private oasis, a rustic cabin by a beautiful lake, with a woman who turns out to have been his wife before the alien invasion, I thought it would be a perfect place to end the film.  After all, the aliens have all of this amazing technology, they have thousands upon thousands of Jack Harpers with which to assail Earth, and humanity appears to be scattered and ineffective against them.  So it seemed reasonable, poignant even, that he and his wife live peacefully in their cabin until the world has been drained of all life when they, too, would die.  It’s probably what would “really” happen in such a scenario, and it would underscore the fact that death hangs over us all, every second that we’re alive, so there’s no point in fretting about it.

Of course, I knew that would be an impossible ending for an American film.  I knew Jack would have to band together with the remaining humans and destroy the aliens against astronomical odds, which is precisely what he did, effectively rendering the last 20 to 30 minutes of the film more pro forma than storytelling and undermining any serious threat posed by the aliens.  Once the audience figures out that the aliens are actually in control of Earth, there is little doubt that the humans eventually will triumph against them.  It reminds me of a criticism that theater director and scholar Herbert Blau leveled against Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, pointing out that, unlike many Americans during the height of the Cold War who actually feared that communists may have infiltrated the United States government, the audience watching The Crucible knows there are no real witches.  The audience’s sense of superiority—against the witch hunters, against Joseph McCarthy’s accusations—is not impugned, attenuating the play’s drama.  Blau concluded that a play is as deep as its witches.

And the witches in Oblivion aren’t deep at all.  Nor are they in most American blockbusters.  Before entering the theater we know that the good guys will win, which takes all the threat out of their opponents.  That such a bent toward comic rather than tragic endings is closely related to an American aversion to death is made even clearer in a scene at the end of Oblivion.  At the film’s climax, we had witnessed one of the Jacks—number 49, the one we’d been following throughout the film, so, for us, the real Jack—blow himself up in order to destroy the aliens.  Before doing so, he quotes Horatius, from Thomas McCauley’s Lays of Ancient Rome:

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 God?

But then, after seemingly dying that best death, Jack shows up, alive, at the end of the movie.  And even though he’s number 52, with whom 49 had fought earlier in the film, we know it’s really Jack.  Clearly 49 had implanted a seed of doubt in 52’s mind, impregnating him with humanity as he’d impregnated his wife before going off to battle the aliens.  Obviously, the film seems to be telling us, there’s an even better way to die than the one that can’t be better: not to die.  To paraphrase Woody Allen, it’s not that Jack is afraid of death, he just doesn’t want to be there when it happens.  But in denying death, Oblivion threatens to banish life, as so many movies do in the summer, with lots of noise and fury taking the place of something actually happening.

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2 Responses to As Deep As Its Witches

  1. policomic says:

    This is really thought-provoking, and I love the title. It strikes me that this kind of denial of death is one of the primary ways such movies cheapen life–alongside the much more obvious depictions of “senseless” (which ought to properly mean “consequence-free”) violence.

    Just to play devil’s advocate, though, couldn’t one argue that doing an end-run around death is one of the primary functions of art? To borrow another Woody Allen line, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work… I want to achieve it through not dying.”

  2. chaszak says:

    “Consequence free violence” is a nice way to describe the violence in most action films. If I remember correctly, Anthony Lane said that filmmakers like Scorsese and Tarantino understood cruelty but didn’t show much understanding about pain.

    Regarding “doing an end-run around death” as a “primary function of art”: if by that you mean that art allows artists (and those who experience the art) to touch something greater, I agree, though that something includes death. Even the Woody Allen quote you cite makes no sense without accepting the inevitability of death. OBLIVION, on the other hand, turns its back on death as if in doing so, it doesn’t exist.

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