Not quite a film review

During the Christmas holiday, I watched the film ‘Oblivion’ on DVD. It’s a science-fiction film in a post-apocalyptic setting but, surprisingly, the topics of memory, evocative objects and character / identity emerge as significant themes throughout the story. It has been interesting to think about the implicit ideas embedded in the film.

At the opening of the film the audience is introduced to 2 of the central characters, Jack & Vika, who work as a team maintaining drones that in turn guard huge devices extracting energy from the Earth. The energy is needed (apparently) to support the majority of humanity have packed up and relocated to Titan. Jack and Vika live in a superbly stylist tower high above the Earth. Meanwhile, the remnant of the alien species that initially attacked Earth, ‘Scavs’ live on the surface of the devastated planet.

Jack and Vika have had the obligatory “memory wipe” before beginning their tour of duty. Only Jack has retained fragments of a memory, involving him, a mystery woman (not Vika) and the observation level on the Empire State Building…

When you sit and think about what a memory wipe might actually involve it becomes a bit problematic. However some neurological diseases leave people living in the moment but somehow leave their character intact (more on this later) So let’s run with the idea that in the future someone can separate autobiographical memory from everything else and can block access to these without impairing normal functioning.

Anyway, Jack knows he shouldn’t have these memories plus the memories come from before the apocalypse which is problematic because he’s not that old. So he keeps quiet. Fortunately for him Vika doesn’t like leaving the tower (she acts as his overseer and links with their manager, Sally, who is (apparently) in a floating space station). This gives Jack the freedom to create a secret home in an bowl-like valley that has, rather magically, recovered from the apocalypse and to gather found-objects as he travels around repairing the drones. The objects he gathers seem to have an emotional resonance for him: they evoke an emotional reaction even though (I assume) he can’t explicitly say why. As the film progresses and more of the memories come to the surface of his consciousness, it becomes apparent that the objects relate to elements of those memories…

To be honest, I like this element. It tallies with those experiences where we know something but don’t know how we know it. It also tallies with the idea that our cognitive processes are like a ‘parliament of selves’ (a term from David Eagleman I heard earlier today) wherein our conscious decision making is based on the resolution of many cognitive processes that are not accessible to our conscious selves. The idea that we could recognise an object on an unconscious level and respond to it emotionally doesn’t seem so far fetched.

It appears that the combination of the home, objects and music (fabulously on vinyl) allows Jack to create an alternative identity. Networks of things and thoughts are being fashioned that he can imagine himself among, playing a different role.

Jack’s memories start to unfurl after a NASA space ship comes crashing down to Earth, provoke by the Scavs sending a signal to the orbiting ship via the mast on the remnants of the Empire State Building. (Nice weaving of threads there!) The crew were in hibernation and (for various reasons) the only one that Jack can save turns out to be the woman in his dreams, Julia…

We can imagine that the combination of Julia, the actual Empire State Building and subsequent events work on Jack in the same way as Proust and his sip of lime tea with Madeleine crumbs soaked in it. Before this moment, the memory is self-contained, closed-off, unable to link with other memories. The presence of Julia allows new links to be made to other associative networks of episodic/autobiographical memory.

As events turn, Jack and Julia are drawn into encounters with the Scavs who, it turns out, are the humans. Jack is confused and conflicted by this point so the leader of the Scavs, Beech, sends Jack off into the Radiation Zone, which is a region notionally forbidden to Jack. Once there Jack discovers another drone repairman, who is a copy of him and later another copy of Vika. Eventually, Beech explains that the space station is actually the alien enemy. Jack, Vika, Julia and the others were astronauts sent on a mission to explore the station but did not return as expected. Instead the station cloned Jack and used an army of him first to attack the remnant of humanity and then used cloned Jacks and Vikas to maintain the drones.

This is really where the issue of character and identity comes to the fore. Beech says that the army of cloned Jacks were fairly soul-less and destructive but that he had a hunch that this repair-man Jack was the real Jack because of the way he saved Julia from being killed by a drone…

So here is where it gets all implicit and unstated. Beech sees Jack’s character based on his behaviour. It is as though there is a distinction between character and identity whith character being based on patterns of behaviour and instinctive responses, consistent over time, whilst identity is something more.. declarative (for lack of a better phrase) and constructed. The true Jack is present in repair-man Jack but not in clone-army Jack.

The difference between the 2 sets of Jack implies a flaw in the alien cloning technology but it also allows the audience to consider – where did this real character inhere? My sense is that the film errs towards an almost-mystical soul-like source for character that is somehow found in the repairman Jack. As noted earlier, various real-life neurological conditions have allowed us to observe a dissociation between episodic-autobiographical memory and character (where character is seen as that person’s typical responses to various social situations). This would allow for a more pseudo-scientific idea of why repairman-Jack is a good guy but it also leaves some problems in the sci-fi conception of cloning. However it is accrued, character is a form of memory. Memory is something that we accumulate over a life-time of living. The clone of a person, even were one to be created, would not be a copy of that person unless they could live the same life. Even then, allowing for a certain complexity and non-determinism in the individual, there is no guarantee that the clone would respond to every situation in the same way that the original did. So the clone would probably never be the same character. So the other option available is that the clones are not actually clones but copies, down to the level of every neuronal connection. Or nearly every connection, since the plot hangs on the fact that the copies of repairman-Jack are not entirely under the control of the alien intelligence that created them. Flawed or not, that requires some massive computer!

As the film draws to a close, repairman-Jack returns to the space station to confront and (hopefully) destroy the alien intelligence. Returning to space evokes further memories which allows the film to weave some loose threads of the plot together very nicely…

Again, place and action are tied into the elements of memory and are therefore capable of evoking a further unfurling of Jack’s memory.

The story closes in an unashamedly romantic fashion but poses an interesting question – can you love a copy of the person that you once loved, knowing that they are a copy? The film’s answer is yes, emotion trumps logic. This feels like a very realistic take on human relationships.


About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in Cognition, identity, memory, Objects. Bookmark the permalink.

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