Cruise control, or how to be a boring little man

Every so often Hollywood brings out a sci-fi film that looks like it’s sponsored by Apple Inc. The sets and costumes and spaceships and even the people look so smooth and perfect that we’re led to believe this is what the future will be like. Oblivion is one such film, although it turns the slickness on its head because the story takes up on Earth after humans have had to leave due to an alien invasion. We fought the aliens off and won but our home planet was left largely uninhabitable by the fallout of war. Tom Cruise’s character and his wife have valiantly stayed behind to take care of the planet and the robots that are trying to bring it back to life until the day comes when humanity can return. So the smooth slick white technology zips around a backdrop of destruction and decay.

There’s not a lot I can say about Oblivion because it was only satisfactory. I’m already struggling to remember some of its details. It’s not a great film. Cruise’s wife is supposed to be an equal partner, of course. But she doesn’t do anything. Cruise is the action man, and she’s the stay-at-home helper. Ostensibly her job is communications officer. She’s the relay between Cruise and their off-world command centre. She’s just a middle woman whose name I can’t remember. There is another female character who shows up and has more work to do on the story. But Oblivion is, of course, a Cruise film. And he’s as slick as the little flying machine he flies around in. He’s a boring little man whose name is something solid like John Richards or Richard Johns or Jack Reacher or John Carter. He patrols the planet fixing the robot drones that are also on patrol against any alien attacks. When curious things happen he tries to find out what’s going on. And when bad things happen he fights and runs around.

He is a boring little man. We know nothing of his background, how he got this weird gig and what is motivating him to do it. His wife is looking forward to the end of their contract so she can go and live with the other humans for a bit, but Cruise doesn’t seem bothered by that. Equally he’s not in love with Earth and devoted to protecting it. He’s neither here nor there. His character, it seems, is all about military competence and detachment. Even when part of the plot involves something that is both very personal and very mysterious to him, he walks around it inspecting it as if from outside. The film does not explore the emotional costs of this professional detachment. It dare not delve into the drudgery of performing professional competence every single day. Cruise has a cutesy bobblehead figure on the dashboard of his flying machine and, like a set of keys for a toddler, this seems to appease him.

Cruise is as slick as his little flying machine. But I bet, like the flying machine, there are lots of mechanics underneath. In order to do the job that he’s doing and, in the story of the film, to deal with a moral dilemma and a matter of trust, he has to wrench apart countless emotions. We don’t see this. Like the flying machine, all we see is a smooth competent exterior. It’s Tom Cruise, looking like Tom Cruise: solid, strong, shiny. Compact, efficient.

Within the story it’s a pretty neat performance of being a man, I thought. Within the story I’d give John Richards or whatever his name is an Oscar for best actor. We’re all doing this every day, of course: we’re all performing different aspects of our identity. In my work I feel I want people outside my company who know me to think that I’m competent and on the track to success. I have to keep up something of a performance to make them think that. It’s exhausting. And it’s far too big for it to be put into perspective by a bobblehead on my dashboard. Or in my case, a Lego car on my desk.

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