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Oblivion: Memory and identity in a broken world

Universal Pictures

Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion is a visually gorgeous science fiction film with a story that pays homage to those that have come before along with a few good twists of its own. I get why a large chunk of critics didn't like it, but I found Oblivion satisfying, especially in its exploration of memory and identity—and the roles those play in restoring a broken world.

Set in 2077, Earth is in ruins 60 years after an alien attack. Humans won the war but left the planet to start anew on a colony on Titan. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his partner Victoria Olsen (Andrea Riseborough) are two of the few humans left on the planet to manage and secure Earth’s remaining resources for the colony. They take orders from a colossal space station, the Tet, which carried humanity to Titan, and have two weeks left before they too can join the rest of humanity on Titan.

Both Jack and Victoria had their memories wiped before their assignment in order to protect information about humanity from any remaining aliens who might capture and interrogate them. The problem is that Jack is having dreams and memories from before the war—a time period in which he could not have lived. He’s nagged by questions and doubts and a longing he doesn’t understand. When Jack rescues a woman (Olga Kurylenko) from a downed space ship, he recognizes her as the woman he dreams about. Without revealing too much, Jack and Victoria begin to realize that things may not be what they seem—and they may not be who they think they are.

But how they respond to all this is very different. For one, embracing memory and true identity (albeit it complex) restores meaning and purpose and leads to risky and even sacrificial acts of love. For the other, however, the cost of accepting memories and true identity means losing something dear. Fear of that loss keeps them from embracing the truth—and that, as in our own world, does not bode well.
The restoration and acceptance of identity and purpose has a profound effect on the earth and humanity in this film—and the role of love, both being loved and loving others, is a catalyst in that restoration.
I love this story’s themes of love, memory and identity in restoring a world that isn’t as it should be because it resonates with so much of our own Story.

Films with broken worlds resonate with me because it reminds me that I, too, live in a world in ruins. Something isn’t right; the world isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. It is a broken version of a world yet to be whole. At one point, Jack reflects, “Is it possible to miss a place you've never been, to mourn a time you've never lived?” His words give voice to my own longing.

I also love how Jack’s restoration of identity is inexorably found within the context of and connected to a larger story, one bigger than himself, one that compels him to work sacrificially with others to free and restore his world.

I think of our own Story like that. In Scripture, we discover a Story that makes sense of this world, how it came to be, why it is the way it is—and who we are. And we discover One who’s relentlessly and sacrificially working to free his creation and us so we can be the people we are created, called and enabled to be. It is a Story that compels me to join in, to risky and sacrificial acts with others in the work of restoring this broken world.

I also appreciated how love—the kind that will put the best interest of another above oneself—is at the root of Jack’s identity. If we have souls,” says Jack, “they're made of the love we share. Undimmed by time, unbound by death.” Even stripped of his memories, love remains; it stirs and calls him to remember who he is and the story of which he is a part.

I find love at the core of our own Story. It is love that beckons us to embrace and accept our true identity. We discover the One who, as Henry Nouwen puts it, “loves us with an unconditional love and desires our love, free from all fear, in return.” We discover what we were made for—to love God and others—and the kind of world we were created for.

And I love how restoration of identity is connected to others in this film. Jack needed help in his journey—those who knew and accepted him, flaws and all. So do I. “When our memories fail,” writes Lauren Winner in Mudhouse Sabbath, “it is our community that can tell us who we are… of our identity in Christ.”

And remembering a story together again propels us into the larger Story. “As Kathleen Fischer has explained,” says Winner, “faith communities add ‘an essential dimension to our remembering. In faith we not only gather our memories; we recollect our lives before God. Our stories then take on . . . meaning as a part of a larger story that redeems and embraces them.’”


 I found it interesting that just as others play key roles in helping restore memory and identity in Oblivion, isolation keeps people from that. Jack and Victoria’s home sits on a tower above the ruins of New York and they are tasked with a purpose and worldview that is bent on separating them from the earth and the rest of humanity. When Jack brings Victoria a flower, she immediately tosses it over the side, afraid of toxins. She refuses to visit the planet below because it threatens the version of reality she so desperately wants to hold on to.

That speaks to and confronts my own life in our own world. I live in an urban suburb, which can be like a bunch of tiny islands isolated from nature and creation, neighbors, and the ruins of the world. Entering into the ruins of the world can be uncomfortable and even threatening—but always, it breaks through illusions and false stories and confronts me with the real world and Story in which I live. It reminds me of who I am.

These themes aren’t strangers to sci-fi. From classics like The Matrix to more current stories like Once Upon a Time, discovering identity plays an important part in how people perceive the world and their purpose. Restoration of memory doesn’t take place in isolation but in relationship with others. And embracing true identity has profound effects on broken worlds.

Stories like these help me remember who I am and the Story in which I live. And that brings God-talk into these open spaces.