Oblivion is a post-apocalyptic science fiction film starring Tom Cruise. Brother and I went to see it last night, and enjoyed ourselves. It's a bit long, and our reactions throughout the film were often along the lines of, 'Hmm, that looks like 2001,' 'this is making me want to watch Wall-E,' 'I've seen Moon too, and Independence Day' and several occasions when one or other of us predicted the next line, plus a moment towards the end where we both ruined the seriousness of the occasion by bursting into giggles at another, clearly deliberate, homage. But overall it was a good night out, pretty engaging considering it's over two hours long and beautifully shot.
Early on in the film, Tom Cruise (his character goes by the everyman name 'Jack', making this the second film this year where Tom Cruise has played someone called Jack) picks up an old book in the rubble of the ruined Earth (this is not a spoiler - the whole of the first few minutes is the biggest info-dump you've ever heard, including the fact that the Earth has been ruined. Do not, as I did, spend too long in the toilet and miss the beginning). The book is Lays of Ancient Rome, a book of Victorian poems by Lord Macaulay (that tells you quite a lot about them) based on ancient Roman legends. Cruise reads and looks thoughtful about part of the most famous poem, the story of Horatius, and particularly the lines,
And how can man die better
than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods.
Macaulay's poems are based on Roman myths and legends from the early Republican era (and a bit of the Roman monarchy). We don't often see this era represented in popular culture - outside of Spartacus and the fall of the Republic, modern writers aren't terribly interested (Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus actually goes out of its way to distance itself from the historical Rome). When popular culture tells stories about Romans, its interest is usually in telling stories about evil, corrupt empires which may or may not be defeated by holier-than-thou Christians. The focus is on orgies, gladiators, mad monarchs and blood sports. Romans are usually the evil Other, and those works that do present the Romans as 'just like us,' like Plebs, are more likely to focus on everyday life and unsung heroes rather than big names or famous stories.
These Lays, though, are based on the stories Romans told about themselves, rather than the stories that we tell about them. Just like most cultures, the Romans told stories of their early history that exemplified the values they treasured the most. In this story, when the rest of the army runs away, one man, Horatius (two others help but they give up after a while), defends a bridge against an invading army. He tells the others to destroy the (only) bridge behind him and holds the invaders off until they've done so, then swims over without even losing any of his weapons (this was given some importance by some of the Roman writers). Bravery, military glory and fighting for Rome are all part of this story. The Romans told lots of stories about their bygone glories (many of them involving war or women killing themselves, or both) that used to be quite popular, certainly up to the Victorian era and beyond, but that have fallen out of fashion in the twentieth century, especially since World War Two, as Rome has become synonymous with evil empires and general badness.
This is about to get very spoilery, so stop reading now if you want to go into the film fresh.
There's a really interesting moment at the end of the film, when Tom Cruise confronts the amusingly-designed alien thing and quotes Macaulay's lines back at it. He starts by saying that these words are from a story about 'a place called Rome' (or something to that effect - the film's too recent for transcripts to be available and I wasn't taking notes!). I found that particularly interesting because the last time I read a reference to a 'place called Rome' in a futuristic dystopia, it was in the third Hunger Games book, Mockingjay, and the reference was not meant to be particularly complimentary to Romans. But here, Rome is held up as an example. We as the audience are asked to identify with the Romans - and not with slaves like Spartacus, or downtrodden schlubs like the Plebs, but with a hero of Roman legend, fighting to preserve Rome. Of course, the reason this works is because the story is a defensive one, set far back in the Republic, so we're not being asked to identify with the Empire but with a smaller, democratic state fighting enemies who've allied with their evil ousted monarch. But I'm betting a lot of the audience don't know all that - they're simply being asked to identify with 'Rome' as a shining example of the bravery of humanity against a nasty, de-humanised alien threat. It's very unusual - and for a Romanist like me, quite nice!
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