(Once upon a time, friend of the program Matt Moore wrote a wonderful post about why the Oklahoma City Thunder fell short against the San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs last year. He looked at everything: the departure of James Harden; the perpetually woebegone Scott Brooks; the injury to Serge Ibaka. All of it. And what he found is that none of that was really to blame, although each thing certainly plays its part in ways. At the bottom of all of it, the Spurs were just better. So just take that article and in place of the Thunder — a team with one of the two best players in the league, two of the top 15 or 20 and probably three of the top 40, plus many years and many playoff runs together — and substitute a Wolves team whose ten available players together have played 297 minutes (or roughly six games) more than Tim Duncan alone. They played the Spurs tonight and lost, badly. To quote Gregg Popovich from after the game, “It wasn’t a fair fight.” Wiggins got aggressive and good in the third quarter, Bennett had a career high with 20 and several strong dunks. That’s my recap.)
Earlier today I needed a break from basketball-related activities. This is maybe something that sets me apart from your real “hoops junkies,” which I am definitely not. I am not a “cannot get enough of basketball” person. I can get enough. So I just wanted to dial up a movie on HBO GO and watch it, maybe take a little nap along the way.
I didn’t want something heavy, but I also didn’t want something completely brainless, so I settled on the Tom Cruise sci-fi movie “Oblivion.” It seemed vaguely familiar, although as it turned out, I watched it for half an hour before realizing that it wasn’t “Edge of Tomorrow,” which came out more recently.
I’m not going to be able to entirely avoid spoilers here, but this is what I found most interesting about the film, and also a lot of sci-fi films: the way it deals with memory. For comparison, let’s talk for a minute about “Inception.”
In “Inception,” Dominick Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) has a wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), except the Mal we get to know in the movie is not his actual wife, but rather his mental projection of her. (This all makes total sense if you’ve seen the movie and if you haven’t, what are you doing? Go see it. It’s flawed but very watchable.) At one point, Cobb talks about how she can feel so real to him, but he knows it’s not her, that some fundamental part of her is missing.
This I find interesting because of the way it plays on a particularly seductive aspect of memory and knowing: the gap between the way we think of someone and who they “really” are is constant, but almost insignificant, if you think about it. There’s a way a person you know exists to you and so long as that conforms reasonably well with the way they exist in the world, everything’s cool. When that’s upended — for example, in a breakup, where this person you thought you knew suddenly seems so different — it’s very disruptive precisely because it gets at this foundational mirage of human interaction. But once the storm has passed — the breakup or whatever — the other person’s image kind of settles back down inside you. They go on with their lives but you keep carrying this realer-than-real sense of them with you.
You see this played with in a variety of ways in science fiction, especially once you involve things like cloning or resurrection through scientific means. In most cases — in my unscientific opinion — the attempt to bring back or duplicate a person usually results in that kind of gap I talked about before. “He looks like my husband but … something’s off.” “You’re not the woman I married.” And so on. One of science fiction’s real strengths is its ability to use things like cloning to make physical and vivid some of the more internal, existential crises like that emotional disconnect that can happen in a breakup.
“Oblivion” does this, but it goes the other way, cuts against the grain. When we discover [SPOILER ALERT] that the Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) we’ve been following throughout the film is not the original Jack Harper (no relation to our own Zach Harper, by the way) but in fact one of millions of clones, the revelation is brought on by the sudden appearance of his wife, Julia Rusakova Harper (Olga Kurylenko). When the chain of events her arrival sets off culminates in two Jacks fighting each other, I expected Julia to freak out, to go down the path of saying, “You’re not my husband.”
But she didn’t.
The movie had opened with Jack explaining a dream so real it felt like a memory — a dream about being on top of the Empire State Building with a woman — even though his memory had been wiped five years prior. Julia reawakens that memory in him, fleshes it out until he can remember it all. As he begins to doubt himself in the wake of discovering his double, Julia says something to the effect of, “All those memories you have: that’s all you are.” I’m probably misquoting that, but that’s the essence of what she’s saying: there is no ineffable other thing to a person. Their memories make them who they are and if they have those memories they are that person.
Each of these ways of interpreting memory seems viable to me, and again, that’s one of the great things about science fiction because it allows you to toy with these ideas, to tease them out and see what turning them from abstractions into concrete things does to them.
Are we only the sum of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves? Or is there enough of a gap between those stories and what happened to fit in something else, some animating force that’s doing the telling but is not subject to it somehow? Sometimes it feels like one and sometimes like the other.