It’s no surprise that apocalypse stories fit the industrial logic of blockbusters. Hollywood screenwriter Damon Lindelof said recently, “Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world.” While apocalyptic dramas make for great cinematic spectacle, they reliably trade on survival narratives, a form produced elsewhere on smaller budgets. Along with summer’s apocalyptic survival movies, there is also a spate of survival-centered reality TV. How are films like After Earth and Oblivion related to shows like Dual Survival, Extreme Survival Alaska, or Man Woman Wild? Well, what is After Earth but a high concept (father & son) jungle-chase survival narrative? Discovery’s Dual Survival also centers on two intrepid fellows negotiating various (less novel) survival scenarios.
Les Stroud (Survivorman) suggests that "a decade of cataclysmic events" explains the (survival) genre's recent success. Environmental panic. Or, in an economic moment when many viewers are less empowered to achieve adequate “marketplace” masculinity (wealth/status), do masculine primitive ideals offer a kind of ideological antidote? From a belief that (over)civilization may obscure the “natural,” original, or "true" human, attenuating survival instincts which -in the final analysis –are all one really needs? Whether it’s the fate of the species or just one hero, big screen or small, don't survival narratives (by design) serve up demonstrations of certain masculine ideals such as bravery, self-sacrifice, physical prowess, and survival skills? When civilization is threatened, left behind, or otherwise subtracted, men (and infrequently women, like Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games) get to show the stuff that really matters, often being symbolically re-born.
Zizek might say of Oblivion, as he did Children of Men, that it offers a “diagnosis of the ideological despair of late capitalism-–of a society without history.” Human civilization/history is certainly buried in Oblivion, literally, with its submerged landmarks, but also personally, in Jack Harper’s (Tech-49’s) subconscious. Jack’s survival, and humanity’s promise for re-birth, is configured through a spatial and symbolic narrative tension between the falsity of his high-tech, synthetic existence, and the secret nature retreat on earth where he re-collects fragments of civilization, and himself. Between the sanitized sky-dwelling, un-rooted from earth, and the wilderness shanty where he feels most human (and talks to fish). In the end, Jack must self-sacrifice to save the world –but only a false self, the product of a de-humanizing civilization. Oblivion reminds us that "civilization" and its "others" are flexible constructs.