April was a busy month for me. So, instead of sneaking into an Oblivion showing after watching a movie I actually wanted to see, I caught up on this year’s Scientology hit late. Two things intrigued me in the first place: the aesthetics on display in the trailer, and the question of just how much Scientology had gotten packed into the film. I know, not every movie with Tom Cruise in it is gonna be Scientologist propaganda, but the sci-fi setting really left me (and most of the entertainment world) no choice.
Everyone knows about Tom Cruise. Maybe they don’t know the details, but it’s well-known that he’s a huge, huge icon for Scientology and one of its most beneficiary members. He famously scared Oprah. Everyone knows he’s pretty nuts. So when he’s in a new movie set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, fighting aliens to preserve mankind, there’s gonna be some speculation. These parts of the film don’t actually connect very strongly to the sci-fi aspects of the Scientology story (AKA Incident II, OT III, or The Wall of Fire). They bear a passing resemblance, but only because Incident II is such parodical sci-fi vomit that you could draw parallels to most stories about aliens. However, this doesn’t mean Oblivion isn’t a scientologist movie.
Before I get into it, Oblivion is pretty awesome. I recommend it. The design is a nice take on the sleek, ultra-white Apple aesthetic that’s become rather common in sci-fi, set against a very constructed overgrown Earth (the film shows many American landmarks, such as the Empire State Building, standing completely on their own with none of the clutter that would normally be there). It’s beautifully shot, just looks and feels really nice. The effects are solid, Tom Cruise gets to ham it up, along with Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister [Incest Knight]). Olga Kurylenko and her lips are there, too. M83 scores the film, which is perfect. The story has a LOST-like tendency to throw crazy twists at you, and it kept me babbling guesses throughout as to what was going on (I was right for the most part, but it was still a lot of fun). I was not expecting this movie to be so enjoyable.
Tom Cruise’s character, along with a female partner (and lover) operates a lone station on an abandoned Earth, monitoring the machinery that’s pulling resources off the planet to maintain a human colony on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. He has haunting dreams about a mysterious woman, and, as an unauthorized hobby, keeps a little man-cabin by a forested lakeside. Then, the mysterious woman crash-lands on Earth and things start getting really weird.
When you take an E-Meter test in the subway station, the auditor is monitoring your body’s electrical resistance, which Scientologists claim fluctuates under the influence of “engrams,” powerful negative memories or images. Engrams are a physical form of memory (hence their ability to disrupt the body’s electrical fields), though the definition has been clarified to explain that they are not genetic. Engrams affect not only the e-meter, but an individual’s life, emotions, and future. They’re essentially crippling traumas.
A thetan is basically a soul, eternal and commutative. After the death of a body, the thetan is sent to Venus where it is re-educated, told lies about its past and future, and sent back to Earth to find a new body. A “body thetan” is actually similar to an engram. Supposedly the soul of an alien killed in a genocide carried out by Lord Xenu, these too occupy the bodies of humans, negatively affecting people’s lives. Scientology’s methods aim to excise these body thetans and help the personal thetan reach its full potential.
What Tom Cruise discovers is that the woman is his wife. From old Earth, before it was destroyed. The dreams were not dreams at all, but memories. And they’ve been influencing him to build the cabin, as he reveals when he gives a sappy speech about how he and his wife had planned to live in such a place. This is already crazy, but listen to what happens next. He passes through the “Radiation barrier,” a “Wall of Fire,” if you will, and finds himself. He is one of thousands or millions of clones of the original, being used by the aliens to finish up their genocide of humanity. He is occupied by the thetan of his former self, which has passed on its physical engrams to make him carry out the same romantic foolishness (his fellow clone’s partner is just as exasperated as his own with his date plans to visit the surface) as he did when he was only one person.
It’s easy, though overly simple, to say Oblivion doesn’t promote Scientology. Like the Scientology story, this reading doesn’t connect fully. It’s not a perfect equivalence. But it doesn’t have to be.
While engrams in Scientology are generally negative, and Jack’s memories are generally positive, Oblivion still carries as a plot point physical memories that can be passed down. More pertinently, Tom Cruise’s soul’s memories are suppressed by the aliens to leave him a blank slate that can carry out his evil mission (you know, like what Scientology says will happen to your soul when you die). Thetans represent a single soul, as opposed to millions of Tom Cruises, but what we can take away from the movie is that souls are commutable (this is also suggested in the pool scene where Vika’s face briefly becomes Julia’s). The film constructs a world, like The Matrix, where human life is a facade, an illusion, for someone else’s benefit. These concepts are very important to the foundations of Scientology, and the movie is absolutely pushing them.
This isn’t some sleazy attempt to get people to join Scientology. It’s about exposure and cultural literacy. Think about the Christ figure. This is a common, common trope, seen all over everywhere and drilling into our minds the concept of a pure, good man who suffers greatly for doing what he believes in. Often, the man is killed and comes back to life somehow. Christianity is ingrained into Western culture, so the prevalence of this concept makes sense. The prevalence of the concept also strengthens Christianity. The power of the media is normalizing ideas and getting people accustomed to certain material, and it benefits the religion for people to be used to the idea of a hero coming back because of his greatness, goodness, purity, etc. The positive feelings they carry from consuming such media hop over and can make them more receptive to the mythology.
Oblivion does the same thing with Scientologist ideas. It may not be out-and-out propaganda — after all, not everyone who uses the Christ figure trope is Christian or even likes Christianity. But it reinforces ideas about eternal wandering souls, about memories that have a physical property, things that may come up in a “free stress test” or curious first church attendance. Maybe Tom Cruise was just really impressed by the script. He’s allowed to have opinions and stuff, having paid a huge amount of money to the church. But someone like him, who’s been authorized OT III (knowing stuff about OT III before you’ve earned the right from the church can blow your mind and kill you, oopsie), would recognize the similarities here.
I went into Oblivion trying to find evidence of Scientology’s influence on the film. That seems in pretty short supply. This search, though, made me think about the influence of film as a whole. Intentionally or not, Oblivion passively supports the ideology and beliefs of Scientology. It especially helps that it’s so charming in so many ways, making it more likely for people like me to recommend it, and for the larger culture to accept concepts like engrams and thetans. You guys should check it out!
Originally, I wanted to compare Oblivion and After Earth, in regard to their Scientologist agendas (it’s heavily speculated that Will Smith and his family are Scientologists). But After Earth was so bad and boring and lame and stupid that I couldn’t focus and didn’t feel I paid enough attention to really write about it. Don’t see After Earth. See Oblivion.