Also, spoilers. SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, I’m gonna go ahead and ruin everything forever, so watch it before you read this post.
I could and will in the future talk about active characters, which I find the most important reason why Oblivion is a good movie, but frankly I need to see it again to talk really coherently about that, and it just went out of the theater down the street in favor of Star Trek, so instead I will talk about symbolic props.
I used to be very, very afraid of using symbolic props. I thought they’d just be cheesy. It felt like Trying to Make my Writing Meaningful, which seems like it would be overblown and silly.
But no, symbolic props and I have totally made up and stuff. By a “symbolic prop,” I mean an object that stands for a character want or larger concept. Bonus points if it stands for different things at different times during the story. Symbolic props are perhaps the most powerful in film and comics, because you can insert a visual without having to talk about it at length or draw special attention to it.
So for real now, spoilers.
Symbolic Props in Oblivion
Jack has a little plant he’s nurtured in a can. There’s a scene of him sitting on a cliff, looking down at these giant water-sucking machines that the droids protect, machines that are sucking the oceans away, the source of life on earth. Jack waters his little plant with a sterile plastic pouch of water. Later, he tries to give the plant to Vic, who drops it over the side of the house-on-a-pole because she’s desperate to keep everything under control and follow the rules until they’re supposedly joining the others in two weeks. Anything from the outside is considered “dirty,” possibly irradiated, and certainly Not Allowed. It’s a moment that made my heart drop; emotionally effective because the plant represents both characters’ wants so well.
In general, water plays a really interesting role in this film. While it’s not a “prop” per se, it does a lot. It’s the resource the Tet is sucking off the planet. It’s the lake by Jack’s cabin contrasted to the rest of the world. It’s the swimming pool that’s at the house, wherein Jack has dreams of his forgotten wife. The water of the pool has become the water of his subconscious.
Jack takes out his Yankee’s cap as soon as he gets down on earth’s surface. It represents his fascination with Old Earth culture; it also very literally says he puts on a different hat when he’s on Earth’s surface. He’s able to visualize the old earth ball game when he has the hat on. Later he stows his hat at his cabin retreat when he goes off to see the Tet, knowing he’ll never be back.
The book Jack takes from the New York Library represents his curiosity, as well as the heart of his convictions. The lines he reads in the book, the lines that prompt him to take the book with him, are the same lines that he repeats in the very face of the alien menace: “And how can man die better than facing fearful odds, For the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods.” (This same line comes up in an episode of Doctor Who when the Doctor is looking a giant evil thing what may or may not be Satan in the face. Just saying.) The point is in terms of writing: It’s not just that Jack memorizes that quote, it’s that he has a relationship with the book, which is a physical manifestation of that idea/quote.
This is the opening image of the film; Old New York as seen from the top of the Empire State Building. Not only is the viewer symbolic of the old world, but it’s a symbol for Jack’s proposal to Julia. The exact spot where he proposed to her years ago is the (now ruined) spot where “he” asks her: “Who are you?” and she reveals that she’s his wife.
The wad of gum
Jack uses a wad of gum to fix Droid 166. At that point in time, the gum represents the lack of resources from the Tet as well as Jack’s ingenuity. Later, Jack rips out the “battery” of Droid 166 because he remembers that it’s just stuck in there with a wad of gum.
Droids are very slick, like all of the technology we see. (The alien invasion: brought to you by Apple.) At the beginning of the film, we’re confronted with the danger of the droids as well as their function: the droid is about to blow up a dog, an obvious innocent. Jack steps in the way, using his magical powers of voice recognition: “Jack Harper, tech 49.” He will do the same thing to protect Julia from a droid later. Likewise, the dog scene hints at the destructive power of the droids that will come ’round later. By the end of the movie, droids have moved from being a vague nuisance and a responsibility to a fearsome enemy.