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The media ecologist

The truth of an illusion - Tom Cruise in Oblivion

Tom Cruise at the Austrian premiere of Oblivion (2013). EPA/HERBERT NEUBAUER

Take a very ordinary blockbuster of the summer of 2013. Joseph Kosinski, hot from rebooting the Tron franchise, directs Tom Cruise as a clone seeking some lost vestige of humanity (so nothing difficult there then) in Oblivion.

In the pre-title sequence, Jack (Cruise) sets up the situation, as he moves through a house floating in the clouds, before walking out through its immaculate glass doors towards his waiting air transport. So far so ordinary.

Trailer for Oblivion (2013).

But looking behind the scenes with the aid of the special effects journal Cinefex we learn that things are not quite what they seem. Pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to started off believing the set of Oblivion was digital.

It wasn’t.

It was a physical set, surrounded by an immense series of screens on which a battery of high-definition projectors beam footage of clouds shot from the top of Haleakala in Hawaii. On the other hand, most people also thought that when we cut to the exterior, were still looking at the actor Tom Cruise, when in fact we were watching a digital double.

It begins to be a bit ripe when you are tricked into believing a physical set is a digital illusion. And the old guard is a bit grumpy about substituting a digital double for a physical actor. It’s even odder when you consider that both the physical set and the digital one that we see in the exterior shot are both built, in their different physical and digital forms, from the same model designed in architectural software.

So what is so different between digitising a scanned human and physically constructing a digital model?

What is unique about human beings, we like to believe, is that they are unique. Without giving away the plot, this isn’t the case with Cruise’s character. He is in search of an identity, but discovers he is not the only one who has it. He is only one of several iterations of the same source code: a projection of an underlying dataset.

So it is entirely appropriate that the character Jack should appear ambiguously as both human and synthespian. After all, the more we learn about genetic engineering, the NSA and social programming, the more paranoid we get, or ought to.

Popular entertainment sometimes gives us a deeper insight into what it is to be human than a phalanx of government reports.

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