Oblivion

There are a multitude of reasons given by science fiction writers for an alien invasion. In the past, it was most always due to overcrowding, which would be ridiculous nowadays with Earth’s rising population. Then, by the ’70s, the popular theme was ecological disasters: the homeworld got used up, forcing aliens to find another home. The current trend suggests the target to be Earth’s resources, which mirrors pertinent issues.

Oblivion, directed by Joseph Kosinski, takes place sixty years after an alien attack destroyed Earth’s moon, causing chaotic upheavals that have left this planet bleak and barren. Except for rising towers that were built to process saltwater into energy, the only thing visible to the horizon are drones which from time to time must be maintained by a cleanup couple, Jack (Tom Cruise) and Vika (Andrea Rosenborough). Everyone that was left has relocated offworld to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.

So far, so good, especially since Wall-E is referenced throughout this first half-hour, right down to Jack nurturing a sprouted plant that, when presented to Vika, is immediately disposed of! As the film progresses, there are other borrowed images from The Lion King, Disney’s Tarzan as well as John W. Campbell’s Night, where machines maintain what’s left of Earth.

Science fiction that emphasizes technology, and its abuse, has always fascinated me more than any outer or “inner” space story. And by technology, I mean conceivable terrestrial objects that are meant to improve the state of humans, whether medical or transportational or architectural. Which explains the appeal of the art of Vincent Di Fate – his well-lit, operational space cityscapes and linear towers are a profound influence on Oblivion, what with Jack’s phallic ship, the Charles Deaton-designed cliff-house and floating, wedge-like extractors.

Oblivion is good-looking science fiction, but plot-wise it’s piecemeal. But then again, Battlestar Galactica owes its very gestation to Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky! The post-catastrophic Earth and off-world authoritarian command center that is so out of touch with the surface yet has the final say in all things Earth-related – it’s pure mid-century science fiction. And that’s my main point. Instead of rehashing westerns as parables in space, i.e. Avatar, rather than absconding with H.G. Wells’ ideas, Oblivion may indeed by guilty of borrowing various themes but from an untapped source: 1960s science fiction novels. Until now, that genre has been ignored.

I might go as far as to say that its look is as profound as 2001 was in 1968 or Blade Runner from 1982. Can you name another science fiction movie in the last 30 years that has acknowledged our present but shows human technological advances that have built upon our achievements? The usual course of action is to dismiss outright our time as parody. Oblivion makes a point of referencing the Empire State Building, football stadiums, hell the movie takes place in 2077 after a sixty-year war, which means it began in 2017!

The eye for detail is phenomenal. Using Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” not only shows Jack to be the bearer of our recent past, but it refers to a philosophic palate: absolutes in black & white.

And the movie is pro-nuke! There’s a reason nukes exist and Kosinski uses them for that reason. Emblematic of the age of ’60s science fiction, nuclear power has both disastrous and positive implications.

Cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who also was responsible for the look of Tron: Legacy, has properly set the future against that “whiter” shade of pale, just as John Alton captures that shadowy noir ’40s mystique!

Many science fiction stories hinge on one, maybe two, realizations. This one has at least three, as Jack questions his mission, his marriage and his dreams. Oblivion may prove to be a much-needed third wind for a genre that has surrendered to wizards and elves.

[PG-13]