CAPSULE: OBLIVION (1994)

DIRECTED BY: Sam Irvin

FEATURING: Richard Joseph Paul, Andrew Divoff, Jimmie F. Skaggs, a parade of C-list all-stars

PLOT:  Many years from now, on a faraway planet, a one-eyed alien villain comes to the frontier outpost of Oblivion to raise a ruckus and murder the sheriff in cold blood.  It’s up to the sheriff’s empathic, violence-shunning son to assume his father’s mantle and save the day.

Still from Oblivion (1994)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A sci-fi/Western mashup has an inherent level of oddity, and the casting is genuinely off-the-wall, but in the end, Oblivion is really just a Western rehash dressed up with some futuristic elements in an effort to make it seem more unusual than it is.

COMMENTS: Years before Cowboys and Aliens would take up the task of blending, um, cowboys and aliens, Oblivion would stake its claim, opening with a magnificent beauty shot of a familiar looking Western landscape, into which zips a nifty flying saucer. Once a snake-skinned alien emerges and kills a creature that looks like the furball from Captain EO just to make a point, we’re well on our way.

The town this villain stalks into sure looks like the Wild West: dusty streets, men in long coats and Stetsons, a stockade in the middle of town. Make no mistake, it’s the future, with such touches as a robot deputy, laser pistols, a rare and powerful substance called draconium which has reduced gold to a pittance, and giant scorpions roaming on the outskirts of town. Oh, and ATMs. ATMs of the Old West.

Exploring one genre through the conventions of another is a time-honored tradition, but that’s not what Oblivion is up to. This movie is really just a Western with science fiction elements pasted on to make it feel different. But having done that, all the clichés are still the same. For example, when the sheriff lays down his poker hand before a showdown, it can only be aces and eights–a dead man’s hand. The fact that you’re seeing the cards on a handheld LCD screen doesn’t reinvigorate the cliché. It merely dresses it up in new clothes. Much of Oblivion is like this: something outwardly strange, but quickly revealing itself to be something quite ordinary.

If the movie’s not as weird as it wants to be, that’s not to say it isn’t odd. It’s just that the bulk of the strangeness seems to have originated in the office of the casting director, where a remarkable ensemble of semi- and not-quite-stars was assembled. The list includes Jackie Swanson, Woody’s girlfriend Kelly on “Cheers,” as a hard-bitten frontier merchant (pulling off the hard-bitten part about as well as you expect of Kelly from “Cheers ); Meg Foster, the love interest from They Live, playing the town’s robot deputy as though channeling Blanche from “The Golden Girls”; Julie Newmar, “Batman”’s longest-serving Catwoman, cast in the role of the town saloonkeeper, named (wait for it) Miss Kitty.  Even Isaac Hayes shows up (although never in the frame with anyone else) doing what seems to be a Jack Palance impression.  Best of all, there’s giant Carel Struycken (in a hilariously tall hat, given his already-tremendous height) as the town’s angel of death, uttering more lines than he probably has in his entire career.  It’s hard to imagine what led the filmmakers to put so much dialogue in the mouth of an actor best known for playing Lurch in The Addams Family.  Struycken is game, even if none of the lines flow easily from his lips.  It’s a cast selected by the “Family Guy” manatees.

Which is why it’s a real tribute to George Takei that he somehow manages to out-overact everyone in the film in his role as a falling-down drunk doctor/robot repairman with a thick Southern drawl.  From his first moment onscreen, when he staggers into frame hoisting a bottle of whiskey and declares, “Jim Beam me up!” it’s clear that he’s playing on a level all his own.  (This is but the first of a host of horrible “Star Trek” puns that, according to IMDb’s trivia section for Oblivion, screenwriter Peter David blames on ad-libs by Takei.  Even if true, this does not let David off the hook for a Schlitz beer joke that is possibly the worst moment in the entire film.)

Oblivion is not without its charms. Given that most of the sci-fi touches are exactly that—touches—the art and set direction from Colin de Rouin and Nicki Roberts is actually quite clever and well-deployed.  Little touches like ceiling fans suspended from towers in the middle of town add a lovely touch of unfamiliarity, and a red-and-blue siren mounted over the door of a traditional wooden sheriff’s office is amusing. Kudos, too, to composer Pino Donaggio, whose score is respectful of the Western genre, rather than pillaging it.

Ultimately, however, nothing much happens in Oblivion.  After Redeye—the only alien in Oblivion, by the way, save for a couple creations from the creature shop—kills the sheriff, his goals as conqueror are not terribly clear, and he’s in no hurry to achieve them.  He and his gang vandalize the general store, torture the hero’s native sidekick, and just generally make a nuisance of themselves.  Once our hero finally decides to saddle up and pursue the miscreants, there’s only a brief battle before Redeye ends up in the pincers of the night scorps, and the audience is treated to the most shocking sight in the entire film: a title card reading “To Be Continued.”  So little story, and they still couldn’t be bothered to finish it in one film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…for all that it lacks it makes up for with its general ridiculousness. This is a movie I would put on if I were trying to show someone just how insane low budget movie-making had become during the early part of the nineties.”–Joshua Samford, Varied Celluloid (DVD)

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