This month, Oblivion rolls into theaters. The ambitious science fiction film features Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko, and Morgan Freeman, and is adapted by writer/director Joseph Kosinski from his own graphic novel of the same name. Time will tell if it may swirl in the shoals and someday wash up onto the beach here on the Island of Misfit Films.
But today’s blog entry has not been transmitted through a wormhole from the future, although we’re totally trying to figure out how to do that. Before there was Oblivion (2013), there was… Oblivion (1994).
The earlier Oblivion is a low-budget space Western entirely unrelated to Cruise’s latest picture. The fun begins when an eyepatch-wearing reptilian outlaw known as Redeye arrives at the frontier outpost of Oblivion with a grudge and promptly guns down the local lawman. Redeye settles in to terrorize the town with his gang. The slain Marshall’s estranged son returns to take up his father’s badge, with the help of his father’s friends and a new sidekick of his own.
The plot is pure formulaic Old West boilerplate, full of as many cliches and stereotypes as it can fit, dressed up with a handful of superficial science fiction details. The opening scene unfolds with the arrival of a spaceship on the outskirts of town, as witnessed by a small alien critter that’s part of the local ecosystem, but there’s no intrinsic need for any of the science fictional elements. This scene, and the essence of the movie overall, could have played out almost identically without them. On this conceptual level, there’s very little imagination at work here.
Where Oblivion shines, though, is in its casting. The individual performances are uneven, but the actors are a fun mixture of faces familiar to viewers from a long list of other projects. Some are instantly recognizable. Others will inspire a watch-along-at-home game of “Hey, where do I know that guy from?”
It’s difficult to identify his face under the make-up and prosthetics he wears as Redeye, but Andrew Divoff has been playing Russians and bad guys, often at the same time, for three decades. You might not know him by name, but you’ve almost certainly seen a few of his numerous TV and film roles. Some fans may remember him best from the title role in the first two installments of the Wishmaster horror film franchise, or as another eyepatch-clad character besides Redeye: Mikhail Bakunin on Lost.
The most prominent member of Redeye’s gang is a whiplash-wielding henchwoman rather obviously named Lash, played by actress/model Musetta Vander. She frequently undertakes other science fiction and fantasy roles, including some notoriously cheesy material such as Mansquito, as well as more prestigious films such as O Brother, Where Are Thou?.
The humorously morbid undertaker Mr. Gaunt is played by Carel Struycken, whose geek-friendly roles include the Giant in Twin Peaks, Mr. Homn in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Lurch in the 1990s Addams Family films.
In a Western, the name “Miss Kitty” would normally hearken back to the long-running Gunsmoke radio/TV series. In Oblivion, it’s a double-duty homage, indirectly evoking not only that but also another icon of the 1960s. This fittingly named Miss Kitty is Julie Newmar, best known as one of the three actresses to play Catwoman opposite Adam West’s Batman.
Mike Genovese is given only brief on-screen time as the soon-to-be-late Marshall Stone, but he’ll likely look vaguely familiar to you in a difficult-to-place way. He’s played lawmen in literally dozens of television series and movies.
Meg Foster plays a cybernetic deputy with the spoonerish name of Stell Barr (Belle Starr being an infamous historical gunwoman who has often been depicted in fiction). Some of her other film credits include They Live, the live-action feature film version of Masters of the Universe, and Rob Zombie’s most recent film The Lords of Salem. She also held a memorable recurring role on television as Hera on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, along with the rest of an extensive career which you can find here.
Singer and actor Isaac Hayes appears briefly in a minor role as an assayer named Buster. Among his other acting turns, sci-fi fans might remember Hayes as the Duke of New York in Escape from New York.
Next to such an intriguing supporting cast, token star Richard Joseph Paul as the avenging son Zack Stone is passable but bland as a generic action hero. Stone’s sidekick Buteo, played by Jimmie F. Skaggs, is also largely a stock character, although he does manage to be the more interesting of the two in many scenes.
The most outstanding reason to sit through Oblivion, though, is George Takei as Doc Valentine. Doc is the town’s intellectual jack-of-all-trades, with a sign on his door that reads “Doc Valentine’s Parlor of Dentistry, Haircuts, Inventions, Robotics, Etc.” He is frequently drunk and often a source of overt comic relief… the latter tending to manifest in the form of Star Trek references, including one instance of Doc inevitably uttering DeForest Kelley’s famous “I’m a doctor, not a…” catchphrase. This sort of thing alone might make Oblivion worth watching for some viewers.
David has also mentioned that the role of Doc Valentine was originally to be filled by the brilliantly eccentric John Astin, who had already played the similarly steampunkish Old West inventor Professor Wickwire in The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. But when Astin became unavailable, David suggested bringing in Takei and convinced him to take the part by pointing out one aspect that particularly appealed to the actor: “When was the last time you played a role that wasn’t specifically written for an Asian?” At that point in Takei’s career, the answer was “1963,” so he was soon persuaded to join.
Compared to other sci-fi Westerns, Oblivion isn’t as effects-laden or action-oriented as Cowboys and Aliens, it doesn’t hint at a richer backstory like Firefly, and it doesn’t have the Bruce Campbell cachet of Brisco County, Jr. But it offers a veritable who’s who of interesting and familiar actors, and it has enough fun moments and gleefully unapologetic scenery-chewing to make it worth viewing if you’re in the mood for some lightweight goofiness.
Jetsam and Derelicts
Oblivion is a product of Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment, also known at times as Full Moon Productions, Full Moon Studios, Full Moon Pictures, Full Moon Features, and various related labels. Full Moon are purveyors of B-movies, mainly in the fields of horror, science fiction, and fantasy, typically marketed directly to home media. If you have any prior experience with Band’s or Full Moon’s body of work, you have an idea what sort of quality Oblivion represents. I say that affectionately, really I do.
Andrew Divoff, minus his Redeye make-up, plays a brief secondary role in one scene as the mathematically addled prospector in line ahead of Zack to see Buster.
One of Buteo’s most prominent scenes culminates in a pun that will induce painful groans in anyone familiar with the Marvel comic book character known as the Man-Thing.
Peter David suffered a stroke last December. For updates on his ongoing recovery and how you can help, visit his official blog.
For those who can’t get enough, nearly all of the cast and crew reunite in Oblivion 2: Backlash (1996), although unless you’re a compulsive completist you won’t be missing much if you skip it.
Scott Tate is a longtime writer and staff member on the Buckaroo Banzai newsletter World Watch One’s Chicago Bureau edition. He also dabbles in Sherlockian scholarship. Some of his earliest memories include watching Star Trek and Star Wars back when they were singular entities instead of franchises. He joins Foes of Reality as a regular contributor, adding his extensive knowledge and research talents in the fields of comic books, science fiction, and pulp stories spanning both print and electronic media. When not delving into the unknown and unknowable, he works in a bookstore and collects books about people who work in bookstores.