Science fiction is a problematic genre.
I’m not saying I don’t like sci-fi, mind you. I like just about any movie that’s full of spaceships and laser guns and whatnot. I’m really looking forward to Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, due out later this year.
But here’s the problem with sci-fi: it’s really, really broad.
Science fiction is a genre that encompasses pretty much anything. Alien invasions, futuristic dystopias, time travel, superheroes, space colonization, alternate dimensions, and so much more can all be said to fall under the category of science fiction. It is a genre in which anything goes and the farthest reaches of the universe are never out of bounds. The possibilities sci-fi presents are essentially infinite.
But, like so many things in life, the limits of science fiction are entirely human. The possibilities of the genre may be huge, but human thinking is oh-so-limited. There are only so many different types of stories we can come up with. Therefore, sci-fi stories often feel derivative, in spite of the enormous potential for variety the genre offers.
Such is the case with Oblivion, the Tom Cruise-starring sci-fi actioner that opened last Friday. I saw it because I like sci-fi movies, I had a theater gift card, and say what you will about Tom Cruise and some of his strange public behavior, he’s a pretty damn good actor and I’ve enjoyed quite a few of his movies in the past. I liked Minority Report, War of the Worlds, the Mission Impossible movies, and I especially liked Michael Mann’s brilliant Collateral, which is easily on the list of my top 10-15 favorite movies. Heck, throw Tropic Thunder in there too. It’s easy to forget he’s even in that movie because he’s so unrecognizable.
But I digress. In Oblivion, Cruise plays Jack Harper, a sort of post-apocalyptic repairman (“The Postapocalyptic Repairmen” would be a good name for a rock band). He wanders the ruined earth in a snazzy little flying craft with an Elvis bobblehead on the dashboard (do futuristic flying machines even have dashboards?) repairing these nasty little defense drones that…wait, wait, I’m not explaining this very well. Let’s start over.
As Cruise explains in his opening narration, at some point in the near future Earth is attacked by aliens called Scavengers, or Scavs for short, that I think came out of the moon? I forget exactly, but the moon was destroyed, which really screwed up the ecosystem here on Earth. Mankind fought off the alien invasion but much of the planet was destroyed and rendered uninhabitable in the process. Most of the remains of humanity now live on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. Our hero Jack Harper and his communications officer/lover Victoria (played by Andrea Riseborough in probably the movie’s best performance) live in a snazzy little floating apartment-thingie suspended above the Earth’s surface Jetsons-style.
There are these massive generator-things that extract Earth’s remaining resources, mostly water, and are protected by these security drones, which fly around and kill things. It is Jack and Victoria’s job to keep these drones running. There is a massive space station called the Tet (short for tetrahedron apparently) that houses the rest of humanity that isn’t on the Titan colony. Jack and Victoria keep in touch with their commander Sally stationed on the Tet, and have two weeks left on their tour of duty before they are allowed to leave and go hang out with the rest of humanity. It’s been five years since a mandatory security wipe that erased Jack’s and Victoria’s memories for security purposes. Jack, however, is still haunted by memories of himself with an unknown woman (played by Bond girl Olga Kurylenko) on the observation deck of the Empire State Building prior to the damn killjoy aliens invading and ruining everything.
Everything is going along fine until one day when one of the security drones goes missing. Jack’s efforts to find it lead to some revelations about his world, and the inevitable discovery that Everything Is Not As It Seems. Also Morgan Freeman shows up. That’s all I’m going to say about the plot since Oblivion just came out a couple days ago and I don’t want to ruin the plot twists for those who still want to see it. As usual, if you really want those sweet, sweet spoilers you can go to Wikipedia.
Savvy sci-fi fans will probably pick up on a lot of elements of other sci-fi movies from Oblivion. Jack and Victoria’s lonely existence and the (almost) empty, ruined world they inhabit is very reminiscent of Pixar’s Wall-E. Jack even has a hidden little cabin where he keeps souvenirs of civilization he has collected, just like that lovable little robot Wall-E had in his trailer. Jack and Victoria’s floating space-pad is extremely reminiscent of the Jetsons and their floating space-cities, or whatever those were supposed to be (it’s been a really long time since I watched The Jetsons, cut me some slack). The memory-wipe thing is very Total Recall-esque, and there’s even a shot of the torch from the Statue of Liberty sticking out of the ground (think Planet of the Apes). I’m sure there are plenty more that I’m missing but those are the ones I remember off the top of my head.
Some would call these things an homage to previous sci-fi films, some would call them a rip-off. I fall somewhere in between. It is hard to be original these days, and it is hard not to be reminded of other films while watching Oblivion. But I don’t really mind being reminded of other films, as long as the films I’m being reminded of are good ones.
This is what I was talking about earlier with regards to the problem of science fiction as a genre. Most things have been done before and it is hard to come up with something truly and completely original, but what people do not seem to realize is that that does not necessarily mean that everything is a rip-off of something else (For my money, three of the most original sci-fi movies of recent years are Inception, Looper, and District 9). When two movies come out around the same time that seem even remotely similar, people will inevitably call one a rip-off of the other. Just because people have similar ideas around the same time doesn’t mean they’re ripping each other off. Grow up, people.
If it wasn’t already apparent, it really annoys me when people jump all over something and call it derivative or a rip-off without giving it a chance, as many people seem to have done with Oblivion. Sure, it is reminiscent of other classic sci-fi movies, and yes, some of the plot twists aren’t too surprising, but I still really liked Oblivion. It was well-made, well-acted, and gorgeous to look at. It also had a hell of a lot more brains and heart than plenty of other big-budget blockbusters. The Transformers movies have made billions despite having no heart at all (aside from the first one perhaps). If you like sci-fi movies you will probably be able to find something to like in Oblivion. I did. It is kind of like Wall-E with more explosions, but if that sounds good to you then you’ll probably enjoy it.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.