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OBLIVION (1994)

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“Now that the Marshall’s dead, that cyborg deputy of his is no problem, as long as we have our stash of draconium. We’re gunna show the good people of Oblivion the great advantages of a town run by Redeye!”

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Director: Sam Irvin
Starring: Richard Joseph Paul, Andrew Divoff, Jimmie F. Skaggs, Carel Struycken, Jackie Swanson, Musetta Vander, Meg Foster, Frank Roman, Irwin Keyes, Jeff Moldovan, Mike Genovese, Julie Newmar, George Takei, Isaac Hayes
Screenplay: Peter David, based upon a story by Charles Band, Mark Goldstein, John Rheaume and Greg Suddeth

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Synopsis:  On a distant planet, a stranger – a reptilian figure with a red eye-patch – emerges from a spaceship and heads towards the small frontier town of Oblivion, pausing by the settlement’s welcome sign to reduce the population figure by one…. The people of Oblivion flee, panic-stricken, as the local undertaker, Mr Gaunt (Carel Struycken), emerges from his funeral parlour and heads for the saloon. Inside, although the customers react with terror to his appearance, Gaunt is greeted kindly by the saloon’s proprietor, Miss Kitty (Julie Newmar). He then approaches Marshall James Stone (Mike Genovese), who is playing cards…. Outside, the stranger, Redeye (Andrew Divoff), strides down the main street of Oblivion; as he passes, the town’s electricity goes haywire. Redeye stops outside the saloon and buries a glowing blue object. Then he calls Stone out for a fight, accusing him of cowardice if he refuses. Miss Kitty tries to talk Stone out of fighting, but the Marshall unconcernedly presses his badge, which lights up, and goes outside. Redeye tells the Marshall to stop where he is, which he does – directly over the buried object. Unnoticed by its owner, Stone’s badge flickers off. Smirking “Lights out, Marshall!”, Redeye draws and fires – and the fatally wounded Stone falls back into the practiced arms of Mr Gaunt. Stone’s deputy, a cyborg named Stell Barr (Meg Foster), tries to take action, but the buried object shorts her circuitry and she collapses, helpless. Redeye takes the Marshall’s badge and grinds it under his heel before gathering his gang and announcing that thanks to the draconium they “found”, Oblivion is now theirs…. Out in the badlands, a lone prospector, Zack Stone (Richard Joseph Paul), bemoans the fact that he can find nothing but gold. Suddenly he freezes, overcome by a frightening sensation…. Nearby, a native who has been staked to the ground cries out in terror as he is menaced by a juvenile night scorp. Shots ring out, and the creature dies. Zack releases the native, Buteo (Jimmie F. Skaggs), who announces bitterly that he has nothing to live for anyway – and that he must bury his massacred family…. In Oblivion, Doc Valentine (George Takei) examines what’s left of the Marshall’s badge – before diving into a bottle…. Redeye explains to his gang his plans for seizing power. He orders Spanner (Jeff Moldovan) and Bork (Irwin Keyes) to win over the town with a mixture of charm and muscle, and sends Wormhole (Frank Roman) out to the surrounding townships and cantinas to recruit more followers. Redeye himself, meanwhile, retires to the bedroom with his moll, Lash (Musetta Vander). As they make camp for the night, Zack tries to dissuade Buteo from avenging his family, arguing that it would be futile act. Suddenly, the two are joined by Gaunt, who tells Zack of his father’s death. Back in Oblivion, Doc Valentine staggers drunkenly into the general store run by the young widow, Mattie Chase (Jackie Swanson), demanding more booze and pulling a gun on her when she refuses to give it to him. Mattie assures the Doc that Stone’s death was purely due to Redeye’s draconium, not the failure of the force-field badge that he designed, and the Doc collapses in tears. Zack, Buteo and Gaunt arrive at a small, disreputable cantina, where Zack plans to cash in his draconium. At the same cantina, Wormhole is recruiting the locals to Redeye’s cause. Zack tells Buteo that he now has almost enough money to buy passage off the planet. Buteo points out that he would have been paid better in Oblivion, and Zack reveals that he left town in disgrace after a falling out with his father. Wormhole begins abusing Zack, trying to taunt him into a fight, but Zack says only that he “doesn’t want to hurt anyone”. The disgusted Buteo tries to stir him into action but cannot. Suddenly, Buteo is hit from behind, and the cantina explodes into an all-in fist-fight….

Comments:  First the bad news. This was actually my second attempt to get through Oblivion. The first time around I gave up in disgust after about five minutes, when I realised that this was one of all too many films guilty of trying to derive “humour” from casting after-stardom TV actors in demeaning roles that seem designed only to remind people that, yes, they used to be big TV stars and look how far they’ve fallen, ha ha. Oblivion has barely started before we are given a painfully clear indication of the kind of role that has been written for poor Julie Newmar. Myself, I would have thought that calling her character “Miss Kitty” (she runs the local “cat-house”, naturally) was perfectly sufficient; but no. To my absolute horror, it was soon borne upon me that every time she opened her mouth to speak, she would also be compelled to meow, hiss and/or spit. GET IT?? GET IT?? Nor is Ms Newmar the film’s only victim. As the town’s drunken doctor, Oblivion also features George Takei, whose dialogue consists of – boy, I bet you couldn’t guess this one in a million years! – Star Trek references. No, really!! (Takei’s opening line? “Jim, beam me up!” – spoken while peering into an empty bourbon bottle.) However – while this kind of thing makes me cringe with embarrassment, producers keep doing it, so I suppose there are people out there who find it entertaining; although I couldn’t begin to guess who they might be. Probably the same people I’ve had in some of my film classes, who feel compelled to shriek with laughter if they happen to catch a glimpse of a later television star in an early film bit part. Beats the hell out of me.

Anyway – to get back to the point, finally – you can imagine how surprised I was, when I obliged myself to sit down and watch Oblivion for this Roundtable, to discover that I actually quite liked it….

The western is a genre that lends itself to parody and satire, simply because of the very deep entrenchment of its conventions. In this, it mostly closely resembles the science fiction film; so perhaps it is not so extraordinary that someone finally came up with the bright idea of combining the two. Although a Full Moon production, and scripted by Peter David, author of both many comics and a number of Star Trek novelisations (making the film’s disrespectful handling of George Takei rather surprising), Oblivion may well appeal to fans of westerns even more than to those of science fiction. The film gets off to a promising start with a wide shot of a stark and eerie landscape. (You learn something every day with Full Moon. Who knew there were deserts in Romania?) We see tumbleweeds, cacti, and sub-John Ford rock formations – and then a spaceship swoops across our view. Our first glimpse of the main street of Oblivion shows us a stereotypical western town – except that everything is lit with electricity, and a cowboy is drawing cash from an ATM. (There’s also a billboard advertising an upcoming film – from Full Moon, naturally!) The story that follows, albeit its events are taking place on an unidentified distant planet, could have been – oh, let’s face it, have been – lifted from any one of countless B-westerns: the dirty-trick gunning down of the brave and honest Marshall, the small frontier town left under the thumb of the bad guys, the pacifist son forced to pick up his father’s badge….and if the desire of Redeye and his gang to take over this singularly uninspiring little settlement is mystifying, well, how many films have featured human gangs behaving just as inexplicably? What is interesting about Oblivion is not its broad outline, but its details. There are a remarkable number of references to westerns of both the big and the small screen scattered throughout the film; spotting them is a large part of the fun. Yet for all that, you get the impression that Peter David wasn’t quite sure of the audience he was writing for. Sometimes, refreshingly, a particular allusion is simply there, as with the passing mention of the “Cimarron Exotic Pet Shop”. Conversely, sometimes the screenplay feels compelled to explain itself, as when Marshall Stone draws a poker hand of aces and eights just as Gaunt enters the saloon, and the undertaker helpfully tells the tale of the death of a certain legendary figure from “Alter-Earth”. While this occasional dumbing-down is disappointing, on the whole Oblivion plays its game of melding the historical with the futuristic very well indeed.

As with many westerns, the characters of Oblivion fall neatly into the categories of “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys”; and as with too many westerns, the “hero” and the “heroine” are the least interesting of the crowd. The script outsmarts itself a little with Zack Stone. The early parts of the film throw in the usual rumblings about Zack’s past: accusations of cowardice, his feud with his father, his reluctance to fight when challenged. However, it turns out that Zack is not passive out of principle, but out of necessity. He is an “empath”, afflicted by a condition that forces him to feel what others feel. His resignation from his position as his father’s deputy and his departure from Oblivion for the solitary life of a prospector followed his shooting of a bank robber, whose death pangs he himself experienced. Now, this is all very well – except we’re never quite clear where this curse came from, why Zack seems to be the only person on the planet who suffers from it, or why his father either didn’t know about it, or – if he did – why he would regard his son as a coward, given that his condition was hardly his own fault. Anyway, as always happens when anyone declares a disinclination to resort to violence, Zack is finally driven to it, partly because of suffering simultaneously through the agonies of Buteo (who is whipped by Lash) and of Stell Barr (who has had a bullet put clean through her circuitry), and partly in response to the taunts of Mattie Chase. Able to end his own suffering only by ending the suffering of others – permanently – Zack is finally forced into action and the inevitable gun-fight ensues. Hauling away the beaten Buteo, the reluctantly victorious Zack tells Mattie bitterly that she got what she wanted – “People killed for the right reasons”. Zack and Mattie hate one another on sight, so obviously she ends up as his “romantic interest”. Well, the two of them have so much in common, like that she’s as confusingly written as he is. Mattie is lingeringly bitter, we learn, over the death of her husband, who was “a dreamer”, just like Zack. Subsequently, it is revealed that after he and his wife travelled to Oblivion to establish the “general store”, the late Mr Chase fell victim to the dreaded “night scorps” that lurk out in the badlands – although how being “a dreamer” leads naturally to gruesome arachnidian death remains unclear. Anyway, Mattie is left as sole proprietor of said general store, and leads a life of – no rigours at all, as far as we can see. (Wait a minute! I hear you cry. General store!? Shouldn’t she be the schoolmarm? Well, yes, she should, except that there aren’t any kids in Oblivion. Charles Band must have taken to heart that old dictum about never working with children, or with any animals not designed by David Allen….) Mattie abuses Zack for taking no action in the face of the disruption of his father’s funeral by Redeye and his cronies, then denies she wanted him to resort to violence – she just wanted him to “stand up for his father”. Eh? Mattie is not only confusing, she is singularly unappealing, with Jackie Swanson’s performance as the town’s token “good woman” running the gamut all the way from whiny to tearful and back again. It is a characterisation all the more painful in light of the fact that Oblivion on the whole embraces a charitably wide view of womankind, serving up a cynical, gun-slinging cyborg with a yen for “natives”, a whore with a heart of gold and a leather-clad, bullwhip-wielding, omnisexual dominatrix, without evincing any particular need to sit in judgement of any of them.

The other good guys are on the whole more interesting – or at least more entertaining. Buteo is played by a stony-faced Jimmie F. Skaggs, in a role that walks a precarious tightrope between humour and outright bad taste. Buteo, you see, is the kind of all-wise, philosophy-spouting “native” side-kick that makes Tonto look like a progressive characterisation. Having been rescued from a juvenile night scorp by Zack, Buteo attaches himself to his saviour and makes it his mission to inspire him into being all that he can be – to which end, he talks – and talks – and talks – and talks….spouting clichés that even most network TV writers would be ashamed to put their names to.  (Late in the film, Buteo’s insistence that “I have nothing more to say” provokes a cry from Zack of, “Drinks for everyone!” “Except----” “Cancel that!”) Further back-up for Zack is provided by Stell (Meg Foster’s unnerving pale eyes getting much screentime), who proves to have the most interesting kinds of concealed weapons; Miss Kitty, who mostly fulfils the film’s expositionary needs – and who, it is inferred, is actually Zack’s mother, not that he is aware of it; and Doc Valentine, with George Takei in the Thomas Mitchell role, if you will. One of Oblivion’s neater touches is the shot of the Doc’s office door, advertising his “parlour” being not only one of “dentistry and haircuts”, as we might expect, but also of “inventions and robotics”. Alas, that’s about all I can say in praise of this aspect of the film. If Oblivion teaches us nothing else, it’s that George Takei couldn’t muster up a convincing “western” accent if his life depended on it. Of course, he’s not exactly helped by the fact that no-one else in the film bothers to even attempt one.

Balancing this rather unimpressive picture of “goodness” are our equally uninspiring baddies. Redeye himself is lizardy in nature (at one point, when Zack shoots his arm off, he simply grows another), looking rather like – oh, okay, extremely like; suspiciously like – the evil twin of Dan O’Herlihy’s character in The Last Starfighter. As usual, being EE-vil, Redeye takes a good look at the region’s population and then gathers about himself as his gang a staggering collection of boneheads and screw-ups. There’s Lash, of course, whose constant EE-vil laughter and sarcasm I confess to finding rather tiresome. (That’s the trouble, you see, when you aren’t sufficiently distracted by the sight of a pretty woman in bondage gear.) Then there’s Spanner, the most competent of Redeye’s crew and consequently the first to die, who lusts unavailingly after Lash, and who ultimately gets the film’s coolest demise, as we shall see. And then there’s Bork, who almost re-defines “boneheaded”. “I have haemorrhoids smarter than you!” Redeye bellows at his hapless follower, and Bork would be real insulted, if only he knew what a “haemorrhoid” was. Instead, so very stupid is Bork that he doesn’t even know when he’s dead. In the course of the film he takes numerous fatal bullets, tangles with a flame-thrower, and finally ends up caught in Lash’s electronic whip – all without missing a beat. (Takes a lickin’, and keeps on tickin’. A word of praise here for actor Irwin Keyes: his impression of Jack Elam is right on the mark.) The last of Redeye’s colourful crew is Wormhole, a Zorro-wannabe who is part Rudolph Valentino, part Lash La Rue, and all Liza Minnelli; and who carries on his adamantine campaign against “nebula boys” mostly, we feel, in a futile attempt to disguise the fact that he himself is, uh, rather nebularly-inclined.

But the highlight of Oblivion comes from neither the good guys nor the bad guys, but instead is the ambiguous character of Mr Gaunt. Clad in black from head to foot, with his intimidating height and (pardon the expression) gaunt appearance, Carel Struycken gives a beautifully creepy performance as the undertaker, who shows up only when someone is about to die, and yet can’t understand why people are never pleased to see him. Gaunt fulfils a number of functions within Oblivion, such as conducting the funeral services (“Yea, though I fly through the black hole of death….”), including that of Zack’s father – a ceremony punctuated by the cries emanating from the bingo game being held upstairs, which Gaunt felt himself unable to cancel because, you know, it’s Thursday. Observer and chorus for most of the film, Gaunt finally intervenes in events, ensuring that Zack, Buteo and Stell are on the spot to take on Redeye and his gang for the final shoot-out, and even breaking his own (unspoken) rules by participating in the demise of Redeye himself. (“Oh, what the hell….”)

(Actually, there appears to be some amusingly circular cross-referencing going on here. The mysterious Gaunt’s name would seem to be a reference to the central character of Stephen King’s “Needful Things”, which was published a couple of years before Oblivion was made. That Gaunt’s first name was “Leland”, which King admitted to be a reference to Twin Peaks – which of course featured Carel Struycken.)

Having set up its characters, Oblivion settles down to serving up every possible western set-piece that you can think of: the barroom brawl, the gunfight in the middle of the town, the abduction of the heroine by the bad guys, and the final shoot-out. The brawl takes place in a disreputable cantina, where Zack goes to cash in his draconium (we never do find out the actual value, or even use, of this stuff, other than screwing with electronics), and where Wormhole happens to be drumming up support for Redeye. “What’s in it for us?” comes the cry, and Wormhole reveals that converts will receive a regular newsletter (“Oooh!”), learn the secret handshake (“Aaah!”), and earn the right to wear a “Better Red than dead” badge – the latter, inevitably, setting up a cry of “We don’t need no stinking badges!” later in the film. Wormhole’s unavailing attempt to provoke Zack leads to the brawl, with fists flying in an amusingly unconvincing manner, and Wormhole himself suffering great indignities at the hands – and teeth – of a trio of ferocious midgets. The gun-fight is a nicely judged piece of spaghetti-western-iana, with Zack wielding a gun in either hand, cross-wristed, the whole thing being conducted in slow motion – naturally – and both of Ken’s Rules Of High Altitude Mortality© getting a thorough workout, as evil henchmen – or at least, venal turncoat townspeople – drop like flies. Literally. The film’s climax is notable not so much for its gun-play – or whip-play, or flame-thrower-play, or spiky badge-play – but for the participation of some of the film’s other highlights. I may say that one of the things that originally steeled me to sitting through Oblivion was a credit reading “Visual Effects….David Allen Productions”. Indeed, Mr Allen is not long in making his presence felt: when we first see the sign announcing the outskirts of Oblivion, perched upon it is a simply adorable bat-bird-bug-thingy – which shortly thereafter meets an untimely fate at the hands – er, jaws – of Redeye. Sniff. When Buteo is staked out in the desert, he must be rescued from one of the creatures known as a “night scorp”. This man-sized, two-tailed, multi-eyed menace is, we learn, nothing but a juvenile – and momma and poppa are not far away, showing up with their companions in time to dispose gruesomely of Redeye. The scorps – and Redeye’s demise – are pleasingly rendered in stop motion; and while the rendering may not be perfect, the critters have, as stop motion critters tend to, a degree of personality. But if we’re going to talk personality, we’re going to have to discuss the one aspect of Oblivion that one we over completely: the “Mon-Thing” [*cough*]. This disturbing little beastie makes its appearance when Buteo, having learnt that Spanner was responsible for the massacre of his family, challenges him to an arm-wrestling death-match – one “refereed” by the Mon-Thing, which proves to be a foul-tempered, venom-drooling entity somewhat like a mutated bullfrog, with claws instead of feet, spikes around its neck, and a mouth full of wicked teeth. It also, we learn, “senses fear” – and doesn’t like it. The film has already taken every possible opportunity to throw in Sergio Leone-esque eye close-ups, but it outdoes itself here, cutting not merely from Buteo’s eyes to Spanner’s, but to the googly yet strangely cat-like eyes of the Mon-Thing as well. Unfortunately for Spanner, the scrutiny of this creature proves too much for his nerves….and he starts to sweat….

Well, you know what’s coming next, don’t you?

I WANT IT!! I WANT IT!! I WANT IT!! I WANT IT!!

Oblivion is the most consistently entertaining Full Moon production that I have yet encountered – although granted, my thorough grounding in the world of the western (thank you, Dad!) might well have contributed to my perception of its entertainment value. The acting in this film is certainly nothing to write home about, but there are a few good performances, particularly the deadpan contributions of Carel Struycken, Jimmie F. Skaggs and Meg Foster. More remarkably, perhaps, no-one really disgraces themself – if you can overlook the roles forced upon Julie Newmar and George Takei, with which far better actors than they could have done little. A pre-South Park Isaac Hayes also appears in a fairly pointless cameo. (In fairness, after my opening tirade, I should point out that the felinity of Miss Kitty’s nature becomes less of a recurrent theme as the film progresses – thank God.) The film even turns its budgetary restrictions into a kind of virtue. The end of the main street of Oblivion, for example, where Gaunt’s establishment is to be found, is undisguisedly a painted backdrop – but in the familiar yet off-kilter world of this film, it somehow works. Oblivion is in many ways a typical Full Moon production, being uneven, slapdash and occasionally painful; but there are also some laughs tucked in there, and they occur at intervals regular enough to make the film’s dead patches and padding less apparent than they otherwise might have been. Oblivion ends with a placard stating “To Be Continued” – as indeed it would be two years later, in Backlash: Oblivion 2. That I could look at this promise/threat of a sequel and not shudder at the prospect, is perhaps the highest praise I could offer any Full Moon production.

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