It’s been proffered that the demise of the Western can be paralleled with the ascendancy of science-fiction — one genre literally replacing the other. So, the prospect of literally combining the two ought to pack twice the fun. “Oblivion,” which took a top prize at the Houston film fest, does the twining, but the result really isn’t an improvement, let alone a logical step forward.
This sagebrush star war provides a pleasant diversion but gets tripped up in parodying the mutation it’s in the process of defining. Low-budget item simply doesn’t have enough stunts, effects, action or street smarts to zap up the grosses for intended June release. It should play better in the small-format arena. (In a flourish of self-promotion, pic even provides scenes from a forthcoming sequel shot back-to-back with the first venture.)
The town of Oblivion looks like a frame from a 1950s oater that’s been retrofitted with some high-tech gizmos (location work was done in Romania). The heavy is the reptilian Redeye (Andrew Divoff), who shoots the sheriff and short-circuits his cyborg deputy (Meg Foster). It’s all in the name of some precious metal and, of course, the lust for power.
There appears to be no relief from the new reign of terror save for the return of the lawman’s son, Zack Stone (Richard Joseph Paul). The problem is that Zack’s top priority is catching the stage-shuttle for the next asteroid. He’s an empath, a rare breed that feels the physical pain of others, and therefore has adopted pacifist ways. Of course, he’ll be forced to reconsider his stance.
The innate strength of the Western was its simplicity, and “Oblivion” not only eschews that dictum, it adds high camp to the recipe. Its humor is more sophomoric than sly and rears its head in a most unseemly fashion.
Far more effective is its sober side, as director Sam Irvin demonstrates a facility for action set pieces. He’s also clever with special-effects stop-motion oddities that include giant scorpions and a vicious horned toad.
But the film is at sea in search of a consistent tone. Paul and femme interest Jackie Swanson play their roles pretty close to the vest, while Redeye’s goons are buffoonish cartoons. Somewhere in the middle, just the right balance is provided in Foster, Divoff and Jimmie Skaggs’ sidekick.
The physical setting is visually arresting, akin to the spaghetti Westerns that redefined the genre’s landscape. It’s still too heavily weighted toward six- and not laser-gun conventions, and hopefully the next installment will have rooted out the bothersome tumbleweeds on its horizon.