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How ‘Star Wars’ Killed Smart Sci-Fi Cinema

In the opening sequence of Oblivion, the voice of Tom Cruise (playing the film’s protagonist, Commander Jack Harper) creeps onto the soundtrack and painstakingly explains the precise details of the film’s backstory. The year is 2077. The Earth is all but abandoned. An alien population known as Scavengers (Scavs for short) invaded the moon, which in turn nearly destroyed the earth. Most humans have moved to a space station. Drones and technicians like Harper roam the earth, and so on and son on. A metric ton of exposition is slammed into that opening sequence, but here’s what’s peculiar: at the beginning of the second act, after Jack discovers a hibernating astronaut (Olga Kurylekno) and saves her, he sits her down and gives her the whole spiel again. Why? Is this a safeguard in case people showed up late? Do they think we didn’t get it the first time?

I have a theory. As Cruise was explaining the whole movie again, my mind started to wander. (It had nothing better to do.) I found myself re-imagining the film, up to that point, without the Tom Cruise Explains It All voice-over — merely images of a ravished earth, followed by the jargon-heavy first act, establishing his work and daily routine. And guess what: in that one tiny alteration, the movie I made in my head was far superior to the one I was watching. Had we not been provided with that painfully labored exposition, had we been trusted to figure that info out for ourselves, or let it reveal itself organically (like when, say, he had to explain it to the astronaut), Oblivion could have been… well, it still wouldn’t have been a great movie. But it would have been a far more interesting one. And I found myself wondering if co-writer/director Joseph Kosinski had put that voice-over in originally, or if it was the result of prodding by the suits, a la Blade Runner.

But that’s the trouble with mainstream science fiction filmmaking these days: there’s no expectation that an audience is capable of putting things together or waiting for a payoff, and there certainly aren’t many filmmakers or executives willing to take the risk. The problem, it seems, is the desire of those who greenlight movies to lump science fiction in with action, and it’s easy to guess why: Star Wars. Before 1977, there were occasional crossovers, but for the most part, science fiction was a genre purely unto itself, concerned with alien invasions and post-apocalyptic scenarios and subtextual parallels. After Lucas mashed up spaceships and swashbucklers, sci-fi was never the same.

This is not to say that there haven’t been great sci-fi/action movies: the original Star Wars trilogy, of course, and the first two Terminators, and Aliens, and the first Matrix. But those films worked, to some extent, in spite of themselves — because the fundamental purposes of great science fiction and great action are so diametrically opposed. Great science fiction is brainy and smart, fueled by Big Concepts and Grand Ideas. Most action films (and there are exceptions) are about blowing things up, about things going fast, about delivering gunplay and wisecracks, but preferably without too much dialogue (which makes it more translatable to lucrative foreign markets). When a film like Oblivion tries to mash the two genres up and fails, it brings out the best in neither.

Much has been made recently of the 45th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey; it premiered on April 2 of 1968 and was released two days later. It surely does no modern moviemaker any favors to be compared to Kubrick, and even at its best, Oblivion is no 2001. (Nor is it a Moon, Silent Running, WALL-E, or Logan’s Run, all of which it nakedly recalls.) But watching the kind of compromised, half-assed minotaur this movie was clearly reverse-engineered to be, you can’t help but imagine the kind of concessions Kubrick’s classic would have been subjected to in today’s marketplace. “Stanley, what’s with all the monkeys at the beginning? You’re gonna lose the audience right away. You gotta explain that! And what’s with the laser light show? Does somebody get high? Gotta show it! Speaking of showing things — maybe you’ll think about putting in a scene with a baby early on, so we can get a handle on that giant baby at the end? No? Stanley where you goin’? Hang on, we haven’t talked about the voice-over yet!”

Obilivion is out Friday in wide release.

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